As schools and districts grapple with how broadly, and how quickly, to reopen buildings following COVID-19 closures, they face increased uncertainty about current decisions and efforts to shape the future of learning. The United States’ reckoning with racial justice has also altered the landscape in which leaders at all levels – from classrooms to buildings to districts to communities to states to the Federal government – are exploring how to meet learners’ needs. It has foregrounded the role of schools and education systems in perpetrating and reproducing systems of oppression.
To help education leaders and other stakeholders navigate the current climate, KnowledgeWorks’ Education in the Balance: Tensions Affecting Education’s Futures identifies three key issues that need attention: leadership focus, contested power and strained systems.
When exploring these issues in an informal conversation, some of our staff raised the points described below. Within them lie both complication and opportunity.
- In the push to reopen, many districts are not examining the reality that their underlying models are not conducive to supporting every learner well.
- Due to COVID-19, systemic racism and other factors, more and more families have been moving among or leaving public school districts. Such shifts will have long-term effects and broad impacts, including the potential for increased inequity.
- The expanded use of digital platforms to access forums such as school board meetings has broadened participation. There is opportunity to address socio-economic barriers by continuing to enable relatively inclusive conversations in this and other ways.
- Recent disruptions to learning have awakened interest in personalized, competency-based learning and other approaches that can support learners in customized and flexible ways. As people reevaluate what they want for their futures and for learning systems, we need to push ourselves to think systemically, to challenge the assumptions built into the ways we approach education and to consider levers of change beyond schools and school districts. (For example, Education Reimagined is exploring ways of leveraging community assets for learning.)
- As we challenge our assumptions about how education works, we need to acknowledge that people can succeed in school and life without some of the things that education systems typically say are important. When considering together what types of schools and communities we want to have, we can reimagine success and unpack what really needs to appear on transcripts.
- Exploration of future possibilities for learning should be shared broadly because many people will be affected by them. We need to be intentional in creating inclusive spaces for exploration, widening participation beyond the usual stakeholders and lowering the barriers to entry.
The critical tensions affecting education’s futures exist at different levels: leadership, community and systems. Every level offers opportunities to intervene toward the futures of learning we would like to see. Stakeholders need to grapple with emerging issues together to identify the best places to start.