Teacher Survey Project

Teachers speak out on students’ academic learning

Above: Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Polaris
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At the end of January 2021, we surveyed our California Teacher Consultant Response Network members to ask them about their experiences as they adapt to serve their students during the pandemic. One hundred twenty-one teachers completed the initial survey of 25 questions, providing a rich data set of survey responses and thoughtful comments.

We selected the members from lists of teachers who have participated in education leadership programs and school improvement and curriculum networks. Those chosen closely match the diversity of the state’s teaching force by ethnicity, gender and geography. Two-thirds teach at the middle and high school levels. Most have more than 10 years of classroom experience.

In this Spotlight we shine the light on those questions, ratings and comments that illuminate how the teachers are seeing the academic learning of their students since the start of the pandemic. As much as possible, we present the teachers’ ratings and select their comments so that they speak for themselves. We add our own reflections at the end of this Spotlight.

Summary: What the survey results say

The Data: Survey Results About the Academic Learning of Students

Question 1: To what extent do you agree with the following statement: “A substantial number of my students are in danger of suffering long-term academic damage.”

Of the 120 teachers who responded to this question:

    1. Almost two-thirds of teachers (64%) agree with this statement to some extent or more.
    2. Almost one-fifth of teachers (18%) agree with this statement to a very great extent
    3. One tenth of teachers (10%) do not agree with this statement at all.

Question 2: To what extent do you agree with the following statement: “My less-advantaged students will suffer the most long-term damage under the circumstances caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.” 

Of the 120 teachers who responded to this question:

    1. Almost all teachers (90%) of teachers agree with this statement to some extent or more.
    2. Almost 50% of teachers agree with this statement to a great extent.
    3. Only one teacher in our network (1%) did not agree with this statement at all.

Question 3: To what extent do you think the following factors are barriers to effective teaching and learning?

Of the 121 responses to this question:

    1. Teacher ratings show that the top three barriers to effective teaching and learning in this era are non-academic in nature:
      • Upheaval caused by economic and social distress (76%)
      • Emotional trauma of students and families (69%)
      • Social isolation of students (69%)
    2. In addition, a similar number of teachers (65%) say that their students’ difficulty with distance-learning is a major barrier to their learning and achievement.
    3. Other significant barriers teachers identify include lack of parental support (53%); students’ lack of access to technology and the internet (41%); and their own inexperience with distance learning (33%).

(All the above are based on the percentage of teachers assigning a rating of ‘4’ or ‘5’ on a 5-point scale. There 121 responses on each of the areas except “social isolation of students,” which received 119 responses).

The following comments are illustrative of the feedback about barriers to effective teaching and learning: (Click arrow on right to advance to next quote)

I saw firsthand the effects of social isolation on the faces of my students who did choose to participate in distance learning. The very same students who had been so enthusiastic, so full of energy now seemed tired, sad, dejected. They rarely smiled. I’m sure that many of my Latinx students struggled with multiple challenges: economic, health-related, crowded living conditions, lack of understanding of systems of support.

— A teacher in a middle school with 50% low-income students in the North Coast region.

If it’s not clear from the ratings, overall I think these ‘other barriers’ are a much larger factor than the ‘organizational and curricula-related’ barriers.

— Teacher in a high school with 86% low-income children in the San Jose-Monterey area.

I think that there are just not enough hours in the day to learn all the stuff we could possibly learn/create better lesson plans to try to do better with distance learning. I think that students are deeply depressed and are mostly just trying to make it until we are done with this. Unfortunately, I think there will be long lasting consequences that we can’t even begin to predict. Hopefully, when everything opens back up again, we can take those lessons about relationships and some other learnings and really dig back into our all our teaching and learning together.

— A teacher in a high school with 66% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

If all of our families were fortunate enough to have financially stable households with a parent/guardian at home to manage them, it would be a totally different experience. Most of my students are at home alone often caring for younger siblings who are also on Zoom, or just having to self-monitor their schedules and manage their independent work time. They’re 13 and 14-year-olds…most just cannot do that.

— A teacher in a middle school with 79% low-income students in the Central Coast.

I have many students that have had to start working to help support their family because a family member has lost their job, and some who have even lost a family member who contributed to the family financially.

— A teacher in a high school with 70% low-income students in the Inland Empire.

When your family is affected by COVID — either having it or its financial impact on your family, academics take a backseat to just everyday survival.

— A teacher in a middle school with 95% low-income students in the Los Angeles Area.

When you have a school where 90% of the students live in poverty, it makes any learning hard. When kids are placed at home, often the location of their chronic trauma, it can make learning impossible. Some kids are thriving right now without the social pressures of being at school, but many are completely checked out. Many kids also don’t have access to the internet which is a huge barrier even if they have a school-issued computer. Parents are being asked to do so much to keep their kids engaged and on task which is too much for most.

— A teacher in an elementary-middle school with 100% low-income students in the North Coast region.

Question 4: On a scale of 1-5, to what extent are you satisfied that your students are learning and benefiting from school as conducted under the current arrangements you are working within?

Of the 121 teachers who responded:

The following comments are illustrative of the feedback about current working arrangements and student learning: (Click arrow on right to advance to next quote)

For (those) students who are engaged, distance learning is not a horrible substitute. There are ways to create interesting learning experiences online. However, so many students are not engaged (or semi-engaged) that overall it gives me the feeling that students aren’t learning. I failed more students last semester than ever before in my career.

— A teacher in a high school with 86% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey region.

Students are not able to focus or engage as they did when in person. Work completion is also much lower.

— A teacher in a high school with 79% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Students with reliable home support, including an on-site parent, adequate equipment and WIFI access and strong self-motivation achieved at higher levels than those whose parents were working or less familiar with or confident about interacting with schools, who lacked equipment, WIFI access or who struggled or were disengaged with school before the pandemic… Virtual learning conditions created constraints that were difficult to overcome… I felt that students’ learning was more limited. Deprived of the benefit of socializing in person, many students struggled with depression as a result of isolation and found completing work more difficult.

— A teacher in a middle school with 50% low-income students in the North Coast region.

To be sure, I am very satisfied with my students — they are amazing. However, when considering how satisfied I am that my students are learning and benefiting from school as conducted under the current arrangements, I would have to say (I am only) somewhat satisfied, at best. I still have students who do not have internet access at all, and (others) who do not have truly adequate internet access. This issue is a travesty and, of course, limits the learning of my students and greatly diminishes the benefit they receive from school. The inequities in education that this situation creates for my students makes me extremely sad and extraordinarily angry.

— A teacher in a high school with 72% low-income students in the Sacramento region.

For some students, distance learning works very well. These students are able to work independently and manage their time. They may even have parent support. They are able to get to school to pick up library books and other supplies required by their teachers, such as science experiment materials. However, for other students, distance learning is not serving their needs. They need more one-on-one support to manage their time, locate assignments, ask clarifying questions, etc. They may not have adult support at home and may not have the ability to get to school to pick up supplies, meals, etc. (We should) acknowledge that we are able to meet the needs of some students while other students need more.
— A teacher in a middle school with 39% low-income students in the Central Coast region.

I am very satisfied that my students are doing as well as can be expected, given the situation. They are learning and growing! Now that we have overcome the challenges of starting this school year (tech, planning, decisions on what is most important, focus on building relationships, routines, etc.), students are progressing with major milestones at about the same rate they would in the classroom. Most of my students have adult help, at least some of the day, and that makes an enormous difference.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 17% low-income students in the North Coast region.

The quality and quantity of learning is reduced. The advanced students are doing most of the work, but there’s less enrichment. The struggling students complete minimal work and overall participation is way down.

— A teacher in a high school with 59% low-income students in the Central Coast region.

 

Question 5: On a scale of 1-5, how effective do you feel distance learning has been in terms of meeting your students’ academic needs?

Of the 121 teachers who responded:

The following comments are illustrative of the feedback on distance learning and students’ academic achievement: (Click arrow on right to advance to next quote)

For my students with adequate internet access, I believe distance learning has been effective — not perfect and by no means optimal. I even have some students who have reported actually “preferring” distance learning. However, I do not believe distance learning can be described as “very effective” due to the lack of social interaction, connectedness to schools/programs/extra-curricular activities, hands-on courses/activities, fine arts programs (i.e. music) and stability.

— A teacher in a middle school with 71% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The needs of our students are vast and varied. Distance Learning has revealed that we have not as an educational system adequately taught our students how to be independent, lifelong problem solvers and thinkers. Students lack motivation in a lot of situations because they don’t find an intrinsic value in education for the sake of education. Teachers who are new to online platforms and educational applications are struggling to keep their content relevant and rigorous for students who are not engaged. There is a tyranny of the urgent — just transitioning to an online platform — that trumps the nuances and art of teaching.

— A teacher in a high school with 90% low-income students in the Central Valley.

I feel that it has been effective for students who are internally motivated and those whose parents play an active role in their academics at home. Parent support has been absolutely crucial during Distance Learning. There have been times where I have texted/emailed parents in the middle of my class and asked them to check in on their child because they haven’t been responding to my call outs… Distance Learning has been devastating for those students that already rely on extra teacher support or on check-ins from an adult on campus. Those students that were already struggling at school have disappeared into the shadows and it has been much harder to connect with them.
— A teacher in a middle school in the Northern Delta-Sierra Foothills.

I just finished working with two students after school. Both students could not tell me what I taught today in class. 🙁

— A teacher in a high school with 67% low-income students in the Los Angeles area.

Some students’ needs are very much met — the ones who attend all Zoom meetings and complete their work. These are students who have adults supporting them at home. There are other students who are not as successful, but I truly believe that they are trying their absolute best. Many of our students have working parents, and now they [have] to mature at an accelerated rate, to navigate time management and schoolwork.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 65% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey region.

For my students who are performing at or above grade level, they have been reaching their academic goals and moving forward in progress. However, for my students with learning disabilities or who are below grade level, they have only fallen further behind. It has been a serious struggle meeting their academic needs over zoom, especially with so many internet issues.

— A teacher in a middle school with 79% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Asking students to sit in front of a computer for hours is not healthy. Conducting school online is not developmentally appropriate for elementary age children.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 40% low-income students in Southern California.

In our other Spotlight reports we go into more detail about the challenges faced by both teachers and students, as well as the supports they both need and are receiving.

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