For more than 100 leading educators, researchers, and policymakers who gathered online from throughout Texas on March 12, it wasn’t business as usual.
It was an urgent mission to rethink education to address the pandemic’s profound impact on every aspect of the Texas learning system — from students, their families and caregivers to the entire school community, including teachers and administrators — and participate in the first-ever statewide summit to create a path forward.
“Because if we don't, the moral consequences to this generation of Texas and American kids are dire,” warned Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath in his opening remarks. “And the economic consequences are actually existential for the American way of life.”
Statewide Roadmap for Success
Convened by The University of Texas at Austin College of Education Dean Charles Martinez and Texas 2036 CEO and President and 8th U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Forging a Path Toward PreK-12 Students' Thriving was organized by the College of Education. University of Oregon Professor of Practice Nancy Golden facilitated the half-day summit, which was charged with creating a statewide roadmap for student success. The completed roadmap will include:
A detailed position statement to accelerate learning and encourage a coordinated statewide response.
Precise and actionable recommendations for evidence-based practices that can address the disruption in learning and the social and emotional well-being of students and schools.
“We know that the pandemic's impact on our education system has shone a light on longstanding issues in educational inequity and has the potential to exacerbate them. But importantly, there is a path forward. There is a chance to interrupt the disruption our students are facing, and the time is now,” said Martinez in his welcome to attendees.
Both Martinez and Spellings emphasized that the event was the culmination of a series of conversations with leaders that began with recognizing the profound impact the pandemic was having on Texas students and school communities, then evolved to finding immediate ways to bring together research practitioners and educational stakeholders to address the greatest need.
“We have a responsibility and an opportunity in these moments to really meet the challenges of the day. That is what we do as stewards of public resources and as advocates for our public schools,” said Spellings. “Thank you for leaning into this moment.”
Setting the Path Forward
Martinez outlined three paths for the summit to proceed — during the event and beyond.
First, attendees learned what works best for students in support of learning, social emotional health, and equity. This needs to include evidence-based interventions and programs that have been tested and shown to improve outcomes for students, as well as the wisdom and indigenous knowledge of school leaders and teachers about what they know works for kids.
Second, attendees must focus on what they don't know about how the pandemic and its aftermath will impact students, families, schools, and educational professionals. They must create an agenda that answers these essential questions in order to develop and adapt existing practices to best serve students.
Third, attendees need to create a mechanism to “keep their feet to the fire,” so to speak — to help keep everyone on track, to monitor progress, and to make real-time adjustments.
“We think about what has to be done on the scale of Texas — 8,600 campuses, five and a half million souls that we educate, 700,000 souls that we employ — and there are some profound systems-level adjustments that will have to be made that of course will not be made quickly, because these are not easy things to do. We are going to have to adjust our practices in major ways for how kids are taught,” Morath said.
There is also no historical analogy for the learning disruptions caused by the pandemic.
“We're talking about a year or more of stress, uncertainty, and financial and food insecurity, in addition to the out-of-classroom time. We have no good analogy from a data standpoint to model how disruptive this moment is,” Martinez said. “And what do these patterns look like when we think about the other challenges that many of our students face? Students of color, students who are English-learning or bilingual, students with special education. It is a generation of students who are vulnerable unless we act.”
The Profound Impact on Learning
During the summit, attendees heard presentations from researchers and practitioners on the disruption in learning, effective interventions in reading and math, social and emotional health and well being, and effective collaboration between researchers and practitioners to get evidence-based solutions into classrooms:
Paul Von Hippel, associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs: “The crisis is likely to be negative for almost all children, but the largest negative effects [will] be felt by children of the poor, children of less-educated parents, children of single parents, and children whose parents can't work from home. We don't know the full extent of the damage and won't really be able to assess it until schools are fully reopened and resume in-person testing. But what are we going to do to make it up to these children?”
Uri Triesman, professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and director of the Charles A. Dana Center: “Change at scale will require a new way of interaction between governance, policy, research, leadership, and practice on the ground. What do our districts need from us? They need strategies that work at scale, not little pilot studies. Are there any proofs of this in mathematics? It turns out there are. All of the examples that I know of require complex interaction: researchers embedded in the situations they're trying to improve, with rich local knowledge from practitioners in the research environment, who understand what researchers can and can't do.”
Sharon Vaughn, professor at the College of Education and executive director of the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk: “If we only start where they are and baby step them forward, at the end of the year they will be six months to one year behind. We cannot afford that. Consider these 10 key practices as a guideline for how we might improve reading interventions and reading practice in schools. We have to do things better, more intensely, more vigorously with greater urgency, and relentlessly. This is not the year of casual instruction.”
Caroline Chase, assistant director of social and emotional learning (SEL) at Austin ISD: “Our children's voices are the strongest indicator of what's helpful to them. SEL is a tier one proactive practice. We do not refer to SEL as an intervention, by any means. It’s designed for all students and adults to be able to thrive at school so that teachers can do their best teaching and students can do their best learning.”
Ruth Lopez Turley, professor at Rice University, director of the Houston Education Research Consortium, and founder of the National Network of Educational Research Practice Partnerships: “The reality is that connecting research to practice and policy is really difficult. It's hard enough to produce good research, but frankly the part about connecting it to policy and practice is much, much harder. If we want our research to have an impact on students' lives, we are talking about formal long-term partnerships. We have to make sure that we build relationships of trust [and] that the research agenda is jointly developed. Data sharing and security are extremely important. The last thing is funding. This is an opportunity for both public and private dollars to come together to support this kind of research.”
What’s Working in Texas Classrooms
The summit’s attendees also heard from two local educators, who spotlighted what’s effective and inspiring in their school systems.
Stefanie Carter-Dodson, Del Valle ISD: “We have to close gaps and bring our ‘A’ game. In creating our structures, we wanted our teachers to understand that intervention is not a place. Intervention is something that happens every day, in every classroom. All of our teachers and interventionists were trained on how to do small groups in a fully remote setting — using breakout rooms and setting up one-on-one instructional times — and how to do that in the hybrid model. That professional learning has been ongoing throughout the year.”
Vanessa Cortez, United ISD: “Building trusting relationships with mutual respect is the foundation. So is engaging families with open communication and having compassionate empathy. Having that compassion, having that empathy, kids start to open up. The other piece is every voice is heard and validated. Check in and connect every day. How are you? How do you feel? How's your family? Are you ready to learn? Are you happy? Every day begins with that. The last thing that inspires is having fun. I think that sometimes we're stressed and we have a lot to do, but we have to also remember that learning is fun.”
Breaking it Down in Breakout Rooms
The event was called a “summit” for a reason. Unlike a conference, event attendees were expected to actively bring their expertise and insights to work on establishing the roadmap for what Texas needs to do.
That work was done in more than 90 minutes of breakout room sessions. Attendees were challenged to offer recommendations, yet also think about the structures to reinforce, champion, and implement those recommendations. Topics under intense discussion and brainstorming included:
- Successful strategies that support students in challenging times,
- What is needed to scale up these strategies, and
- What is still needed to learn in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Each breakout room reported its notes and findings to the summit. These will be used to create the position statement and recommendations. Each summit participant was also surveyed to ask for further input and to be involved in the next steps, including committees that may be formed after organizers synthesize the recommendations and action items.
A Time to Make Real Change
In his closing remarks, Martinez expressed his gratitude and reiterated that this effort won’t stop when the summit’s position paper is complete.
"It is extremely gratifying to know that, in such challenging times, so many people are committed to the well-being and success of our children and our school communities in Texas. We have a shared commitment for this complex task and a strong list of recommendations,” he said.
It’s also time to seize the opportunity.
“What's resonating with me is a [breakout session] comment from Mark O'Reilly, who chairs our College’s Department of Special Education. ‘I see this now as an opportunity to shake the ground underneath us, to make real change.’ I think that’s a great way to end,” Martinez said, “with that pearl of wisdom and enthusiasm for our next steps.”