School’s Out for Summer

School’s out for summer
School’s out forever
School’s been blown to pieces

2020-2021. The school year like no other is complete and the question of the day is whether the pandemic changed school forever. Has the traditional model of public K-12 education that we all know and hold strong feelings about been blown to pieces?

Or expressed a little differently,

Will the disruption in schooling since March 2020 result in a Disruption in public education?

There is no question that schooling has been disrupted since March 2020 and may continue to be disrupted to some extent into the 2021-2022 school year. It remains an open question, however, whether the pandemic and other events of the past two school years will result in, or hasten, “Disruptions” in public education; that is, significant changes in the way that we conduct the business of public education.

Merely two weeks after the shutdown of schools in March 2020, I was in my first virtual meeting when a former state commissioner of education declared that education would never be the same.  Recently, my colleague Christina Schneider posted a link to a “must-read” article from the May/June 2021 edition of Principal titled Full Speed Ahead which contained the optimistic subtitle,

“The pandemic offers schools an opportunity to navigate toward an innovative, equitable educational experience.”

As an outside observer of schools and schooling, my take on the commissioner’s statement, the ideas expressed in the article, and similar sentiments I have read, heard, and seen in between the two is that they are neither expert analysis of what will happen because of the pandemic nor a prediction of what is likely to happen. Rather, they are wish lists. They reflect their author’s view, hopes, or vision of what public education should look like; that is, the changes that are needed to ensure that public education meet its lofty goals and purposes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

If you can dream it, you can do it. – Walt Disney

When asking someone what public education will look like 2, 5, or 10 years from now, it is important to understand which of the following questions they are actually answering:

  • What will public education look like?
  • What can public education look like? (in the constraint sense of the word can)
  • What should public education look like?
  • What can public education look like? (in the aspirational sense of the word can)

In my opinion, those questions are listed in increasing order of importance and in decreasing order with respect to our interest in or capacity to answer them.

The simple question of whether the events since March 2020 will cause Disruptions in public education will be answered quickly by people focused on the first two questions listed above. (Spoiler alert: They will most likely say no.)

Only people with the capacity to think about the future of public education in terms of what should be and what can be (in the aspirational sense) entertain more complex questions such as

  • What Disruptions are needed?
  • How do we increase the likelihood that Disruptions that do occur will be in areas where they are most needed? and
  • How do we increase the likelihood that they those Disruptions will have a lasting, positive impact on K-12 education?

When I hear bold proclamations that education will never be the same or read statements about the opportunities for innovation offered by the pandemic, I assume that those proclamations are being made by people with at least an interest in the latter two questions.

They are provocative people with a desire to take a proactive role in shaping the future of public education, and they view the pandemic and other disruptive forces as an opportunity for positive change. They are not people who will simply react to or allow themselves to be controlled by small-d disruptions like the pandemic.

In March 2020, we may have had a greater need for people with the ability to react quickly and effectively. In June 2021, we need the people who are proactive and who are playing the long game. Some individuals can perform adequately in both situations. There may be a few individuals who function at a very high level in both situations. I suspect that most people are better suited to one of the two. So, …

Will the disruption in schooling since March 2020 result in a Disruption in public education?

External forces which many consider to be the primary determinants of educational outcomes, to a large extent, remain intractable.

Fundamental aspects of K-12 education such as the calendar, buildings and organization, staffing, and sources of funding remain largely unchanged.

I can find a twitter-verse full of people who will cite those factors as reasons why public education will look largely the same in 2030.

And I can find universities full of people who will tell you why public education must look very different in 2030, but make no attempt to change it themselves, content with telling you why everything you’re trying won’t work.

Still, I remain a cynical optimist and optimistically cynical.

I concede that the people who believe that public education can and should look very different in 2030 and then set out to make that a reality are much harder to find than the groups mentioned above. But they are out there. Continue to look for them. And when you find them, latch onto them and don’t let go.

There have been Disruptions to K-12 education over the past several decades in what we teach and when we teach it, who we teach, and to some extent, how we teach.  Many people even argue that test-based accountability has been a major Disruption in what, who, and how we teach – for better or worse, in ways intended and unintended.

So, if a multiple-choice test can Disrupt public education, why not a global pandemic and social revolution.  However, I am fairly certain that our long term goal remains a Transformation of public education, and that will require more than a Disruption to the current system.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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