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Opinion: For Schools, No More Excuses for Business as Usual

Operational changes forced by COVID-19 proved schools can shift gears when they have to. Given all that educators have learned about the limits of one-size-fits-all instruction, now is a time for exploring alternatives.

Wooden letters spelling “reform.”
COVID-19 has proven that schools can change rapidly. While some are resisting, many educators are truly improving their school systems and the lives of their students.

As an educator and an advocate for school reform, I’ve been told by school leaders and teachers everywhere that change is hard, change takes time, and the proposed change won’t work.

But if we don’t change, our students are in trouble. The World Bank and the United Nations made headlines when they released their report last month with this headline: “Learning Losses from COVID-19 Could Cost This Generation of Students Close to $17 Trillion in Lifetime Earnings.” We already know students aren’t all on the same page with every subject. With the added effects of COVID-19, learning loss doesn’t begin to describe the magnitude of the problem children are experiencing.

That means we must change to address this tragedy.

Resistance to change leaves us with schools that don’t fully educate many of their children. Factory-model, lecture-based schools with the teacher talking from the front of the room continue to operate when we know that only a few students in each class are really ready for the day’s lesson. Some students are behind, and some are ready to give up because they fear they can never catch up. Many are severely behind because they lack the ability to read and do math at the level required by the course material. Our antiquated one-to-many, time-based model never worked very well, and it needs to change. As I’ve written before, schools that have time as the constant fail students in all senses of the word. Schools that have learning as the constant are where students, parents and teachers all win.

During this COVID-19 era, entire school systems have changed, and changed quickly. Administrators who used to plan calendars two or three years in advance were putting new schedules into place in days. Teachers rapidly learned how to do remote classes, record videos and do what was needed to help their students continue their studies. My school changed too, and we made it all work. Changing wasn’t as hard as we thought it would be. We changed in ways we never expected to. And we keep changing.

If schools can change because they have to, they can change if they want to.

This bears repeating: If schools can change because they have to, they can change if they want to.

While some schools were trying new modes of learning before COVID-19, the pandemic accelerated others on their paths to more individualized and personalized programs. Many evolved in ways that can be replicated elsewhere. Here are just a few I find very exciting and worth sharing.

As reported by a Kansas City, Mo., news channel, Kansas City Public Schools are planning for more flexible school hours, particularly for older students. KCPS Superintendent Dr. Mark Bedell said students should be able to come to school at times that meet the needs of their schedule.

“The pandemic taught us students have different needs at different times,” Bedell told KSHB-TV earlier this month. “We should be offering a flexible schedule where students can work 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. or come into school 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Maybe they are coming in a window from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. We also know that we are a 100 percent free and reduced lunch (district) and that many of our kids don’t have access to internships at the end of the school day because they have to get home and help.”

That’s real change that meets students where they are.

Two weeks ago, the Boston Globe reported that: “Across the country, there are pockets of schools and educators … who have figured out how to break the constraints of the conventional model of education. Public school pioneers in this regard include districts such as Lindsay Unified in California and Wilder School District in Idaho, district schools like Village High School in Colorado Springs and Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City, and charter schools like Map Academy in Plymouth and Altus Education in San Diego. They show how to put students in the driver’s seat and make learning flexible to meet their needs. Meanwhile, private micro-schools like the Khan Lab School and the Acton Academy network are pushing the frontiers of what this kind of education can look like. And for individual teachers who want to adopt these practices, (Kareem) Farah has created a nonprofit called the Modern Classrooms Project that helps them get the model he developed up and running in their classrooms.”

The majority of the wonderful article is about the Modern Classrooms Project, a project I’ve become very familiar with that I really like. The Modern Classrooms Project is a nonprofit organization leading a movement of educators in implementing a blended, self-paced, mastery-based instructional model that is adaptable to all classrooms. Their model is designed to support students with a high diversity of learning levels and social-emotional needs by leveraging technology to create greater personalization and connection in classrooms. The best way to see a Modern Classroom in action is to watch these incredible short Edutopia videos:

These examples show that schools can transition rapidly to better models that work in a variety of settings.

If schools can change because they have to, they can change if they want to. Let’s change them for the better.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.