Reimagining the future of public education after COVID
New U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is absolutely right when he says we would be missing a great opportunity if our goal is to reopen our schools to look exactly like they did a year ago today, before the pandemic. Better, he says, is to ask, “What do we want our system to look like?”
While discussions around reopening schools seem centered on class size reduction and sanitation, we need to think bigger as a country. We now know education can be more flexible than we thought, and cater to different needs and preferences. For instance, charter schools have experienced enrollment increases because they adapted quickly to remote learning and offered a customized education that fit the needs of their students. They listened to parents and communities, who had varying levels of comfort about sending children back to the classroom, and figured out the logistics.
Just as the pandemic accelerated changes that were happening slowly in other parts of life, it changed education, too. We have a unique opportunity to redesign our schools to fit the needs of the future. Let’s start with five areas.
- The one-size-fits-all education model should be gone. Full-time virtual learning came with big challenges, but we’ve proven that education can happen anytime, anywhere if kids have access to laptops, Wi-Fi and an adult who can help keep them on track. States can push progress further by replacing seat-time requirements with competency-based requirements that allow students the freedom to work at their own pace, whether that means jumping ahead of their age or grade-level, or taking extra time on subjects or concepts when they need it.
- We must broaden the definition of school infrastructure to include portable technology. No topic has received more attention over the past year than the digital divide – the gap between students who have ready access to reliable internet anywhere, and those who don’t. From now on, internet and connected devices will be as essential to education as books and desks (perhaps more so). We must make sure every student has access to technology that allows them to learn in school, at home, or anywhere in between.
- Extended school closures and virtual models taught us that if parents are dissatisfied with what is offered to their children, they will make changes. Large school districts that have been slow to adapt have lost students and a record number of parents decided to home school. Some used learning pods — where parents band together to educate their children at home, often with a hired instructor. While this novel idea quickly grew in popularity, it also became another example of the inequities that beset education. Parents want and students need options beyond what is being given to them by school districts. With over $120 billion of COVID relief funding headed into PreK-12 education from the federal government, districts have an opportunity to innovate and deliver education in more equitable ways.
- Schools with more flexibility — such as charter schools — and districts like New Orleans adapted more quickly to the needs of their students. But thinking even bigger, states and school districts should give all their school-level leaders more flexibility and autonomy to pivot their instructional models and practices based on the needs of their students.
- The traditional school calendar is meaningless and could actually be harmful. Students progressed from one year to the next last fall without reliable data about whether they were prepared to do so. Now, as more schools resume in-person instruction, students will almost immediately be sent away on summer break. Borrowing again from the charter school sector, it’s time to rethink school calendars — not to have kids in school for 52 weeks a year, but, for instance, to create blocks of learning throughout the year, with breaks in between where students can catch up before falling too far behind. The ability to do distance learning well makes this more possible than ever.
State and local leaders have a historic opportunity — and a request from Sec. Cardona — to re-imagine educational delivery for the modern age. The last year has proven that educators, students and families can be resilient and adaptable and it’s given us new clarity on what students and parents want and need.
Let’s not reopen schools as if the last year never happened. Let’s leverage what we learned through the pandemic to make education permanently better for all.
Nina Rees is the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the former assistant deputy secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education.