As COVID-19 derails ed. research, researchers must pivot
One less obvious byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic: Education research agendas have been severely disrupted as schools have closed, assessments have been canceled, and on-site access to students, teachers, and administrators has become impossible. At the same time, states and school districts find themselves confronted with new questions and decision points—ones they never imagined they would have to consider let alone answer—and without much data or research to guide them.
This is a moment when education researchers are critical—they can help educators and policymakers ask and answer important questions about how to “do school” in our rapidly shifting environment by drawing upon their expertise, translating the existing body of academic research into practitioner-friendly guidance, and designing new studies.
In February, just weeks before schools and states started to shutter to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Results for America asked two dozen state education agency leaders what questions they would need research to help them answer to better serve their students. Agency leaders wanted to know how to best support career academies, recruit and retain a more diverse educator workforce, and what conditions could lead to greater buy-in and use of evidence in schools.
What state education agency leaders weren’t thinking about was how a global pandemic might force them to close schools on a dime with no time to prepare for the continuation of classes and the provision of all the other supports students receive from school.
Many education researchers—including those funded by the U.S. Department of Education and its Institute of Education Sciences (IES)—are finding themselves in a similar position, seeking new ways to build evidence and data as more than 55 million students and 124,000 public and private schools have been affected by the shift to remote learning. Some researchers are finding projects that began before the COVID-19 pandemic are no longer relevant to the immediate needs of educators and education policymakers.
Recognizing this predicament, IES has provided some flexibility to its current grantees and has offered possible avenues for additional funding through its Statistical and Research Methodology in Education program and its Using Longitudinal Data to Support State Education Policymaking competition. In addition, philanthropies such as the W.T. Grant Foundation and the Spencer Foundation are offering grants to support rapid-response research.
With some additional government and philanthropic funding available, education researchers should turn their focus to helping state leaders find answers to their most pressing questions about supporting the needs of students, teachers, and local school leaders during this crisis. There are many urgent questions to answer, but some that keep rising to the top in our conversations with state leaders include:
1. What levels of learning loss are our students likely to face? Some students were learning online shortly after their schools closed. Other students are living in homeless shelters with limited access to food let alone the devices or the Wi-Fi necessary to connect to class. How might these issues manifest differently in terms of learning loss for different student groups?
2. What are the best strategies to mitigate learning loss? Schools urgently need to know what research evidence exists about accelerating and condensing multiple years of curriculum, what systems or practices enable successful implementation of accelerated curriculum, and how to best differentiate learning for the varying levels of loss that occurred during school closure.
3. What are the right mental-health supports to offer students? Students are living in homes with increased stress levels, heightened unemployment, and possibly abuse and trauma. Schools need to know what the evidence says about the kinds of programming or support these students need.
4. Did schools make the right choices about technology during this pandemic? Schools made fast decisions—devices, Wi-Fi, platforms—to support their teachers and students during closures. What does the evidence of the last few months show about whether they picked the best options? Are the selected options the best ones for use during the course of a normal school year or future disruptions? What indicators should school, district, and state leaders look at to evaluate their technology choices?
5. How do we prepare teachers differently? One thing this closure has shown us is that our teachers had much different levels of comfort with technology and remote learning, which have become necessary skills. What does teacher preparation need to look like going forward to ensure new hires are prepared for this new reality?
Education researchers and state and local education leaders need to coordinate with each other to answer these and similar questions. One way state and local education agencies can quickly define and seek evidence-based answers to their most pressing COVID-related questions is through research-practice partnerships. In these partnerships, researchers and education leaders can come together, accessing state data systems to research and answer the important questions they highlight. Continued federal investments combined with states clearly defining their questions to guide policy work will allow leaders to understand how to productively move forward during the crisis and throughout recovery efforts.
Now is the time for education researchers to help us define and ask better questions, collect the right data, dig into the evidence, and help the education community understand how it can best help students move forward and thrive.