Silicon Schools CEO Offers Hard-Earned Lessons on Remote Learning

Brian Greenberg is the CEO of the Silicon Schools Fund, which has helped launch or transform over 50 traditional district, charter, and private schools across Northern California in many of the highest-need communities. In the wake of the spring shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Brian was concerned about how distance learning would affect students and how it could be improved to better support students and families. Silicon Schools assessed the remote learning provided by the schools it supports in the Bay Area and found what they deemed a more successful picture than the national landscape. I recently talked with Brian about their findings and how they can apply to schools and districts continuing remote learning in the spring.

— Rick

Rick: Tell us a bit about the Silicon Schools Fund.

Brian: We are a foundation that looks for talented education leaders who want to launch new schools. Once we identify great teams and leaders, we spend months or years getting to know them, visiting their existing classrooms, and digging into their proposed school model with a focus on innovative ways to meet the needs of every student. When we invest, we make multiyear grants of several hundred thousand dollars to help launch new schools. As an invested partner in the school, we care almost as much about our schools’ success as our educators do. We support founders as they build their school model, navigate the politics of launching new schools, hire faculty — essentially everything it takes to open great schools. Having been part of teams that have now launched more than 50 schools, we have the gift of pattern recognition. We can sometimes see things that the teams themselves can’t see. We also pride ourselves on being candid and frank. We know how hard the work is and we also know the importance of honest feedback so teams can address challenges.

Rick: You conducted a major assessment of the remote learning provided by your schools. Can you tell me a bit about what motivated this assessment and about how you conducted it?

Brian: When the lockdown hit in March, everyone in the country found themselves asking, “How the heck are we going to run schools remotely?” The early results were really worrisome, with many districts reporting half the kids not even showing up or only offering an hour or two of instruction per day. When we looked at our own portfolio of schools, however, we saw a very different picture. While some traditional schools took weeks or even months to launch their virtual learning models, our schools were up and running within days. When our friends at CRPE launched a study of districts to report on how schools were responding to the pandemic, we realized that we should administer the survey to our portfolio to see if the data backed up our impression of how differently many of our partner schools were responding.

Rick: What did you find out about how your schools did in providing remote learning? What criteria did you use to constitute success for remote learning?

Brian: To begin with, our schools were up and online immediately. Secondly, they were offering near full-day instruction for kids. Third, students were showing up, with 90 percent of students attending. And parents and teachers were reporting more support compared to what other schools were offering — with training and collaborative time for teachers, resources provided to families, and strong communication so that parents and teachers could have a voice in real-time decisions.

Rick: What did you see in the data that helped you understand why some schools have been more successful with the transition to remote learning?

Brian: The biggest takeaway was that two factors accurately predicted how schools responded to the pandemic. The first was familiarity with technology prior to the pandemic. This makes sense because schools that knew how to use digital platforms and online learning programs had an easier time adapting to remote teaching. The second, more interesting, predictor of how schools responded to the pandemic was the culture of the school before the pandemic — the relationships and trust between students and teachers and amongst the adults on campus. This makes a ton of sense because you are essentially asking, “Is this a functional school with trust between teachers and administrators and where kids feel cared for and seen?” If yes, you have hope in navigating the incredible uncertainty of radically adapting your teaching model on the fly. But where schools were highly rule-bound and bureaucratic without trust among parties, paralysis set in, and the complex work of setting up a new virtual school got blocked by a culture of distrust, union contracts, and every teacher being left to fend for him or herself. Interestingly, it was much easier for schools to get better at using tech than it was to improve a poor culture.

Rick: What are two or three concrete takeaways from what your schools are doing well with remote learning that other schools can apply when conducting remote learning?

Brian: When it became clear that remote learning was going to be a major element for the full year, we realized that we had to get into a lot of virtual classrooms to figure out what was working. Our team observed as many of our schools as possible throughout this fall to watch remote teaching and learning in action. We spent dozens of hours each week in Zoom classrooms categorizing what we were observing and debriefing with teachers and principals to figure out what made remote learning effective. We found three big factors, listed in the chart below:

These are not necessarily new ideas. And these three concepts are important for in-person classrooms also. But in the online world, they are literally make-or-break factors to get right.

First, maintain a strong ratio between teacher talk and student talk. There are differing opinions about “cameras on” for students, but after hundreds of hours of observation, we can tell you that you can predict the quality of a class by how many students have their cameras on and are interacting with their peers and teachers. When good back-and-forth conversations take place between students and teachers, online learning can hum. Where teachers lecture to empty Zoom boxes, it’s virtually impossible to make remote teaching effective.

Secondly, we have also seen a worrying trend of lowered expectations for the curriculum while remote. And we’ve seen too much over-scaffolding of learning so that students are not engaging with the meaty parts of the curriculum. I get it. Online teaching is really hard, so it’s tempting to try to simplify things for students. But we’ve seen schools that take complex problems and break them down so far that students never reach the challenging stages of making their own meaning. Keeping the rigor and challenge level high is really important to also keep kids engaged and interested.

Lastly, it is hugely important to pay attention to the tasks that students are asked to complete in a given class and to who is doing the work. We’ve been in classrooms where after 30 minutes, you realize that students have been asked to write a single-sentence response in the chat. The old adage of “whoever does the work does the learning” is even more true during the pandemic.

Rick: How do teachers at your schools keep students engaged in their online work, especially given the many distractions and demands of learning at home? What are some examples of effective ways teachers in your schools have built relationships with students virtually?

Brian: When schools get all three of these key factors for effective online learning right (ratio, quality of task, and students doing the heavy lifting), it is amazing to see how engaged kids can be.On top of this, we are seeing teachers regularly check for understanding while remote to figure out what students are learning. This can take the form of using Google Docs or other shared screens to evaluate student work in real time, handing over the mic for more of the class to hear students explain the material, or using the chat feature to quickly gauge whether students are understanding the material being taught. We have seen lower-elementary schools where students are furiously writing answers on small whiteboards that schools sent home and holding their answers up to the camera every few minutes so that the teacher can check for understanding. We have seen 1st grade teachers lead a “Turn and Talk” over Zoom, where students bring a stuffed animal to talk with. When you think about how important language production is in the lower grades or for language-learners, strategies to get students talking, doing, and thinking are hugely important. In the upper grades, teachers can use breakout rooms effectively if they have clear deliverables and have trained students on norms. There are also strategies that work to get students talking more, such as deliberate use of the chat followed by inviting students to read chosen comments, cold calling in a positive and supportive way, asking students to invite the opinions of classmates, and shared use of real-time tools like Google Docs, Nearpod, or Desmos that allow students and teachers to see work being done together in real time.

Rick: What measure do your schools follow in establishing a reasonable expectation for the duration and quantity of live online classes?

Brian: There is no single answer to this question across a portfolio as large and varied as Silicon Schools, but in general, our schools are averaging four to six hours a day of “live” instruction, with some offering full day and others combining live teaching with independent work time. We generally hear from families that more live instruction is helpful, even if it entails teachers explaining an assignment live and then having students work independently in breakout rooms with access to the teacher to answer questions.

Rick: There’s lots of concerns about digital access when it comes to remote learning. How have you all handled this in your schools?

Brian: Logistically, most of our schools have worked to solve three challenges: device access, connectivity, and quality of camera/mic for a productive classroom. Devices were solved early, mostly by assessing who needed a device and then lending out school laptops to families. Connectivity can be trickier because even the hotspot solution may not create enough bandwidth for the demands of multiple hours a day of video streaming. Some of the internet providers have made progress on their plans for low-income communities, and schools have become experts at which providers have options that work for their families. We also have schools opening their buildings as learning hubs for the students who need extra support in a safe and quiet space to work during the day with good internet access, even if learning is still done via Zoom. Lastly, we have come to appreciate how important it is to set good class norms about having kids visible, with their heads in frame, and able to be heard when they speak. We think this is best accomplished by starting with very clear school norms that are practiced and reinforced in each classroom. Then for the one or two cases per class where there really are impediments to having students visible and participating in class, teachers and administrators can try to work with parents to find solutions. I’d stress how important this is to be done lovingly and supportively rather than punitively. We know that kids are craving seeing and hearing from each other. When cameras and mics are off and students are passively listening to their teachers, they don’t get any peer-to-peer interactions that are so crucial to development. When we have been in classrooms that have gotten this right, the joy of kids learning with other kids comes through palpably.

Rick: We face continued uncertainty about the duration of this pandemic, and district and school leaders continue to adjust their plans for the spring semester. Based on your experience with your schools, what should district and school leaders prioritize as they make their plans for the spring?

Brian: For both in-person and remote classrooms, it’s incredibly important to remember that the underpinning for all this work is still a foundation of caring and authentic relationships. Kids are experiencing so many challenges and even trauma right now. Some of the teachers we observed did a great job of conveying support and love for their students. That they can do this while also maintaining high expectations for learning is the beauty of great teaching. We take a lot of inspiration in the efforts we have seen from so many educators and how they are keeping alive the spark and energy of great teaching even when physically separated from their students.

Rick: What do you hope schools are able to take from this experience with remote learning?

Brian: Whenever we return in person, I hope we don’t rush right back to desks in rows with lectures from the chalkboard. For the past nine months, students have shown remarkable agency and taught us how much more capable they are than we give them credit for. We hope that we can hold onto some of this student agency and independence when we return to in person teaching.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.

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