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Expert Interview

Chronicling Education Leaders’ Response to the Pandemic

May 18, 2021

In March 2020, in-person student learning in the U.S. came to a complete halt and with it access to school meals and other school supports as well as the ability for many parents to work. Education leaders had to rapidly devise ways to ensure their teachers could teach and their students could learn.

The ongoing chronicling of how leaders responded to the pandemic’s unprecedented challenges is the substance of Education Stories from the Field, an initiative of the National Comprehensive Center, which Westat leads through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Education. Westat’s Dean Nafziger, Ph.D., a Vice President, and Allison Crean Davis, Ph.D., an Associate Director, co-led this project. Here Dr. Crean Davis discusses the development of the stories, their benefits to education leaders, and how they might be used in the future.

Q: What prompted this initiative?

A: At a meeting with the National Center’s Advisory Board, a Chief State School Officer mentioned that the pandemic required such rapid and frequent decisionmaking, there was little time to document what was happening, much less reflect on lessons learned. We saw the opportunity to help and asked the Chiefs from Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming to participate in a series of videotaped interviews during phases of the pandemic that could be widely shared. The lessons the Chiefs share and the principles guiding their decisions are applicable now, as educators continue through this crisis, and will be valuable whenever education is disrupted in the future due to natural disasters or even another pandemic.

Q: Can you give us some examples of the stories they share?

A: Chiefs had to grapple with issues related to teaching and learning, but also infrastructure (such as broadband access), nutrition (for children depending on daily breakfast and lunch at their schools), and, of course, safety. All of the Chiefs described how they solicited input and support from others. New Mexico had a coordinated approach across Cabinet members at the state level; Pennsylvania relied on a combination of state agency partners, external researchers, and intermediate education agencies in the field; Wyoming and Missouri, which are “local-control” states, were noteworthy in their effort to engage local decisionmakers and remove barriers that limited their ability to respond flexibly.

Q: Why did you choose to feature Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming?

A: We wanted to feature states that were geographically diverse with varied student populations and different governance structures guiding their work. This way, other state leaders could find information relevant to their own situations. We plan to add stories from other states if resources allow.

Q: What did the process involve?

A: Over video calls, we interviewed leaders about their experiences with sending children home to learn, ensuring they were equipped and able to participate, what kinds of questions and problems families had, how and why they made certain decisions, lessons they took away from these unprecedented challenges, and what they wanted to share about preparing for something similar in the future. We tailored specific questions to different phases of the pandemic, focusing first on reopening schools, later on how students would be assessed, and currently on how they will champion learning recovery in their states.

Behind the scenes, we curated the interviews, represented lessons on a timeline, and added related video clips from our interviews. We’ve now launched a dedicated website, Education Stories from the Field, with the first phase of stories for each state, and we’re continuing to build it out with each set of new interviews.

Q: What challenges did you face in developing this project?

A: There was no template for this. We had to translate rich content into something that would be easy to interact with on the web, visually appealing, and timeline-based. This meant marrying our analytical approach with a creative sensibility.

Q: What comes next?

A: We’ll continue to build new “chapters” to the stories because, even as the pandemic is waning, educators are ramping up learning recovery efforts and there will be additional lessons to share. We’ll also represent related stories from districts in each of these, and we’ll connect users to resources that the state education agencies (SEAs) and local education agencies (LEAs) reference as critical to informing their work.

Q: How do you see these stories being used by educators?

A: In addition to serving as a tool for educator leaders to document and reflect on lessons learned throughout this crisis, we hope these stories will also support professional learning among current leaders and serve as a teaching tool for graduate students in education leadership programs.

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