In March 2020, when nearly all schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most school leaders would never have anticipated the speed or length of school closures, nor the magnitude of its impact on students and educators.

As state departments of education and local school districts continue to take measures to accelerate learning and reduce achievement gaps exacerbated by the pandemic, it is evident that while we have made some progress, we still have much to accomplish. With states across the US experiencing similar issues in education, there is an opportunity to share what states have learned so far, the strategies and programs they are investing in and the opportunities for improvement.

Accelerating learning and reducing achievement gaps was the impetus for organizing the Chief State School Officers Retreats. The two-day event was co-hosted by the Hunt Institute and SAS at the SAS Executive Briefing Center. The retreats are a critical component of the Hunt Institute’s COVID Constituency initiative, which aims to translate public priorities and needs into policy action for policymakers and education leaders.

The one thing this pandemic has taught me is: We don't have the answers. I don't have the answers. Being humble, being vulnerable and being open about your needs – this space we've created here with SAS was the right conditions at the right time and that's why I think so many state superintendents and their teams have taken a liking to this experience.
– Javaid Siddiqi, PhD, President & CEO, The Hunt Institute

A dive into the two-day retreat

Leaders discussed the impact of the pandemic on student learning – sometimes referred to as “learning loss,” “unfinished learning,” or “interrupted learning” – and developed bold and innovative policy solutions to improve education systems for the better. Since the first two-day retreat in November 2021, 11 state teams have engaged with each other across three retreats.

The ongoing convenings were an opportunity to share challenges, best practices and stories that state agencies have experienced. While some anecdotes were unique to states and their political environments, state teams found that they share many common experiences. State teams comprised diverse members, including state chiefs, deputy state chiefs, data specialists, policy experts, district superintendents and others critical to recovery efforts.

Teams spent time in small group discussions with their colleagues to develop short- and long-term action plans for their next steps toward pandemic recovery. They also spent time across teams in role-alike groups to share their ideas and initiatives with their contemporaries in other states.

State leaders in attendance expressed appreciation for the unique opportunity to engage with their counterparts from other states. North Carolina State Superintendent Catherine Truitt found significance in hearing from her peers about how they address the uncertainty surrounding pandemic recovery.

All states are worried about their students and how they’re going to recover from this pandemic and I think we’re all approaching it in similar ways in that we are keeping students at the center of these conversations. We’ve learned a lot from other states and how they’re collecting the data they need and doing with that data. It’s been a thrill to see the intentionality with which all states are approaching this work.
– Catherine Truitt, North Carolina State Superintendent

The retreat's sessions included highly curated conversations with experts across the country. Content experts – from distinguished academics to nonprofit leaders to fellow education policymakers – brought unique and often varying views on learning time, parent engagement, the digital divide, missing students and data challenges. Leaders often reflected on innovations from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund (ESSER).

Take a data-driven look at learning loss and learning recovery

Chad Auer, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction at the Wyoming Department of Education, expressed how beneficial it was to hear from education experts from organizations including EduNomics, the Education Trust, Learning Heroes, Carnegie Corporation of New York and the National Parents Union, among others.

“It’s great to hear from experts from around the country, from different universities and political circles, about effective ways to use money, lead and impact students,” Auer said.

Reflecting on results and next steps

Feedback from the first retreat revealed a need and desire to align state and district efforts to address pandemic-related challenges. The district superintendents were then invited to participate in these critical discussions. Inviting district leaders for the following two retreats allowed attendees to hear from additional perspectives in the field to foster greater collaboration between the state and local levels. Rupak Gandhi, PhD, District Superintendent of Fargo Public Schools in North Dakota, noted the “value of being able to learn from each other” during this time.

“We’ve learned a lot about different data collection methods or different pieces of assessment that districts are using to measure learning loss or the impact of how to provide the right interventions for students. I fundamentally believe in epistemology and the value of being able to learn from each other and other practitioners across the state, and this provides a great opportunity to do that,” Gandhi said.

Discover how analytics supports student success

Equally as significant as the rich content, there was a collective appreciation for taking time away from the fast-paced, day-to-day pressures in the office to have uninterrupted time together as a team to focus on reflection and strategic planning. Thoughtful feedback reflected the power of having a facilitated space where state leaders could collaborate across states, roles and levels on a common issue. Resulting from the collaboration were a variety of rewarding relationships and solutions that would not have occurred in isolation. Laurie Matzke, Assistant State Superintendent at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, reiterated this sentiment.

“I hope that the Hunt Institute and SAS will continue to make these opportunities available to states," Matzke said. "There are not enough opportunities for states to get together and collaborate with our partners.”

Read more key takeaways from the event.

This blog was co-written by SAS' Melody Schopp, PhD and Javaid Siddiqi, PhD, President & CEO, The Hunt Institute. 


About Author

Melody Schopp, PhD

Director of Education Industry Consulting, SAS

Melody Schopp, PhD serves as the Director of Education Industry Consulting at the SAS Institute, supporting the Education Practice to empower education leaders and states to use analytics to improve student outcomes. Following two decades of classroom experience, Schopp entered the South Dakota Department of Education, where she served in numerous director positions, including deputy secretary. She was appointed Secretary of Education by Governor Dennis Daugaard in 2010 and served seven years as part of his cabinet. Before joining SAS in 2020, Schopp spent three years as a national education consultant with various clients focused on improving academic and emotional opportunities for students. Schopp was privileged to serve in leadership positions for various national organizations. She was a board member and elected president of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Additionally, she was treasurer of the Education Commission of the States and on the board of directors of Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG). Schopp has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education, and a PhD from the University of Lincoln, Nebraska, in higher education and leadership.

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