Choosing Educational Programs for Your District: Lessons from COVID

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Educational programs

How is it possible that we are planning for the third school year which will, in some way, be impacted by the pandemic? As I reflect on the work educators face today, it brings to mind the last great educational crisis of 2008. In the midst of the Great Recession, U.S. educators were faced with some tough choices. In my district, we laid off staff, made dramatic reductions in programs, and halted most purchases that didn’t involve duct tape and shoestring. That’s a bit dramatic—but the cuts were dramatic. Textbooks, instructional materials, technology, professional learning, and many other items were viewed as luxuries rather than options.

During that time, we, like many other districts, turned to open educational resources. We conducted in-house trainings. We built our own curricular resources, units, and lessons. And we developed our own assessment system. Why? Because none of those things required substantial upfront costs with dollars and people resources. We made difficult choices from among the limited options that were available.

As we launched the work, we soon realized that the savings we saw on the front end would be costly when—from the standpoint of time, energy, focus, and expertise—we encountered internal capacity issues. Implementation planning, training and coaching, leadership development, and monitoring were tall orders for our limited team. We struggled through the work together and learned a lot about what it really takes to move instruction from a great idea to great practice. It’s harder than it looks!

Now we have a new, very different set of challenges. During previous educational crises, we had to think small, use make-do approaches, and choose paths of least resistance. The influx of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES Act) and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding flips that paradigm completely around. Nonetheless, many of the lessons we learned during the crisis of 2008 apply today.

Educational Programs: 3 Things to Know

Here are three lessons that districts can learn from the pandemic and apply now when planning for learning recovery.

1. Scalability is Key

The number of students in need of intense academic and social-emotional support is on the rise. This makes it especially critical that the programs you choose help you manage that increased demand. One way to ensure success is to opt for programs that are easy to implement across many classrooms. Strong instruction applied in one classroom impacts a handful of students. Great for those students! Strong instruction applied across many classrooms impacts many students. Even better!

It takes clear expectations, defined roles, and articulated processes to scale a solution to many classrooms and meet students’ unique learning needs. It takes ongoing training and a lot of coaching. In fact, without coaching, you might never see solutions used at scale. In a study of ways to ensure application of learning to classroom practice, Bruce R. Joyce and Beverly Showers found that “coaching in classroom” yielded a staggering 95% classroom application rate. Based on these findings, one of our best strategies to get to scale across classrooms is to choose solutions that include systemic coaching support.

As an example, following the implementation of HMH intervention solutions, our professional development team works in partnership with district leaders to co-develop a plan for deployment, implementation, support, and evaluation. The plan is designed to ensure all teachers have the support they need. By scaling a strong solution across many classrooms, we can better ensure that our district and school organizations are able to manage the increased demands of the post-COVID learning landscape.

2. Choose Programs That Are Sustainable

The Community Tool Box from the University of Kansas Center for Community Health and Development defines sustainability as “the active process of establishing your initiative—not merely continuing your program, but developing relationships, practices, and procedures that become a lasting part of the community.” Sustainability work should be ongoing. Successful districts rely on high-impact actions that are repeated and sustained across time and throughout students’ academic journeys.

For most students, COVID-19 has been a significant disrupter of routine and continuity, not to mention learning. It will take time and patience to reestablish classrooms as places of safety and engagement. One of our best strategies will be to choose solutions that build in consistency of routines, expectations, and instruction across days, weeks, months, and years to come. Tools such as Waggle, a personalized practice and instructional solution from HMH, help teachers provide instruction and practice that is personalized and challenging. Combining many data points that reflect and extend students’ knowledge, learning behaviors, and content factors, Waggle builds each student a customized learning experience designed to maximize proficiency gains and develop learning engagement and growth mindset. By sustaining these engaging practices over time, more and more students will be afforded an on-ramp to rapid learning recovery.

Waggle assessment growth tablet growth measure

3. Evidenced-Based Programs Are the Obvious Choice

The IRIS Center at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University says, “Given the choice between a practice or program that is evidence-based and one that is not, the clear choice is to implement the evidence-based program or practice.” We need to be clear on our priorities and hold a high bar for the choices we make—or we risk being pulled in a lot of different unproductive directions.

Jennifer Buckingham’s April 2021 article begins and ends with related ideas: “Innovation during the COVID crisis was born out of the urgency to do something rather than nothing, but we need to think about innovation more analytically…with high stakes for students, innovation must be underpinned by evidence and evaluation.” One of our best strategies will be to choose proven solutions with demonstrated evidence-based success. By doing so, we better ensure that every instructional minute is used wisely for our students and that our teachers use their time and energy productively.

HMH’s Amira Learning, for instance, was designed as the culmination of 20 years of research and development from Carnegie Mellon University, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and Johns Hopkins University. Amira Learning is also backed by more than 100 gold standard evidence papers published to date. Look for this kind of information when choosing educational programs for your district.

With CARES and ESSER funds, technology has been enhanced; more health, safety, and social and emotional resources are available; and even some of the typical limitations on instructional time and personnel resources may be addressed through new flexibility and funds. By choosing the right solutions, your district’s academic recovery plan can be an investment into a long-lasting instructional infrastructure—one that’s scalable to serve all students’ unique learning needs, sustainable to serve students throughout their school careers, and proven to get results that will put all students on a pathway to success now and into the future.


Learning didn’t stop during the pandemic. It just took new forms. This article is part of a series of resources focused on COVID learning recovery and designed to help you plan now for summer school and next year.