Marching Backwards Into the Future…

Intro… This is the most unusual piece I’ve posted since I began this blog.  It actually began as a simple post about the implications of our approaches to restarting schooling in the time of COVID and our apparent inability to find a national consensus around what’s good for society. 

During the time that I was writing and editing, I found myself reading an increasing number articles reporting the growing suspension of in-person and the growing dissatisfaction by parents and teachers with the various iterations of hybrid instruction.  

On of the pieces I encountered that provided an exceptional description of the our current reality and the challenges we face moving to a post-COVID system of education is an article written by Erike Christakis and published recently in The Atlantic entitled “School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID Either” here.  I have found nothing better to explain the need avoid the seduction of a “return to normal”. I urge you to read it.  

And so, armed with the growing disenchantment by educators, families, and policy makers with the various forms of remote instruction, I decided to resurrect and update a piece from late last Spring about alternatives to simply transitioning from the various full and partial remote approaches back to schooling as we knew it pre-COVID.  The current situation seemed to demand a more detailed exploration and description of options that have been conspicuously absent from our conversations about “what’s next”. 

Voila… the need for a more detailed piece… too long for a single post and now offered as a two part essay.   The second piece will offer a proposal  for moving beyond a simple return to the past.  I hope you’ll stay with me for Part 2.  It will be posted within two days of this piece.  Be well.

One of my habits is to begin the day with a scan of the news (a sure fire way to insure that I will not suffer from any undue bouts of optimism).  Giving into the internet age, I use a news aggregator app called Flipboard to organize articles from a variety of sources.  The algorithm used by Flipboard offers me more pieces in areas that I seem to read most frequently… no surprise that my options includes a large number of articles focused on education in the time the pandemic.

What has become clear from the many articles that I’ve read?  Without a doubt both my own memory and the articles that I read reveal that this is the single most challenging time for teachers, schools leaders, and students that any of us have experienced.  The challenges reported on daily basis make our experiences implementing the so-called reforms of the past 30+ years seem like a walk in the park.

Never before have educators students and their families been placed in such stressful and challenging times.  Never before have we been faced with decisions (on an almost daily basis) that have life and death consequences.  Anyone involved in the education of our young people longs for the familiarity and comfort of the “normal”.  

If we are teachers we long for the comfort of lesson plans, fixed curriculum, having all of our kids in the classroom with us.  Instead we are faced with the very real possibility that whatever the instruction design of our school was today, it might be totally different tomorrow, whoever was with us in class today might be scheduled for remote learning tomorrow.

If we are parents, we long for the routine around getting our kids on the school bus, having fixed and predictable schedules for work and home, having schools lives and home lives organized around neat, tidy schedules. Instead we are faced with learning new terms like “Zoom”, recalling what we wished we had learned about math, juggling schedules so that each kid has needed computer time and access.  

If you’re a kid, the time you enjoyed the most, your social interactions with friends, has been taken from you.  You have no idea if you’ll have sports teams or extracurricular activities. You hear how, the remote or hybrid learning options you won’t be prepared for the next level of your classes.  Instead more and more students are learning that their schools are being closed to any form of in-person learning.  They’re told that seeing our friends outside of school is considered a risk.  They have no idea how college applications will be processed or what will happen to their plans after high school. 

Prior to COVID, a growing number of educators were beginning to realize that our system of schooling (largely unchanged in over 100 years) was not meeting the needs of far too many of our young people.  This created an entire industry around the conversion of schools to a business model of operation.  Free-market options (choice, charters, vouchers) were promoted as “the” answer. Concurrent with the proliferation of these “solutions” we learned that we “needed” more rigorous and common standards, accompanied by the the promotion of large scale (and very expensive) assessments and the use of data analytics.  The winners in this age of reform?  Publishers, tech companies and assessments businesses.  Who were conspicuously absent in benefiting from these “reforms”?  Students and teachers!  

At a time when we should be helping our kids and ourselves learn how to learn, learn how to do and, perhaps most importantly, learn how to be, we’ve seen the landscape of education dominated test scores, growing opportunity gaps, siloed instruction, declining access to higher education and drastic increases in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, depression and suicide with only sporadic inclusion of social-emotional learning experiences. 

In the aforementioned essay which, “School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID Either”. Erika Christakis provides an excellent summary of the ways in which pre-COVID schooling was ignoring the advances in neuroscience and has been focusing increasing attention on the need to raise student scores on federally mandated large-scale assessments. 

“Experts across the educational and ideological spectrums agree that a curriculum rich in literature, civics, history, and the arts is essential for strong reading, critical-thinking, and writing skills. But schools have—quite irrationally—abandoned this breadth in favor of stripped-down programs focused on narrow testing metrics. Five years after the shift to high-stakes testing under the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed in 2002, a survey of a national sample of school districts found that nearly two-thirds of school districts had dramatically increased language-arts or math time while almost half had reduced time spent on social studies, science, art, music, physical education, lunch, or recess. “Special” classes, such as music—as well as periods like recess, physical education, and even lunch—provide children with important opportunities for emotional growth and independent learning. For many children, they are what make school bearable.”

And so here we are…. Caught in longing for the familiar …Longing to return to a system of schooling that was increasingly recognized as in its dying stage. Here we are…marching backwards into the future.   

For almost 15 years I worked with schools and school systems around the country that had been  labeled as “troubled” or “failing”.  The beginning of our support process involved interviews with students, teachers, administrators an, sometimes, parents.  These interviews had, with very few exceptions, one theme in common… the analysis of their struggles were almost always “other directed”… if only the parents were more involved, if only the students would work harder, if only the administrators/teachers/local board of education would do their job…  

The acceptance of the notion that meaningful change would begin with an honest effort to look inwards was rarely the initial explanation for their problems or the direction for needed change.  In that context what you will encounter in part two of this piece is based on a willingness to begin with a look inwards… a look at the things we can actually control.  The proposed course of action is built upon a growing  readiness of the need for something more than simply a return to what was.

A call to action

We have no idea when COVID will end.  We have no idea what life will be like when it does. We are unbelievably stressed.  We long to once again resume our backwards march into an unknown future.  But there can/will be no return to normal.  

So here is our call to action.. our focus for Part 2.  What would happen if we chose not to return to normal? What would happen if we imagined learning differently than what was? Would schools look and act like schools?  Would content still be organized in discrete silos with little connection to other knowledge or to the way things really work? What might be different?  What could be different? What should be different?

Our call to action is a call to ask and answer the questions… 

“What Really Matters?

“What Would Happen If?” 

See you soon 

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