Traverse City News and Events

In The Wake Of COVID, How Will TCAPS Students Perform, Curriculum Change?

By Craig Manning | June 24, 2021

Will Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) students still have the option to learn online this fall? And has the upheaval of the past 18 months created gaps in student performance, as it has at so many school districts nationwide? The answers are a mixed bag at the region’s largest school district.

One big question facing TCAPS now is whether Up North Virtual – the online learning platform it rolled out last year – will continue to exist. According to Shaina Biller, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction, there are no plans to phase out Up North Virtual – though TCAPS will tinker with the platform.

Since launching last fall, Up North Virtual On Demand – which allows asynchronous online coursework opportunities for TCAPS students – has relied on curricula from established third-party online education providers. While Biller says Up North Virtual On Demand is “guaranteed” to be available to students and families when school starts again in September, she also notes that TCAPS is building out its own online courses so it can offer on-demand remote learning opportunities internally.

“We are hoping to start shifting some of the courses from the third-party platform that we used this year to our own TCAPS-created content,” Biller explains. “We're starting that course buildout this summer, so we'll see how far we get. We certainly don't want to rush it, because we want the content to be rich. But it will be the goal of Up North Virtual On Demand to be using our own courses.”

Successful completion of that project will offer two primary benefits for TCAPS. First, the district won’t have to spend money on a third-party online learning platform, freeing up funds for other purposes. Second, online coursework in the district would be “directly connected to our TCAPS curriculum,” ensuring that all students are on the same page.

While Up North Virtual On Demand will be back in the fall, Biller tells The Ticker the same guarantee can’t be made about Up North Virtual Live. That part of the platform has, for the past year, allowed students to receive online instruction directly from TCAPS teachers via video chat, whiteboard cameras, and other technologies. The program, while actually more popular than Up North Virtual On Demand, poses more logistical and instructional challenges for TCAPS and its teachers. The district is closely monitoring numbers for Up North Virtual Live, with plans to make a final call by August on whether to keep the program.

At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, about 15 percent of the 9,100-plus TCAPS student body was enrolled in Up North Virtual, with a relatively even split between Live (653 students) and On Demand (672 students). By last month, numbers were mostly the same for Up North Virtual Live (649 students) but had dipped 25 percent for On Demand (down to 505 students).

The numbers seem poised to keep dropping. In May, TCAPS put out a preliminary survey to gauge how many families were interested in continuing online learning. The findings indicate that most parents are ready for their kids to be back in school buildings.

“If I look at K-5, currently we only have 15 students indicating that they want a live synchronous remote learning option,” Biller explains. “Right now [those numbers] aren’t feasible. We wouldn’t have the [staff] to run a section with, say, two or three second graders.” In comparison, 314 K-5 students were enrolled in Up North Virtual Live this spring.

Another major issue at TCAPS right now – and across the nation – is how the pandemic has adversely impacted student performance. Last fall, a Brookings study indicated that U.S. test scores in math were down 5-10 percentile points for fall 2020 “compared to same-grade students the prior year.” Statistics show that failing grades have also been on the rise across the country.

On the one hand, TCAPS wasn’t immune to the national trends. Biller says student performance in math has “really been impacted,” with declines hitting all grade levels to some degree. In addition, students who were fully on-demand generally struggled more than those who were coming into school buildings or learning via Up North Virtual Live.

More broadly, though, Biller says the district has avoided the substantial “achievement lag” that other districts in the country have seen. For instance, judging by NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Assessment ) scores, Biller thinks TCAPS is in a good position coming out of the pandemic.

“If you look at our NWEA scores – and I will be presenting those in July – we really didn't see a huge impact,” she says. “We prepared for the worst, as many districts did, not knowing how kids were going to come in in the fall. And while we were low in some areas, the scores also reflected some really nice growth. I think that will set us up well as we look forward.”

In that next chapter, Biller says TCAPS will be looking to “accelerate learning for students” – not just to make up for COVID-era lapses, but also to improve local education more generally.

The top priority? Working to foster “social emotional well-being for both students and staff.” Social emotional learning (SEL) is a concept in education defined as “developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.” Biller says SEL is especially urgent for an educational organization in the wake of COVID “because we know kids and adults can't perform at their highest – or accelerate their learning, or be flexible in their teaching – if they're not supported socially and emotionally.”

Also on Biller’s to-do list are “aligning our curriculum, K-12” and establishing “instructional best practices” across TCAPS. The former focus will allow the district to create more consistency and transparency in what students are studying at certain moments of different grade years. “I should be able to go into a second-grade classroom in October and, no matter what school or classroom I visit, know that [the students] will be pretty on par and on pace with what they’re learning,” Biller explains.

As for instructional best practices, Biller says the goal is to identify “high-yield instructional strategies, based on grade level and content – and even those that transcend content” and then implement them district-wide, to drive student achievement.

“COVID has presented us with a lot of opportunities – forced or otherwise – to think differently about how we're delivering instruction, and how to differentiate even further,” Biller concludes. “We can’t just remain status quo. And a lot of teachers, although they’re exhausted right now, have already started some really good conversations [asking], ‘OK, now what?’”


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