Earlier this year, I mused that COVID-19 and the resulting reliance on distance learning would be a catalyst for radical innovation. We were at a precipice of change and there was an imperative to innovate. However, come fall, we’ve realized we’re a sector stretched thin.
Recently, a local reporter called me to ask which school districts took hold of the necessity-born innovations of the pandemic and translated them into transformation at scale. I didn’t have a good answer. I rambled on about Chromebooks and more kids having internet access, about school bus delays and the potential of edtech, but that’s not what she’s looking for.
Finally, I say that I can point her to a handful of schools who were already on an innovation trajectory and used the pandemic as an accelerant for change initiatives.
Much like the K-shaped recovery economists have been tracking, our education recovery will follow a similar form. While private schools saw limited interruptions, some stable, public school districts have used the catalyst of the pandemic to progress personalized learning initiatives and implement more experimental curricula. Increasingly, however, more public schools are struggling with bare necessities—extreme shortages of bus drivers, food service delivery, and substitute teachers. These operational obstacles are now bleeding over to disrupt instruction.
It’s hard to radically innovate without basic needs being met.
At a recent baby shower for a local education leader, attended by principals and teachers, conversations quickly turned to the challenges of the new school year. One teacher poignantly summarized the themes of returning to school this fall as “grief, pressure and connection.”
In Kansas City, where most of the partner schools my organization works with are based, we’ve endured record breaking school violence over the last two years. Two principals talk about losing multiple students only 6 weeks into the school year, while also needing to deploy active shooter drills. In a year characterized by so much loss, our schools are struggling to cope with staggering grief.
Then there’s the pressure to hold it all together. Despite the bus driver/food service/substitute shortages, despite the grief, the pressure of demonstrating academic gains against learning loss is real. Schools are deploying large amounts in ESSER funds to support high dosage tutoring programs and personalized interventions, geared at targeting the wide array of learning experiences felt by students over the last two academic years. Meanwhile, rolling outbreaks of COVID-19 are quarantining whole classrooms and grade-levels. Many schools have abandoned their hybrid/distance learning models, leaving students to fend for themselves if exposed. How do we accelerate student learning under such inconsistent conditions?
Finally—after all the months of isolation, our students and educators are longing for connection. After months of formless days, teachers and students are struggling to re-adapt to the structured increments of classroom life, perhaps never well suited for the complexity of feelings entering the classroom. My 6-year-old nephew (who spent his kindergarten year being homeschooled via distance learning by my mother) puts it well… “after all this time, when do we just get to play?” he asked. How do our educators and students find time to process, heal, adapt and reconnect?
Balancing Progress With Compassion
At the end of the conversation with the journalist, she asked, “So what do we do next?” I’m not sure the right answer. What I know is this—the whole-scale disruptive innovation we were thinking might happen in the education sector didn’t arrive this fall. Instead, we’re facing a system whose thread-bare infrastructure has become painfully obvious. We need to make teaching more sustainable. We need reliable infrastructure that transports and feeds children consistently and safely. We need ways to facilitate more authentic human connections.
Likely, we need an industry reckoning. More equitable, flexible and sustainable state funding formulas for schools can allow teachers to support the complex issues that are entering their classrooms. We need policy reform that weighs the social-emotional well being of children and their academic growth equally with their overall academic achievement. We need to invest in research and development so that we can find, vet and scale technology solutions that make students, parents and educators lives easier.
And how we study these solutions is key. It’s critical that the process of innovation is inclusive and builds upon the expertise and lived experience of educators, students, and parents. At my organization, LeanLab Education, we focus on measuring and improving education technology products. The school communities we work with tell us their biggest challenges, we match them with an edtech product, and all three of us—researchers, developers, and educators—design a bespoke research study that’s adaptive to the school’s context and gives educators the evidence they need to make informed decisions.
This kind of co-designed innovation may not be as fast as we would like. It’s a process that shifts power back to educators, parents, and students. It can be less “efficient” than top-down reforms but in order for innovation to be truly sustainable, it needs to incorporate the expertise of those with lived experience. In this moment, we’re all trying to balance progress and compassion but we’ve learned that these goals are not at odds, they work in harmony. In fact, the only way that we can progress, right now, is through compassion.