A Former Chief Academic Officer’s View on the Future of K-12 Education

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School districts across the country are scrambling to figure out what school will look like come fall. Will students be placed on staggered schedules? What is the remote learning plan? How will schools enforce social distancing? And how will teachers support students’ social and emotional needs?

We spoke with Tammy Clementi, National Director of Planning and Analytics for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who shared her perspective on how the COVID-19 pandemic will shape schooling as we know it. In her 27 years in education, Clementi has worked as a teacher, Chief Academic Officer (CAO) at two Colorado public schools, and a superintendent. Here, she talks with us about the need for a hybrid model of education (half online, half in-person), how to differentiate professional learning for educators, and how districts can ensure equity and access for their most vulnerable students in their online learning plans.

Brenda Iasevoli: How do you see the teaching and learning landscape changing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Tammy Clementi: The goals of what kids should learn and what they should be able to do are essentially the same, but the means to get there have definitely changed. I’ve been talking with school leaders, and even putting that leadership hat back on myself. The biggest issue right now is how to maintain that six-foot social distance. Since we can no longer have classrooms of 20 to 25 kids, all the big urban districts are talking about staggered schedules. What does that look like? Maybe half of kindergarteners come on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other half comes on Tuesday and Thursday. And all I can think about in this scenario is: What does this look like for parents when you take away full-time public school? Parents have to get back to work, and many of them cannot afford daycare.

BI: How do we solve this problem?

TC: We need a hybrid model of education going forward. Half of kindergarteners are in a classroom with teachers, while the other half are in a designated area of the school where online learning is happening. Our kids are technology gurus, and that includes preschoolers. There’s nothing wrong with them learning online part of the time. The challenge will be finding space in our buildings. But if I were to lead a school district, I would pursue a hybrid model and put an online system in place. If there is another outbreak, we are prepared. The online system will become old hat to teachers, students, and parents. It won’t be a whole new learning experience for them if a new crisis occurs. We were catapulted into this pandemic, and it’s been a struggle for teachers who were not so comfortable with technology. But everyone has become a master of adaptation by now.

BI: If administrators found the space to make this hybrid model happen, they would need a teacher in that room where kids are doing online learning, right?

TC: I’ve thought about the financial impact of it. You wouldn’t need a teacher. A paraprofessional could monitor the room and help students as they complete their online work. The space issue would vary from district to district, but I would hope we could find a way. Public school is the place to send kids. Parents need to go to work. I’m so worried about them.

BI: Do you think educators need to address SEL before academics when school is back in session?

TC: It is not one or the other. We have to continue to provide a rigorous learning environment. However, we also know our first role is to ensure our students feel safe physically and emotionally. If their safety is not our first priority, learning will not take place. We have to address students’ mental health as a result of the virus. And, sadly, we have to address yet another tragedy: the senseless loss of George Floyd. This loss has compounded the need to keep conversations going. We must talk about race in this nation. We must talk about the impact racism has on our ability to move forward.

As a teacher, I used events like these to teach students the power of love and acceptance. My goal was to help students understand how we are all connected, and the impact kindness and respect have on our ability to live in peace with one another. Schools will need strong SEL practices in place once kids return. Educators will need to know what to look for, what to say, and how to embrace them and make them feel loved and safe. When we get back to school, the first piece of business will be to talk to kids about everything that has happened, allow them the safety and security to have those conversations, and then get on with the business of the day.

BI: How can schools ensure students get everything they need to succeed in the face of budget cuts?

TC: Every state is getting nailed in terms of budgets. Schools and districts are talking about millions of dollars in cuts. But a district’s focus is always going to be around achievement, and teachers are still going to need support and resources. When budgets are cut, the priority will be getting the right resources into the hands of teachers so we don’t continue to lose academic ground. That’s why developing an affordable, rigorous online platform will be so important. One of the biggest needs will be intervention products for helping the students who have lost ground.

BI: How can administrators be strategic in their planning for professional development post-pandemic?

TC: We don’t always do a great job of differentiating professional learning for our teachers. We have to start with a needs assessment. Principals can easily go on Zoom and other platforms to observe teachers in these online environments. (Sometimes teachers don’t want to admit that they need help.) Usually, principals observe teachers in classrooms to learn what kind of professional learning individual teachers might need. The process should be no different with online learning. Principals can get an understanding of which teachers have strong online teaching skills and which teachers could use some help, then use that knowledge to partner up teachers to mentor and support each other. A principal could say to a teacher, “I noticed Miss Smith is knocking it out of the park. I want you to observe what Miss Smith is doing with her class.”

BI: What else will principals need to address to help teachers and students get off on the right foot next school year?

TC: We need to address learning loss, social-emotional learning for students and teachers, how to do online learning—all of the above. Teachers need an assessment using real-time data, especially with the lack of state assessment data from this past year. This will give them a sense of where kids are and what they need. But the biggest piece, I think, is transitioning into a rigorous online learning platform. What does online learning look like? What does live teaching look like? What are the expectations for student accountability? What are the specifics that parents need to know?

BI: Do you think districts are equipped to figure out online learning, if they haven’t already, and provide that training for teachers?

TC: For the majority of districts, I would say no. So what does that mean? The smart companies are out there scampering to develop what school districts will need in this new era. This is not only a new era, a new normal. It is the new direction of public education. We will never go back to what we were. I believe that wholeheartedly. [This] is something that HMH is doing: preparing to meet teachers where they are, preparing to address the particular needs of districts. That’s what is needed right now.

BI: Do you have advice for CAOs on how they can ensure equity and access in their school’s online plan going forward?

TC: The gap between the haves and have-nots has just exponentially widened. Access to technology and connectivity need to be top priorities. But how do we get devices into the hands of all kids? Most homes have a computer, but if you’ve got three kids, everyone is fighting over that computer. It’s the district’s responsibility to figure that out. The forward-thinking model years ago was a one-to-one initiative. At this point, every district should be one-to-one.

BI: Should districts also make it their responsibility to ensure that each student has access to an internet connection at home?

TC: If districts are using a hybrid model—half online, half in-person—then students need an internet connection to make it work. One district superintendent said connectivity was an issue in his district, and a lot of parents did not have the means. So he equipped all of his school buses with Wi-Fi and strategically placed them around the community to act as internet hotspots. Now that’s a smart cookie right there.

BI: Do you think we could get to a place with online learning where we wouldn’t have to worry about learning loss if another crisis happened again?

TC: Absolutely. Kids today are all about the devices. Even kids in poverty often can get their hands on a smartphone. We’ve been so slow to move in education, and this pandemic has catapulted us into the online learning world when we weren’t ready. Think about it. We are still on an agrarian calendar so kids can go home and work on the crops. That’s why we have summers off. We haven’t budged from that, even though research has been clear that three months of no instruction in the summer results in the summer slide. With a rigorous and robust online program, for kindergarteners on up—you bet, we wouldn’t have to lose ground.


To help you continue teaching and learning during the current outbreak of coronavirus, visit HMH's At-Home Learning Support page for free resources.

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