How Public Schools Can Grow Stronger out of Strained Systems

Topics: Education Policy, Future of Learning, Overcoming Challenges, Systems Change

Like any longstanding institution, public schools have seen a lot. Generations of students have continued to learn in classrooms regardless of the world outside. Wars, natural disasters, societal changes, underfunding and new technologies have not managed to keep the majority of young people from showing up to schools to learn alongside their communities. And yet, when COVID-19 became a global pandemic in March of 2020, it presented an unprecedented reality: People need to stay home, and schools can’t operate the way they always have.

How did COVID-19 disrupt and strain the public education system?

In response, families have been quietly pulling their children out of their neighborhood school in search of alternatives such as private schools, effective virtual schools, in-person micro schools and home schooling. According to the Census Bureau, 11.1% of households are homeschooling their children, a jump from 5.6% prior to the pandemic. This change represents a doubling of US households that were homeschooling at the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

While public educators are hopeful their students return as school returns to “normal,” the reality is that many have found new options more appealing, leaving the public school system to fend for itself without the per-pupil-revenue they once received to serve those students. This trend could severely impact the long-term financial security of the nation’s public school system.

Public schools are feeling the strain of a shock to a system that is unable to withstand shock, so what tensions will they be facing? Learn more with “Education in the Balance.”
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This trend has been unfolding at Lillian’s daughters’ elementary school, which remained virtual for a full year (March 2020-2021) and is currently operating under a constrained hybrid model with students in person twice a week. Their student population has dropped by a hundred students during this disruption as word spread of other options in the community. Some families chose to pay for neighboring private schools while others fought for coveted spots at local Montessori or nature-inspired micro schools where the curriculum was already designed around outdoor learning. Many families of younger students attempted to keep their kids engaged in virtual options, only to pull them mid-year for home schooling approaches that appeared to be working well for others. Their school has announced a plan to return to five days a week in the Fall, but no conversations are underway about how to reimagine the learning experience to make up for this past year. We worry we will see this trend continue.

And while it’s completely understandable that families are seeking solutions to meet health and safety needs, questions arise around what this means for public schools’ ability to maintain their status as a pillar of our democratic society. If families no longer trust or see the need for students to be together in schools, what does this mean for socialization, mutual understanding, civic engagement, collaboration, fighting discrimination and other learnings that come from being with others outside your home? With lower enrollment, schools battle with decreased funds and turn to cost-cutting that can undermine the quality of teaching and learning. It’s almost as if the lack of quality and resourced schools becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fortunately, we can stop this trend with a deep commitment from policymakers, educators and community leaders to reimagine the public school experience. Thanks to multiple federal stimulus packages, our education system has a cushion to help minimize the impact of these financial challenges. But this cushion is temporary, and the timeline has started for families seeking solutions this Fall.

How can policymakers help revitalize public schools?

Policymakers must act quickly to adopt policy conditions that will enable local leaders to design personalized and dynamic learning communities. They need to revisit the emergency policy waivers they passed last Spring to give school systems much needed flexibility and consider how to these waivers might evolve into permanent student-centered solutions. As detailed in the U.S. Department of Education’s recent handbook for COVID recovery, educators should be looking to accelerate learning instead of tracking or remediation. Specifically, they should be thinking differently about grades, use of time and how educators collaborate.

They also need to empower the education workforce to embrace new teaching roles and develop new skills that will be essential in next generation learning environments. And lastly, they need to support the design of a transparent learning framework that enables students to master personalized and rigorous competency-based pathways that ensure success in college and career.

Public education has endured a lot. But given just how rapidly society has been changing and just how much funding schools need to prosper, public school systems have had to be reactive rather than proactive. We can help protect and improve the public school system by investing in it, by advocating for its future to be one that’s personalized, human-centered and producing more equitable outcomes for our students. If we can fight for public school systems to be a pillar of our democracy, then we can re-engage families who have lost their faith in public schools’ ability to be a foundation of our communities. And we can once again find our local school’s classroom full of all sorts of students, together.

This was co-written with Rita Pello, former manager of communications for KnowledgeWorks.

We created a guidance to help education policymakers and stakeholders take short- and long-term action to create resilient, equitable education systems. Download Restoring Hope and Seizing Opportunity in the Face of Crisis: State Guidance for Building Resilient and Equitable Education Systems.