What Should Schools Look Like Next Fall

What's In An Anniversary

525,600 minutes. And counting.

It's been over one year since the pandemic shuttered schools across America.

Terms that were commonplace in my world are now, for unfortunate reasons, in the popular lexicon. Hybrid learning. Synchronous and asynchronous. Virtual. Microschools.

You all have followed my own journey through one of those buzz phrases—“pandemic pods.” Here’s my final installment about our own journey, for the time being anyway.

Although pods have had their challenges, their beauty raises the sorts of things I wish more people were talking about: personalizing learning for each child; mastery or competency-based learning; active learning; relationships; agency and executive function.

There are some highlights across the country of course—schools and districts that are taking this tragic pause in traditional schooling to ask what might be. From my vantage point, however, they still seem to be the exception, not the rule.

In this piece for Education Next, I discussed the data that shows how, in my view, most schools have squandered the move to virtual learning and the broader opportunities for innovation it offers. But there are notable exceptions. I interviewed the CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Eric Gordon, and left impressed with how the community is embracing learning pods to provide students greater supports and how they are seeking to accelerate their move to competency-based learning.

In this Class Disrupted podcast, Diane Tavenner and I dissected three hot-button topics: end-of-year tests, “learning loss,” and the controversy around the CDC’s guidance on reopening schools. I learned a lot from Diane’s responses throughout the episode, but I want to highlight one aspect that I think is important. In the conversation around combating learning loss, people are throwing out all sorts of ideas: from redshirting every student to having more summer school. But many of the ideas suffer from something in common. They would have students just do more of the traditional schooling experience that was already failing so many. Doing the exact same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. As Diane said, we should be focused on changing the system itself: personalizing learning for each child, understanding what they need through one-on-one conversations, moving to mastery-based learning, and the like.

Diane and I followed that podcast up with another this week that highlights five things schools should start planning now to have in place by the fall.

Along these lines, there was a bright spot last week worth highlighting. A new study from two experimental trials in Chicago further showed the power of tutoring, as the authors found that 9th and 10th graders saw huge improvements with “course failures reduced by as much as 49 percent.” What’s more were that the tutors were not deep experts; they were recent college graduates without teaching credentials. Finally, also of interest is that the authors, according to this article in The 74, “didn’t find a strong correlation between fewer disruptions and larger academic improvements. Instead, they argue in favor of an alternative theory — that working with just two students allows each tutor to personalize instruction much more than a teacher, working with as many as 30 teenagers, is able to do.”

That’s something worth discussing more widely.

What’s next in higher education

Although the above conversation focuses on what will happen in K–12 schools, what higher education should look like after the pandemic is an equally important conversation.

In our latest episode of Future U, Mark Becker, the outgoing president of Georgia State University, which has been a leader in the student success movement, talked about what institutions need to do to improve the student experience in the decade ahead. One thing that stuck with me is Becker’s advice to college presidents: don’t pull back on innovation. Unless your institution has a strong, differentiated value proposition, most colleges and universities can’t afford to back away from innovating, he said. Listen to the full conversation here.

In line with that, Commonwealth magazine published a special article with 13 views on how the pandemic will shape the future. I authored the part on the future of higher education, and concluded that “When it comes to the long-term impact of the pandemic on higher education, the rich institutions will be fine, the poor are even further threatened, and the innovators who have been calling for change will have some added wind at their backs.” Check out the full piece here.

Finally, I wrote a while back about why the nation shouldn’t pin its reskilling hopes on community colleges. In response, several of you accepted my premise, but asked what advice would I have to a community college to overcome the structural underpinnings that hold them back.

Here’s my first attempt at an answer in this piece for Forbes: “Community Colleges Don’t Get Great Outcomes Today; Here Are Three Steps They Can Take To Change That.” Although I remain skeptical that most community colleges will be able to pull off what I recommend—and I remain more bullish on programs like Duet and its partnership with Southern New Hampshire University that serve a similar population as community colleges but offer a significantly better return on investment for individual students and taxpayers—I look forward to your thoughts. Given that community colleges will be on the receiving end of more support over at least the next four years, it’s critical that we do our best to make that support benefit students.