Adopting a data-driven, personalized learning approach benefited our district before the pandemic. It’s also helping us get back on track and accelerate learning now that students are back in classrooms.
Monroe County School District is a small district serving 8,000 students across 16 schools in the Florida Keys. We are diverse, with a student population from more than 37 countries, speaking more than 22 primary languages. To create stronger paths to college and career readiness, we implement programs that allow learning from anywhere and use data to inform our decisions.
COVID-19 forced school closures across the country. As many districts scrambled to shift to remote classes, we were ahead of the curve. In the months and years after the initial jolt, we have continued to see the ways our pre-pandemic decisions helped us address the current challenges.
Many districts were not as fortunate. National reports are just starting to show the severity of the learning declines. The fallout is the result of what everyone had to deal with during the pandemic. Teachers had to recreate the learning experience without a rulebook or blueprint to follow. Parents opted their young children out of kindergarten, a seminal first formal learning experience. Students learning from home developed their own norms to manage their day, unlearning basic classroom rules.
The results have been learning declines, an increase in disciplinary issues and teachers who are still stressed from the pandemic. In the midst of that stress, teachers are trying to figure out how to meet every student where they are and provide the support they need to get to where they need to be.
The challenges educators face are immense but not insurmountable. If the last few years have taught me anything, it is that encouraging learning recovery is possible. Here are a few ways we’re doing it in Monroe County.
Focus first on growth rather than rank
As a superintendent today, the score I hold highest is a student’s growth rate. More than a percentile rank or another score, a growth rate has the most meaning. As a district, we value this score because student growth and teacher efficacy are interrelated. Our data shows that when a teacher has the tools to deliver proper grade-level instruction, students grow.
A focus on growth over other scores will help students who struggled during the pandemic catch up. The mindset shift helps teachers, too. Concentrating on growth empowers teachers to determine where students are today, where they need to go and how to develop a plan to help them get there.
Embrace technology early
As many school districts scrambled in March 2020, our previous investments in creating a digital infrastructure to deliver curriculum and instruction paid off. Our staff already knew the home internet access level of all students. We had already planned for hot spots and alternative ways for students to access an internet connection.
The transition to remote learning was also easier for us than for other districts because our educators and students were already using programs like a digital reading and math platform that are designed to support learning from anywhere. Using these programs at home instead of in the classroom caused minimal disruption.
As school and district leaders think about the ways they adopted technology during the pandemic, they should also think about what else they could do to enhance processes, device management and learning experiences in the future.
Use data to drive instruction and intervention
In our school district, we have been very intentional about creating connections between our progress-monitoring, interventions, and curriculum and resource delivery. Technology has supported this shift. As a result, we can easily see and analyze students’ learning progression.
We made it a district-level priority to cultivate data-reading skills among all our teachers. Now every teacher in Monroe County is adept at seeing where their students are, their progression and where they need to go next. The shift has been incredible. Teachers have internalized data-based instruction to the point where specific data points seamlessly creep into even a casual conversation.
Recently, I ran into a teacher outside of school and made an offhand remark about how wonderful her students’ growth had been. The teacher’s response was to categorize the growth percentiles of her full roster of more than 100 students!
Having teachers who truly know their data enables high-quality instruction and informed decision-making. During the height of the pandemic, it helped us track students’ progress and have meaningful conversations with them. Now it is helping us understand which students need to catch up and how we can support their growth.
Accelerate learning maximizes instructional time
Throughout the pandemic, teachers could never be sure how much time they might have with students, where learning would take place or what the next pivot would be. The erratic nature of those days made efficiency essential — and it remains important today.
In Monroe County, we’ve been using accelerated learning. It’s a collection of instructional approaches specifically designed to support students who are performing below desired expectations. For our teachers in Monroe County, leaning on this was — and is — key.
With accelerated learning, our teachers maximize the time students spend working with or expressly toward grade-level content. When a student doesn’t have the skills or knowledge to engage with grade-level content, the teacher plans extra support or a review that focuses only on the skills the student will need to learn the grade-level content.
We were able to adopt accelerated learning through teacher training and the implementation of the right tools. Our training focused on the ways accelerated learning is different from remediation and moved teachers away from the idea that students need to start with below-grade-level content to catch up. Instead, off-grade-level skills are only taught in support of learning grade-level knowledge. This prevents students from remaining behind.
We also use Renaissance’s Focus Skills reports, which provide us with a road map for assessing which skills are the most critical and what content should be prioritized. It also tells us whether our environment — in-person, remote or hybrid — affects those decisions. By using the data and noting where individual students are, we have become experts in making the most of our instructional time to improve student learning.
Our pre-pandemic use of technology and personalized learning tools helped our district navigate the immense challenges of the past two years. Now, as we look forward, we must continue to find ways to address the significant variance in student readiness. We must support teachers who are figuring out where each student is and what they need.
Data-driven, personalized learning will continue to play a big role in Monroe County so that we are ready for the next unexpected event. I hope other districts will consider doing the same so they, too, are ready.
Theresa Axford is the superintendent of schools at Monroe County School District, where educators use the “How Kids Are Performing” report and the Focus Skills Resource Center to advance data-driven, personalized learning. Reach out to Axford via email.
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