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National Summer School Initiative Aims To Improve Online Teaching

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Most of the nation's largest public school districts are beginning the fall semester either 100% remotely or with both in-person and online learning options. Last spring, many school districts offered the bare minimum, sometimes dubbed emergency remote learning. NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports on one national effort underway to try to improve the quality of distance learning this fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WAYNE BANKS: Hey there. Welcome to the seventh grade math national summer school in Michigan state.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Wayne Banks is a middle school math teacher and principal-in-residence for KIPP charter schools. But these days, he teaches online. This pretaped video lesson is about probability.

BANKS: So yesterday, you were posed with this problem. What is the probability of picking a red marble and then a blue marble?

KAMENETZ: School districts everywhere are under huge time and resource pressure as they try to plan both in-person and online teaching simultaneously. To help, a group of public and charter school leaders got backing from education philanthropists - like the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports NPR. Their goal - deliver better online learning this coming school year for free to anyone who wants it. Co-founder Ian Rowe, who leads Public Prep charter schools in New York City, says they're piloting online this summer with 12,000 students while asking, can we find...

IAN ROWE: Best-practice principles that could then survive into the fall.

KAMENETZ: Best practices for math teacher Wayne Banks, one of the program's mentor teachers, means active, live class discussions. For example, he found a website called whiteboard.fi that lets students work on a problem while he looks virtually over their shoulders.

BANKS: It has allowed me to, like, see their work real time and give them feedback real time and also still have discourse about the math that we're learning every day.

KAMENETZ: Bank says it's also important to let students get to know him and each other. He does icebreaker activities. He calls them at home. And he lets them see a bit of his life in his apartment in Brooklyn - like when he got a new keyboard.

BANKS: I played them a song, like, at the beginning of class.

KAMENETZ: Mentor teachers like Wayne Banks who tape video lessons work closely with partner teachers who are assigned to smaller groups of 25 or 30 students. Together, they offer nearly four hours a day of real-time online teaching, both live and taped - including dance, yoga and science. As far as remote teaching goes, this resembles what some of the better-resourced private schools around the country were doing in the spring. By contrast, many large public districts offered only a minimum of real-time instruction. Instead, kids spent a lot of time doing worksheets digitally and reviewing old material.

ROWE: Frankly, we were all thrust into remote learning in the spring. And, you know, not everyone was ready for that.

KAMENETZ: Ian Rowe says they're hoping to team up with schools around the country in the fall. School systems can identify their own local superstar teachers to be mentors, or they can use the initiative's teachers and lessons. Local teachers can network with others around the country and get continuous feedback on their online performance.

ROWE: Now I think we've learned a lot about what elements can work. And we're trying to be a resource on that front.

KAMENETZ: But some are concerned that this program may be overpromising. Justin Reich is a researcher in education technology at MIT. He's been working with districts to help reimagine the fall. And he wants to see each district giving teachers the time, training and power they need to plan online teaching right. When it comes to any supposedly prefab solution, he says...

JUSTIN REICH: I think adequate turnkey instruction may be possible. I don't think it's responsible to promise excellent turnkey curriculum and training.

KAMENETZ: On the other hand, Reich says, that simply by putting a lot of talented teachers together and giving them money and training, this initiative...

REICH: Can, in lots of cases, be way better than having every school and district figure these things out on their own.

KAMENETZ: Given that we are almost in August, many districts may be grateful for an out-of-the-box remote-learning solution in both senses of the phrase. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.