American schools are in crisis – addled by pandemic shutdowns and growing controversies over curriculum, masks and vaccines. Many students suffered severe learning loss, and others fret for their health and safety on campus.
Worse, well before coronavirus took hold, too many students were ill-served by our K-12 school system.
As John F. Kennedy said in 1959 of the challenges facing the nation, crisis represents both danger and opportunity. So too does this moment of peril afford – and truly require – us to treat the problem as a chance to transform our schools.
If we take the moment of danger seriously, and implement real change, the disruption and damage done over the past 20 months will yield the transformation our schools desperately need.
The way we deliver education in America has barely changed in over a century. And the rigid adherence to a one-size-fits-all model of schooling has failed our students and our nation.
Low-income and marginalized students are particularly struggling. Even before the pandemic, only 35% of the nation’s fourth-grade students were proficient at reading.
This is not the fault of teachers, parents or young people. Our education system suffers from inertia and indecision. This paralysis makes change into a burden best avoided.
It doesn’t have to be.
Opinions in your inbox: Get a digest of our takes on current events every day
The nonprofit we support, Transcend, seeks to reimagine schools through partnerships with educators, school leaders and organizations so that all children can learn and realize their potential. Working with superintendents, principals and teachers in hundreds of schools across 30 states, Transcend has been listening, learning and synthesizing best practices that advance truly effective and inclusive educational models.
We have identified three key lessons to transform America’s K-12 system.
►Educate the “whole” child. To accelerate learning, schools must recommit to fostering emotionally healthy students and deep relationships. Social-emotional learning is more than a buzz phrase — it is imperative for learning and development.
Five years ago, Van Ness Elementary School in Washington, D.C., worked with Transcend to develop a whole-child model for students, especially those experiencing trauma, to shift from a survival state to the executive learning state.
This approach, integrated throughout every aspect of the school day, proved especially effective when schools shut down, providing vulnerable pupils support and structure to weather remote learning.
►Empower students to lead their own learning. When students take learning into their own hands, they cultivate self-direction, which fuels academic progress.
Last year, the change to virtual environments revealed that many students do not have skills in independent learning. Educators and families frequently reported that students failed to progress while learning online.
There are several reasons why online learning could be challenging for children, including gaps in navigating independent learning or struggling to find the content relevant. A growing body of research shows that project-based learning enables young people to make faster and more sustainable academic progress.
At Coker-Wimberly Elementary in North Carolina, students used RevX, a real-world learning model, to design and install a more inclusive playground at their school. Students researched the project and approached community partners for support. When they encountered challenges, including funding, they worked together to find solutions, which included launching a TikTok campaign.
Giving students ownership powerfully motivates further learning and sets them up for success tomorrow.
►Think outside the (classroom) box. Learning should and can happen anywhere at anytime, but traditional schooling limits it to a specified time and place – a school day in a school building.
While there are real concerns about online learning, its flexibility benefited many other students, including those with special needs and socially and economically disadvantaged students. When classes moved to online or hybrid, we saw an explosion of community learning pods.
One such model was established in South Dakota at the Lakota Oyate Homeschool Co-op, which was launched by family members worried about safety during the pandemic.
A small group of parents, grandparents and teachers formed a hybrid model approved by the Oglala Lakota County School District. The pod kept students safe and imbued a greater sense of identity and belonging.
This model should guide how we might pursue hybrid learning models, and it better reflects changes in careers and lifestyles.
While the crisis is undeniable and the dangers apparent, this moment represents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to transform the lives of millions of students. If we adopt and implement these simple lessons, our educational crisis will prove to be an unexpected and fortuitous opportunity.