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Guest ContributorFeb 6, 2021 10:40:00 AM4 min read

A crisis in education or an opportunity for innovation?

There’s always a crisis in education. Covid-19 is the most recent and most significant, and it has challenged our education system in innumerable ways.

But before the pandemic, there were already various challenges, both urgent and ongoing―the digital divide, lack of access in rural areas, weather-related disruptions, overcrowded classrooms, understaffed school buildings, bullying, and many more.

While most educators and students nationwide have experienced a trial-by-fire with online learning over the past several months, this didn’t need to be the case. Online learning is a quarter century old. It isn’t new to America―it’s simply new to most Americans. Schools nationwide have been navigating through crisis schooling during the pandemic, and trying to determine how to evolve to effective remote learning, but the urgency of the crises listed above indicates that the “future”―that exciting time when we’re living in a technology-driven, truly innovative world of learning―not only needs to be now, but given that these problems aren’t new, sadly, the future should have been then.

The pandemic has exposed many flaws in the traditional K-12 education system, most of which we knew existed but didn’t expect to be tested to quite this extent. However, because of the forced nature of change and widespread introduction to online learning, it has also illustrated areas of opportunity. For example, new survey commissioned by the National Parents Union showed that more than six in 10 parents want schools to focus on finding new ways to teach, rather than just going back to the way things were pre-pandemic. There’s an appetite not only for high-quality distance learning now―when it’s an obvious necessity―but also for a greater variety of remote options as a rule moving forward.

Recent developments in school districts clearly demonstrate the importance of a long-term, sustainable plan for resilient schools―schools that integrate flexible instructional options, with the ability to adapt to, or even anticipate, changing circumstances. New York City received the most attention when its schools returned to remote after reopening, but districts nationwide are facing the same reality.

Making the right decisions regarding health and safety shouldn’t be antagonistic toward―or frankly even related to―the decisions that are made about high-quality, equitable instruction. It’s only when our educational system hasn’t put in the time for intentional planning around seamless learning success in any environment that these factors work in opposition to one another. A recent survey conducted by EdisonLearning, of parents whose children have participated in online schooling since long before Covid-19, gives an indication of the way these decisions could work―these parents from the state of Florida overwhelmingly supported remote schooling to begin the 2020-21 year rather than rushing back to school. Despite being in a state where that may have been a minority opinion, they had seen the promise and potential of virtual learning done right and could confidently make their decision based on safety first.

As I reflect on the past two decades of U.S. education and its relationship to the significant challenges we’re all seeing today, these are three takeaways all leaders across our K-12 system must understand:

Schooling is a verb, not a noun

School buildings in the U.S. are community hubs that serve countless important uses, and this shouldn’t be discounted. But they don’t have a monopoly on teaching and learning. Schooling is the action we take to ensure every child reaches his or her unbounded potential.

This is important in many ways, but just to illustrate with one data point: Nearly half of rural school districts have no students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. Despite this divide, technology can be the bridge to access.  With online options, students anywhere can pursue the coursework they want and need without once-insurmountable barriers.

Online learning expands opportunity for all

Since 2016, Future of School has given away scholarships to hundreds of students for whom blended and online courses were a major part of their high school experience, and those winners have identified over 50 different reasons why they chose to diversify their educational pathways. From overcoming bullying or wanting to take a wider breadth of classes, to opening up their schedule to complete an internship or compete in an elite sports program, the reasons are as unique as students themselves. More flexible options create better opportunities for each student to pursue their goals.

Proper planning puts an end to preventable crises

We know the promise, but we can’t succeed without planning. In a recent Future of School study, we found that only one out of 10 teachers felt comfortable integrating high-touch technology in their instruction, but the majority were interested in learning how to improve. Beginning with training at the leadership levels and a culture that supports new ways of teaching and learning, the K-12 system in the U.S. must ensure professional development is focused on preparing all educators to succeed seamlessly in any instructional environment.

In every way, this is a difficult time for our country, and the education system has been no exception. But with the right perspective, we have an opportunity to turn current difficulties into a better plan for a brighter future. It begins with a refusal to let “crisis mode” be the default and instead transitioning to a flexible, everywhere style of schooling.

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