How Big Charter Networks Made the Switch to Remote Learning


\”Remote learning\” as a reaction to the coronavirus pandemic did not, for the most part, go well. A large number of surveys and many analyses of school and district websites reveal that it took nearly all schools multiple weeks to face up any kind of online instruction. Challenges abounded even after they did. Countless families didn't have high-speed Access to the internet or devices suitable for learning. Teachers were unfamiliar with online learning platforms as well as on average provided instruction just two hours a day. Many students were simply lost, not signing in and unreachable by educators. Parents reported their children learned under normal throughout the crisis.

Some schools, however, did much better.

That is a clear conclusion from an analysis I simply completed for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, examining the response of leading charter-school networks to the pandemic, according to interviews with network executives, principals, teachers, and parents in addition to broader research. These networks shifted nimbly and effectively to remote learning. All were up and running with internet instruction within days of the mid-March shutdowns; together, they distributed tens of thousands of devices and Internet hotspots; they offered a strong mixture of live and recorded instruction which resulted in high levels of student engagement; as well as their teachers and leaders, though exhausted, embraced the chance to innovate like they hadn't in a long time. It had not been perfect-even these exceptional organizations struggled with parts of the challenge-but there's much to applaud in what they did.

Charter school network Geography

But three actions these networks took which were important to their success appear much less common in most other schools around the country. They:

  1. Reached out to individual students and families regularly.
  2. Re-created the dwelling of the regular school day.
  3. Used a team method of teaching and instruction, focused on a common curriculum.

A strong finding in the interviews was the central need for regularly contacting students and families, including providing social and emotional support. This emerged in virtually every interview. Most networks had a specialist advisor or counselor system operating before and during the pandemic. Those systems enabled the colleges to check in on student and family needs, provide emotional support, and gather feedback on how remote learning was going among their pupils. The networks reached out thoughtfully and systematically to individual students and parents-and persevered until nearly all were in regular touch.

Success Academy teachers contacted every student twice daily. The main focus was on having conversations about reading and math: discussing what students were reading and talking through their approaches to math-are they imagining the problem accurately, and just how did they pick a strategy and why. Director of Literacy and History at Success Academy, Jessica Sie, told's Marc Porter Magee:

-for our youngest learners, a lot of what we should do is in-person and thinking about the read-alouds and the science and also the reading instruction in small groups- you can just picture walking into a first-grade classroom, right? You've got a number of kids on the ground reading. You have some students on a mat, and they're cooperating. And so taking that right into a digital environment was definitely challenging. The way that we approached it had been to give really clear guidance. We sent parents frequent communication with daily updates about the simple clear learning plans for their kids-.For all of us, that meant: what are you reading each day, reading the books both at home and using great online platforms like Tumblebooks and EPIC; doing a bit of covering the book you've read. So really simple-doing some science instructions-.And then for math, what are several problems that are aligned using the unit? Therefore we just checked along with parents through phone calls.

Rocketship provided a template for teacher check-ins with students and families. It included asking about how exactly they're doing, when they have been been eating and sleeping well, what they are liking most regarding their socio-emotional learning lessons, and just what they will work on today. The network had a Care Corps and regular virtual \”cafecitos,\” coffee meetings, with principals and parents. The V . p . of Schools at Rocketship, Maricela Guerrero, said, \”We build really strong relationships with this families and with our teams via staff huddles, regular parent coffees with principals, emailing inspiration and updates, and being transparent with this community. Connections and relationships really matter.\” At Uncommon Schools, teachers were built with a ten- to twenty-minute check-in with students or parents weekly to check on student wellbeing, identify family needs, and supply feedback or answer questions about student work.

These systems allowed for rapid reconnaissance therefore the networks could learn which students needed assist with meals, devices, and connectivity; communicate updates to students and families; gather feedback on remote learning; and provide support to students and families.

Connecting with students and families on the regular basis-not just in groups but additionally one-on-one-is a charter network practice worthy of emulation. Having said that, several networks been told by parents at the start of the crisis that they felt overwhelmed, \”drowning\” in over-communication, leading the college teams to dial it back. So striking the right balance is essential.

For decades, education technologists have envisioned the next of completely re-imagined schooling. Gone could be classrooms of 20 to 30 students and something teacher, the lockstep curriculum, \”seat time\” requirements, even grades. The replacement would be a \” new world \” of individualized instruction, with students learning at their own pace based on their own interests.

That model has appeal, but it is not what these charter networks did during the pandemic. Though several were already heavy users of technology, their goal this past spring ended up being to replicate because their brick-and-mortar approach because they possibly could. As opposed to many traditional public schools, they strove to produce and enforce an average school day for their pupils, having a mix of live and recorded lessons in addition to independent work. Most also maintained your regular method of grading. Undergirding all this was the knowning that children need structure and routine, especially during uncertain times, together with familiar learning practices and a feeling of belonging in the school community. \”Part of navigating toxic stress and trauma,\” noted Preston Smith, cofounder and CEO of Rocketship Public Schools, \”is having consistent routines and rituals.\”

The early grades present remote learning challenges. Younger students have limited and varying abilities to engage well with this particular form of instruction and wish a lot more parent involvement. The pandemic forced tough decisions about whether these young learners must have devices, about managing screen time, and about how much time ought to be allocated to learning in your own home.

At Success Academy, K-2 students received 3.75 hours of content (that is, a morning meeting, reading for ninety minutes a day, writing for 30 minutes per day, completing one hour of math work a day, plus other work for example science and read-aloud) while pupils in grades 3-4 got 4.75 hours (including reading twice, math twice, writing, science, and typing). Once Success's elementary pupils had devices, the network used live, synchronous instruction almost entirely.

Most schools offered shorter work blocks within their elementary-grades schedules. An example day for K-1 pupils at Rocketship included: virtual assembly at 8 a.m., a phonics lesson for 20 minutes, a half-hour Zoom session with the class to discuss a magazine the class was reading, snack and stretch breaks, enrichment sessions, lunch, science for any half hour, math for any half hour via Zoom, painting, talking by telephone to a teacher about reading, as well as an end-of-day virtual celebration with singing and dancing.

At Uncommon Schools, K-1 students read or were read to for Thirty minutes a day, did read-alouds twice a week, completed math tasks twice a week as well as mixed-practice math problem-solving twice a week, completed a writing task two times a week, and completed a \”core\” task twice a week. Through grade four, students submitted one reading and one math assignment to their teacher each week by Thursday at 11 a.m. Teachers held remote work hours Monday through Thursday from 9 to 11 a.m. and a pair of to 4 p.m., so students could ask questions and teachers could give feedback on assignments.

Remote learning in senior high school introduces more complexity with schedules and subjects, more independent work, and more complicated extracurriculars.

Each day at Uncommon Schools, students joined their teachers online for any live lesson or accessed a 20-minute instructional video via Google Classroom for just one of the core academic classes, viewed during its scheduled one-hour class period. During the remaining 40 minutes, they accessed the classwork handout via Google Classroom and completed it using guidance in the video and other resources presented to them or in the teacher who stayed online for questions. They submitted their completed work by the end of the one-hour class period. This counted as their attendance and was graded to finish and accuracy. Teachers were available via Zoom work hours throughout the 40 minutes following the video. Advanced Placement teachers could decide whether to assign additional work outside of the hour period. Grades were according to classwork and assessments. See Table 1 below to have an illustrative high school schedule.

Time Content
8:00-9:00 a.m. Math

● 8:00-8:20 – Students watch live or recorded instructional videos

● 8:20-9:00 – Students work on the classroom handout; math work hours (teachers on Zoom)

9:00-10:00 a.m. English

● 9:00-9:20 – Students watch live or recorded instructional videos

● 9:20-10:00 – Students work on the classroom handout; English office hours (teachers on Zoom)

10:00-11:00 a.m. Science

● 10:00-10:20 – Students watch live or recorded instructional videos

● 10:20-11:00 – Students focus on the classroom handout; science work hours (teachers on Zoom)

11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. History

● 11:00-11:20 – Students watch live or recorded instructional videos

● 11:20-12:00 – Students focus on the classroom handout; history work hours (teachers on Zoom)

12:00-12:30 p.m. Break
12:30-2:00 p.m. Electives (students can take multiple courses during this period)

● Schools determine their own specific schedules during this time

● Note: just Monday to Thursday (Fridays are half-day)

2:00 p.m. All classwork due if not submitted during class (to count as attendance as well as for credit)
2:30-4:00 p.m. Targeted tutoring: (just Monday to Thursday; Fridays are half-day)

● Teachers get in touch with provide individual or small-group support (teacher-driven)

● Other content (small-group instruction and counseling, for instance) may take place during this time

Success Academy's students were \”in class\” for eight and a half hours daily, with forty minutes for supper. They read for an hour each day, completed an hour or so of English, and done history, math, and science for 90 minutes each. Lessons began with a videoconference to setup student expectations and learning objectives for the day. All students within the grade joined exactly the same video call. Teachers continued to teach their daily lessons for math, science, English language arts, or history, using Google Classroom to share assignments, grade work, and give students feedback.

At DSST, senior high school pupils had morning advisory checks, literacy and language blocks, math blocks, science blocks, and social studies blocks. They also had advisory and college success lunches twice a week, Advanced Placement or make-up/remediation work with work hours, and advisory check-ins on Fridays.

As schools engage in remote learning this fall, adopting normal schedules and grading practices is something they ought to strongly consider. Yet these include several challenges, because the charter networks found. One issue is determining the duration of lessons. One network began with 60-minute online lessons but quickly realized that they were too much time, therefore it transitioned to twenty-minute lessons, accompanied by a corresponding assignment and optional question time with teachers. Schools need to make sure you will find enough opportunities for active learning, class discussion, student feedback, and individualized attention. Plus they must find the best balance between live and asynchronous learning.

During the crisis, many charter networks made innovative use of teaching teams-an important adaptation made easier by the relative autonomy enjoyed by charter schools. At many networks, lead planners designed network-wide lessons. Master teachers recorded training videos to become shared network-wide. Some teachers centered on grading and providing feedback to students while some focused on checking in with families and one-on-one video calls with students to address hurdles. This division at work allowed networks to deploy teachers based on their skills, strengths, interests, and experience while also allowing those closest to the scholars to follow track of them in groups and individually. Additionally, it allowed flexibility for teachers with children of their very own at home.

At Uncommon Schools, master teachers with the strongest student achievement results recorded training videos which were used across the whole network in grades K-8, freeing other teachers to pay attention to select few facilitation via Zoom, re-teaching when necessary, grading assignments, providing feedback, conducting student and family outreach, and holding work hours. At Success Academy, a high grade-level teacher instructed 125 students in multiple live class sessions, with other teachers checking attendance, reviewing student work, providing individualized feedback, and holding virtual office hours.

At Achievement First, co-teachers met daily, handing off the Zoom microphone during live classes, monitoring different Zoom breakout rooms for smaller group work, and sharing grading responsibilities. At DSST, one teacher facilitated the internet learning session while another managed the technology and centered on the chat comments, after which all teachers analyzed student work.

At Rocketship, a fifth grade STEM teacher, Abel Ibarra, noted during our interview that his co-teacher might concentrate on tracking attendance and progress as well as uploading materials. They co-taught live sessions. They met weekly to coordinate.

These networks had several positive aspects entering the COVID-19 crisis, advantages which are difficult to replicate, designed for district public schools. Some advantages arise from the relative autonomy that charter schools enjoy in most places, including freedom from some state regulations and in the constraints of district bureaucracies and collective-bargaining agreements. Because charter schools are accountable to nonprofit boards instead of directly to elected officials, they can often move more quickly, innovate, and react to changing conditions.

What makes these networks particularly special, though, isn't that they're charters but that they have leveraged these advantages over the years being exceptionally effective teaching and learning organizations. They were excellent prior to the pandemic, so that they excelled in rising for this challenge.

Four attributes particularly served these networks well during the crisis: strong mission, values, and culture; excellent leadership (including agility in operations and decision-making); strong talent and teams; and vibrant school communities that included close relationships with families.

  1. Strong mission, values, and culture

During virtually every interview, network leaders, school heads, teachers, and parents known their organization's mission, values, or culture to be essential to its crisis response. Network executives employed these components to keep their community together, motivated, and focused on higher aims. Organizational culture was particularly important because it provided the human context in which everything else happened, including teaching, operations and data analysis.

Achievement First espouses these core values at its schools: lead for racial equity, shoot for excellence, embrace challenge, look after the whole person, choose joy, and go further together. In the remote learning plan, Achievement First wrote that it is commitment was \”to channel our values right into a full effort of meeting the requirements of our scholars, families, and staff in a way that-when this crisis has passed-will make us PROUD of the way we showed up and defined who we're.\” All the core values were relevant to Achievement First's efforts to create quality remote learning programs. \”Times of crisis are whenever you most need your values,\” said Achievement First CEO Dacia Toll.

Network leaders at Uncommon Schools said their mission, \”to close the achievement gap and prepare low-income students in grades K-12 to graduate from college and achieve their dreams,\” was more essential than ever throughout the crisis. Certainly one of their values is \”Caring: We take care of one another. We notice when someone needs help and that we lend a hand.\” This animated the approach Uncommon took during the pandemic, as the network strove to aid its students, parents, and teachers and keep a school community that was inside it together.

  1. Excellent leadership (including agility in operations and decision-making)

A great way to predict the quality of response by schools throughout the pandemic was their pre-existing organizational health: was the college already high-functioning with teaching, learning, vision, strategy, culture, execution, alignment, innovation, and agility? All this, of course, is in large part a function of excellent leadership.

Many of the networks studied here have invested considerable time and resources in developing management and operational excellence and efficiency. Their pre-existing clarity and alignment around school design principles, mission, values, vision, and culture ensured that they reduce decision time dramatically. Uncommon Schools CEO Brett Peiser says the business uses the \”rapid\” decisionmaking approach-recommend, approve, perform, input, decide (not necessarily in that order)-developed by management consultants at Bain. That started Uncommon's effort on the right foot: \”It was great seeing the national leadership competence and the commitment to doing this well,\” noted Sean Healey, an Uncommon high school principal in Brooklyn. \”It was refreshing to obtain a call in that week of uncertainty, amidst the frustration of being unsure of. It felt good to have someone say, 'We're getting going. We will start with remote learning.' There have been fast cycle times.\”

DSST decided to go all-in having a quality online school rather than hedging its bet and wondering if physical schools would reopen soon after weeks. According to CEO Bill Kurtz, \”DSST is a high-trust organization. Trust is the most important commodity you have in a crisis. With trust, you are able to move a lot more quickly.\” A defining element of the DSST school model works well central management, combined with the importance of excellent school leaders in allowing the conditions for teacher and student success.

These networks occupy an organizational space somewhere between mom-and-pop charter schools-some which don't have any resources, economies of scale, and cutting-edge practices-and traditional school districts-some which can be bureaucratic and slow to adapt because of frustrating layers of rules, regulations, politics, and collective-bargaining agreements. The charter networks come not only with the autonomy embedded in chartering but also with a few centralization that enables them to make quick decisions after which drive those decisions across their schools.

  1. Strong talent and teams

All the networks had previously committed to attracting, vetting, and developing talent as well as teambuilding. These investments repaid during the crisis, in part by giving robust operational and management competence as well as teamwork.

For years, Uncommon Schools has had a robust and methodical method of educator training and development, including two to three weeks of summer training, a day each week dedicated to professional development, a yearly two-day retreat for those school leaders, an annual operations training course, office at home professional development workshops, and extensive utilization of one-on-one coaching they are driving improvement.

Achievement First principals take part in a two-year residency before leading a school. New teachers have five weeks of summer professional development. All teachers and leaders use coaches who provide individualized feedback and support. Achievement First kept its coaching in place during the pandemic, with leaders giving feedback on Zoom instruction and engagement.

  1. Vibrant school community and shut relationships with families

Schools are communities, not just places of learning. We saw how humanity, grace, and love rose towards the surface during the pandemic. This was a top finding from the interviews: the focus on humanity and community, the giving and receiving of grace during times of struggle, and the bonds between teachers, families, and youth involved in the shared reason for education and also the common challenge of overcoming hardship together. The charter networks were built with a strong communal feeling among teachers and families prior to the pandemic. That helped them navigate the crisis.

Said Uncommon's Healey, \”Our kids are incredible and very resilient. They said, 'Let me dive in and embrace this.' Which was grounded in relationships in which the students know the teachers and staff really love them.\”


In sum, these networks entered the pandemic as highly effective organizations, with clear values, excellent leadership, talented teams, a coherent curriculum, systems that support student success, and vibrant communities with close relationships. They were powerful assets in the sudden shift to remote learning.

We must do all we are able to to assist every school take similar actions. Simultaneously, let's pause to acknowledge the policies that have enabled high-performing charter networks such as these to emerge. At a time when so many U.S. institutions appear to be struggling or neglecting to meet the moment, listed here are types of organizations that are not just surviving but thriving. Surely we ought to need to see them replicate and grow to allow them to serve much more students, families, and communities that choose them.

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