The New Normal

For many educational leaders during this pandemic there is no time to think about the future. The imperative for now is the struggle to meet the immediate needs for remote learning as we struggle through the COVID-19 crisis. However, planning for the future is one of the most critical needs during this time. Coronavirus has undermined our entire educational system. We are not meeting the needs of many students. Learners across the country (and world) cannot access necessary resources. Many students are falling behind and they will fall further and further behind as the crisis continues. Public policy has to be adjusted to meet this new reality. Systems need to be reexamined. This is actually the time to think about how we deliver, schedule, and assess learning in a K-20 world. To help me better frame these problems, I enlisted the help of some colleagues. I used some guiding questions and insights from KnowledgeWorks, research and findings from the RAND Corporation, examples of best practices from the Montour School District, and some of my own research with a focus on the Lindsay Unified Schools in California.

Setting the Stage

The past few years have seen a resurgence around the Whole Child Approach. During the era of No Child Left Behind, K-12 educational systems focused on the academic performance of students. Many educators realized that other factors were necessary before they could think about academic proficiency . Today research from people like Laura Hamilton from the Rand Corporation, provide wonderful evidence of what is necessary for student success. As part of the New Normal we need to focus more on relationships. According to Laura Hamilton, “Research demonstrates the value of developing these skills for short- and long-term academic achievement and other outcomes such as college enrollment and health. Moreover, research strongly indicates the need for students to feel safe and supported in order to learn. High-quality relationships — between staff and students, among students and among staff — are crucial for this development.”

For the Montour School District it’s the relationships that start the process. According to Justin Aglio, the Direction of Innovation K-12 and Academic Achievement K-4, we need to focus on the “Who” during this time of the Coronavirus. Each morning students in K-4 begin their day with the Morning Announcements, an asynchronous version of what they had shown in their pre-pandemic classrooms. Justin and his team realized that they had to transform the Morning Announcements in order to engage their remote learners and make all students feel connected. Students need to know that their teachers and administrators care about them.  For instance, to start the remote learning project, students submitted photos of their favorite toys. The administrative team created a webpage to showcase the student responses. The morning announcements now are often more humorous or include national personalities, like Mark Cuban, who challenge the kids to come up with the most innovative ways to solve problems in their homes and life away from school. What’s critical is to get students to see that the New Normal still has elements of the past, especially the importance of the social and emotional elements that are the building blocks for learning. We need to make sure we start with the Who, the building block for developing a strong relationship between the learner and the educational community.

Yet, we also need to make some changes in how we think about learning. At districts like Montour or Lindsay Unified in California the transition to meeting the needs of individual learners didn’t start with the Coronavirus. Both districts enlisted their communities to define what should be their vision and their future with a focus on what they expected for each graduating student. Both districts also started down a path to Personalized Learning years ago. Students took ownership for their own learning. That’s the key for success. Once students see themselves as self-directed learners, they are ready to handle the uncertainty and challenges of times like we’re facing with the Coronavirus. At Montour every secondary student had a Personalized Learning Time (PLT) before the pandemic. Each student worked out their own schedule for how to use their daily PLT.

At Lindsay Unified all students were involved in a Performance Based System (PBS) that established a system of skills and dispositions that allowed students to continue on their path during the transition to the Coronavirus. Learners no longer advance through the system because of age or grade-level, rather, they are met at their developmental level and progress through required learning based on performance.

Thinking about the Future

For many school districts there was little planning and preparation for remote learning. However, for districts like Montour or Lindsay Unified in California, the move to remote learning was much easier since they had already put in place a Mission, Vision, Shared Values, and an instructional approach that incorporated Personalized Learning. They had looked at their future and made key institutional decisions that provided a framework for the transition to the New Normal. As part of a conversation with Jason Swanson from KnowledgeWorks, I discussed what should be the question for today. Here’s what we agreed upon: What Do You Want from the Future?

It’s no longer about Career and College Readiness. It’s really about making each day meaningful for every learner. Justin Aglio pointed out that we must prepare kids for each day’s challenge.

However, there are some major considerations about financing and the future of our educational institutions. Justin Aglio shared that his administrative team expects to see a 25% reduction in revenue for the coming year. Many businesses will not be able to contribute to the local economy. People may not be able to pay their real estate taxes. This will lead to a new set of questions about the priorities for expenditures. Will schools have the funds to purchase new equipment, new resources for the New Normal? Will schools be able to afford their current staffing?

In addition, schools have a new opportunity to think about how they deliver instruction, how they schedule learning activities, and how they evaluate student learning. Online learning will be part of our future. How do we make sure our educational staff is transforming the learning process using the best tools and resources? This will require many schools to think about online professional development. But if we don’t go back to the basic question looking at what we want for our Future, we will just automate existing processes and delivery systems. We won’t be ready for the New Normal where many of basic assumptions and archaic systems are in jeopardy.

What should be the best organizational structure for learning? It’s imperative that parents, students, educators and administrators sit down and examine the reality of the New Normal. This also includes how we think about demonstrating students’ understanding. For many districts ePortfolios were already part of the process. The New Normal will mandate not only digital means to share what students have learned, but new systems, like Blockchain, in order to share that information with post-secondary institutions and employers.

For schools to meet the challenges of the New Normal, here are four key questions to consider:

  • What Do You Want from the Future?
  • In what ways can we begin to change our learning institutions to better meet the needs of all learners?
  • In what ways do learners and the broader community think working will be different in the future? How might those changes impact learners’ aspirations?
  • In what ways can educational technology play a role in the post COVID-19 world?
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