Throughout 2020, flexibility was a mantra in K-12 education as schools and districts responded to a highly volatile situation from the COVID pandemic. It turns out parents and students wholeheartedly want options. The new Biden administration and new Congress should ensure flexibility is a beacon for their education policymaking in 2021.
Last year, public and private K-12 school leaders urgently oriented classrooms to foster learning environments that are effective yet safe. They prioritized what subjects to emphasize, organized rigorous online instruction, timed interactions to the minute, and toggled among those demands on the fly.
But it’s parents and students — as much as the professionals — who have shown surprising resiliency in adapting their expectations, experiences and schooling decisions since last March.
My wife and I have two elementary-age daughters who receive special education services through individualized education programs (IEPs). Our pre-pandemic experiences have led us to have high expectations for our girls’ learning and development in school.
Like everyone else, the pandemic and lockdowns in the spring turned our lives upside down, causing us to adjust on the fly. Remote learning was challenging, especially those first few weeks when so much was unknown. But our teachers, therapists, and school district did an admirable job in a dynamic situation. This taught us to hold reasonable expectations while maintaining a reservoir of patience and renewable grace.
Juxtaposed with our personal experience is my day job overseeing regular polling of school parents, teachers and the public. The polls show American parents’ experiences, needs, and priorities are diverse and wide-ranging — lessons that education policymakers must better understand.
What have these two experiences taught me?
First, we have never before had a situation that put more questions about education in parents’ minds or challenged their expectations. With so many unknowns, how do we adapt to what is best for our kids’ learning? How can our routines and the coordination of schooling and other activities become more manageable and flexible? We are in a period of serious adversity in K-12 education – how can we build more trust and ties to one another and our education providers?
Surveys conducted by a number of organizations in recent months show how these questions are weighing on Americans in K-12 education right now, and how they are acting in response.
In our recent polling, nearly one out of five surveyed parents report they are participating in a learning pod with other families. Another 19 percent are looking for one. One-fourth of pod participants are pursuing this kind of education as replacement for conventional schooling. And we estimate the other 75 percent of parents are using pods to supplement regular schooling. That group — right now typically with younger children, higher income, more urban, enrolled in private or charter schools — says pods will help students keep up with learning and help socialization. Nearly half of parents (49 percent) say they are likely to seek out tutoring this year. When polling teachers on pods and tutoring, 62 percent expressed interest in teaching in a learning pod; nearly the same proportion say they are likely to seek tutoring opportunities outside of school hours.
Second, parents want options. While the national discourse over reopening schools during the pandemic has become politicized, polling consistently shows that that no one option — remote, in-person or hybrid — is a dominant preference. Even more, parents continue to express a wide range of preferences, with substantial groups preferring public district school, private school, homeschool or public charter school. There is no one way to school on which all parents agree.
Third, parents’ and children’s adaptability and resiliency in this crisis — and their willingness to try different education models — could be long-term positive outcomes. We can gauge parents’ experiences and satisfaction levels. In our poll last month, 72 percent of parents felt their children were progressing well academically so far this school year. Similar encouraging numbers emerged for parents’ assessment of their students’ social development (66 percent) and emotional development (71 percent).
This is not the message that you often hear, but it shows up in the data.
It’s hard to say why this is happening. But without the pandemic pushing families into new situations, they may never have tried any of these different modes for student learning and development. Parents and students who have taken the plunge in recent months might realize the water feels good in another pool.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Families in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and North Carolina using choice-based scholarship programs or education savings accounts express high levels of involvement and satisfaction.
Parents, teachers and children have adapted to new situations quickly. As families and educators adjust to unpredictable learning environments, policymakers are in catch-up mode. COVID-19’s educational, social, and emotional impacts demonstrate for all of us that education-related public policies must be more responsive and flexible across the nation.
With President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Jayapal says tuition-free community college 'probably won't' be in spending plan Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt MORE likely to bring changes to federal education policy and national priorities, his administration — including proposed nominee for Secretary of Education Miguel CardonaMiguel CardonaPresident, first lady honor teachers at White House awards ceremony Ilhan Omar to Biden: 'Deliver on your promise to cancel student debt' Florida Board of Education approves sanctions on eight school districts over coronavirus mandates MORE, Connecticut’s education commissioner — should consider the experiences parents and students have had over the past 10 months. Elected officials and public policy adapting to meet this moment would be a positive outcome amidst an otherwise challenging pandemic era.
Paul DiPerna is vice president of research and innovation at EdChoice, a national nonprofit that promotes state-based educational choice programs.