Help Wanted: Flexibility Needed

We examine what states, such as Kentucky and Arkansas, have been doing to ensure continuity of learning plans and flexibility in preparation for disruptions.

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Topics: Education Policy

When it became apparent that our nation’s schools would remain closed, states quickly responded with the flexibility schools needed to award credit and diplomas as well as be funded in the absence of traditional methods such as attendance.

As we approach summer and collectively catch our breath, concerns and questions remain over how instruction will be provided in the upcoming school year. States will need to explore new ways to provide the space educators need to innovate and meet the needs of their students in this unprecedented time.

However, some states have been able to move more quickly because of actions taken long before COVID-19.

Continuity of learning plans

Even in states with strong legacies of local control, there are ways that the state can support school efforts. Many states have provided direct guidance and resources, and over half of states have required the submission of a plan for the continuity of learning. These plans can serve as an important policy lever, but it is critical to establish a list of baseline and non-negotiable items schools must address. For example, of the 27 states that required plans, only 18 required districts to include the provision of special education services.

In an effort to either mitigate natural interruptions in instruction stemming from snow days, natural disasters or extended medical leaves, or simply to bolster innovative learning approaches, some states had already laid a foundation for schools to offer non-traditional instruction.

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A glimpse at Kentucky

In 2011 Kentucky passed legislation that allowed districts to create programs that provide for the “continuation of academic instruction on days when school would otherwise be cancelled.” It’s also important to note that “the Commissioner of Education can waive up to 10 non-traditional instruction days to count towards student attendance days in the school districts’ calendars.”

Prior to COVID-19 almost half of Kentucky’s districts had established plans. When the state leadership made the difficult decision to close schools, they knew their state could leverage this program. Today, all Kentucky school districts have created non-traditional instruction plans.

Flexibility and waivers

The immediate disruption to public schooling in our country surfaced many of the policy obstacles that have long stood in the way of personalized, competency-based education. Seat-time has been the historical proxy for the provision of instruction and in some way, shape or form has played a role in the awarding of credit and even school funding formulas.

In order to finish the school year most states had to provide some sort of emergency flexibility but now there is an opportunity to create thoughtful long-term approaches to the flexibility needed for the upcoming school year and beyond.

The key to the successful design of a waiver lies in the stated goal. If the goal is simply to provide temporary relief then the waivers will serve only as band-aids. However, if the goal is to truly identify the barriers innovative educators continue to face, then the process must be easily accessible, easily understood and produce the information policymakers need to embark on long-term policy reforms. This policy brief by ExcelinEd outlines key considerations for the creation of flexibility and waivers.

A glimpse at Arkansas

Arkansas has been offering waivers to schools through a variety of programs for over 20 years. The Department of Education provides a website with clear and easily accessible information on the waiver processes and also reports their most frequently requested waivers. With the information learned over the years, Arkansas rewrote their accreditation standards and the legislature process where schools can design plans to award credit based on the demonstration of mastery rather than seat-time.

Last week the Department released its Ready for Learning Plan leveraging their waiver programs.

In order to be even more prepared for learning this fall, districts must implement strategies that focus on three key indicators for student success: blended learning, guaranteed and viable curriculum, and a student-focused approach. To assist schools with these efforts, we are providing resources and tools, as well as an opportunity to apply for waivers, that will help them achieve success.

Prior to COVID-19, state departments of education had begun to shift away from a role of strictly compliance and enforcement to one of true support and partnership. Now is the time to amplify these efforts. Our schools and educators are trying to shift overnight. Direct guidance, resources, flexibility and support are sorely needed.

For more actions that can be taken both in the immediate future and in future planning, check out our State Guidance resource on building resilient and equitable education systems.