Though it feels like the 2019-2020-2021 mega-school year just finished with a collective, exhausted exhale – a year that tested education systems, educators, administrators, parents and learners alike – we’re only a few weeks away from the start of the 2021-22 school year. In between the deep breaths and preparations, most discussions on the upcoming school year focus on learning loss and/or a return to normal.
But I have to ask, why would we return to normal?
Our children have faced unprecedented disruption in their lives and in their learning. They deserve something better than an awkward return to an underperforming normal. We knew our current system was underserving learners and COVID-19 laid bare the inequalities baked into our system. Though a return to normal would be comfortable for many adults, it would be an act of negligence for our learners. We must shift to a learner-centered system, one that prioritizes their needs, interests and abilities and reckons with the ways we haven’t served them in the past.
Here’s how we can do it.
We’ve said that our education systems are focused on driving equity. But are they really? Testing every child every year isn’t equity. In fact, the data we collect with these assessments illustrates that our system is not producing equitable results. And we’re growing in our awareness that systemic racism actively exists in our systems – including our education systems. Academic learning loss disproportionally affects learners furthest from opportunity, including children with learning differences. Achievement and opportunity gaps that already existed were compounded by the challenges of the last year.
Instead of a return to normal, we must prioritize addressing academic learning loss as an opportunity to advance equity. We must be tactical, at the school and district level, by focusing on individualized plans for each student, allowing them to surgically address gaps in their learning and progress on mastery.
And we must also be strategic at the state and district levels, transforming education systems by focusing on the elimination of historic achievement and opportunity gaps effecting learners furthest from opportunity – including how we approach assessment, accountability and professional development. This transformation process is what the various CARES Act and ESSER dollars should focus on, rather than programs du jour or disconnected tutoring. This is not a lip service moment. Make it real.
Over the past year and a half we have universally implemented virtual approaches to learning, some corporate and some independent. We’ve tried hybrid options. We’ve had to overly rely on technology. And now, in a return to normal, will we make sure those desks are in straight lines and press play on our normally scheduled schooling for the year?
This is a moment to move away from one-size-fits all approaches and examine how we are teaching content and skills.
I’m not an online, virtual school advocate. It works for some kids and for some it works fabulously, but for others it was an abject failure. The same could be said for educators, as some were able to capitalize on the virtual tools more than others. Uneven implementation was an absolute truth. With that said, we shouldn’t just discard it as a tool. This is a moment to move away from one-size-fits all approaches and examine how we are teaching content and skills. What ways could make content and skill acquisition and mastery more effective?
A return to normal without a thorough interrogation of what we’ve done well seems foolish. Could we use flipped classrooms more broadly and effectively? What about competency-based approaches where students can get supports from teachers to build a stronger level of content mastery? These approaches need to be scaffolded for age-appropriate and content-appropriate practices, of course. But we need to capitalize on some of the individualized connections created in the best virtual learning environments to personalize instruction and learning plans for each student. This will be the only way to truly address learning loss.
Seeing the whole child
Our children have been through an incredibly tough run over the last year-and-a-half: the murders of Black men and women, the protests for racial justice, the attacks on teaching American history and countless bills across 30-plus states targeting transgender individuals. We have children that are hungry to be seen and seen fully as unique, noble individuals and appreciated for that. We need to make school a place for care and belonging. We cannot truly address their learning loss or their emotional trauma until a foundational element for learning environments in this country is seeing the whole child and their full identity.
We have children that are hungry to be seen and seen fully as unique, noble individuals and appreciated for that.
Seeing the whole child and understanding their needs includes their mental and physical health, emotional support and nutrition. I will concede that we overly rely on schools to do it all for our children and we don’t have enough school counselors – but we also know that a hungry child or one seeking physical or emotional security cannot learn. Do I believe that this is a lost generation as some have posited? No. I believe in human resiliency. But to achieve that our children need support, and we must invest in making them emotionally whole and preparing them with the skills to navigate life’s current and future setbacks and hardships. This can be our gift to this generation.
Will the 2021-22 school year be a situation where the more things change, the more they stay the same? Inertia is a powerful force. But so are we. We must use the disruption of the last year-and-a-half as a platform to launch a new, more nimble, more responsive system. You want it for your child.
We have to want it for all children.
What would happen if we reoriented teaching and learning systems, expectations and experiences to put a comprehensive view of human development at the center? Envisioning Human-Centered Learning Systems describes a bold vision for education that would enable life-affirming experiences and outcomes for everyone involved in learning systems.