Events of the last year have many of us contemplating the future of public education.  This is both healthy and necessary.  A year into the pandemic, we’ve learned much about both technology and the centrality of schools in the lives of young people.  But “returning to school” or “embracing instructional technology” in a post-COVID world is a rather limiting frame for considering our work ahead. 

Before and through the pandemic, myriad and related forces were launched or rapidly gained steam, garnering attention, shifting attitudes, introducing new vocabulary, and amplifying new visions.  In concert, they help describe the fuller context for both our leadership moves and the improvement efforts we adopt.

Below are but a few of the social and educational trends it is worth considering as we contemplate the future of American public education.

Systemic Racism.  In the spring, the world watched footage of George Floyd’s murder, triggering an eruption of frustration, sadness, and confusion that crossed economic, ethnic and racial lines.  Citizens across the nation sought to learn more, engaging in town halls, enrolling in online training seminars, reading books, and demanding political action.  The works of scholars and cultural critics including Pedro Noguera, Bettina Love, Ibram X. Kendi, Isobel Wilkerson, and Ta-Nehisi Coates have captured the attention and imagination of educators.  As a result, an increasing number of communities, educators, parents and students are hungry to take action to disrupt inequities in the schoolhouse.

Portrait of a Graduate.  Schools across the nation have begun articulating a new vision for education.  Working closely with their communities, educational leaders have crafted “portraits of a graduate”.  As communities debate the purpose of education, many are in relative agreement about wanting more than students who can write and do math; they want graduates with the capability of living meaningful lives and contributing powerfully to society.  

Social-Emotional Learning.  Researchers have compiled a body of scholarship underscoring the need to support emotional development and wellbeing of young people.  Centers like the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Center for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning have elevated the prominence of a more holistic approach, providing educators, families, and students with vocabulary, frameworks and practical tools.

Pushback Against Testing.  After decades of intense state-driven accountability systems, educators, parents and students now recognize the unintended consequences of testing.  While many of the purposes of testing were laudable, the unintended consequences are well documented.  The stakes of these systems often narrowed our curriculum, created an unhealthy focus on test performance over authentic learning, incentivized short-term tactics and conservative approaches to improving instruction, and failed to provide educators feedback that could inform improvement.  While data are still necessary to inform improvement efforts and assure equitable outcomes, policymakers and practitioners are wrestling with what the future of assessment and accountability may hold. 

Deeper Learning.  Several prominent scholars, including Jal Mehta and Michael Fullan, have begun to document the superficial and disconnected learning that defines so many of our classrooms too often during the average school day.  Using brain research and descriptive profiles of more inspired classrooms, they have pointed to what is possible–inspired, creative learning that tackles the underlying structures of academic subjects.

Accelerating Learning.  The Center and several other prominent organizations, including Bellwether Education Partners and TNTP, have called for a new way of addressing the needs of students who develop “significant gaps in learning.”  It is culturally-acceptable in too many schools to approach this problem with remediation, which typically means diluting standards, lowering expectations, and increasing time students practice basic skills.  Acceleration, as an alternative, promotes significant shifts in curriculum and pedagogy to bring students into grade-level content. 

Teen Activism.  Teens, in recent years, have snatched the mantle of leadership on numerous topics, challenging the status quo and pushing for faster and more deliberate action.  From the survivors of Parkland to Greta Thunberg, high school students are no longer willing to wait for complacent adults in positions of power.  Schools are beginning to recognize this trend, and are considering how to provide students more voice and power in their educational experience. 

Media Polarization.  The range and number of media sources in America have grown exponentially over the last two decades.  With the ease of a swipe, consumers access highly-tailored news streams that affirm long-adopted world views.  We are prisoners of our own bias and social bubbles.  Moreover, news has been weaponized, the very definition of fact is in debate, and research reveals that many citizens lack the skills and discipline to discern what information is truth, opinion or outright fiction. 

Improvement Science.  Anthony Bryk and his colleagues at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching have brought to education a set of organizational practices and tools to promote disciplined continuous improvement.  Borrowed heavily from organizational development and the healthcare field, “improvement science” pushes against our unhealthy tendency to seek silver bullets and treat the symptoms while creating a path for using educators to professionalize the profession.

The Pandemic.  COVID, which caused an immediate shut down of most educational institutions back in March, starkly reminded us all of the essential work of schools.  The pandemic forced the rapid adoption of new technologies for delivering instruction, which called into question some previously unquestionable rules of schooling– structures of classrooms, daily schedules, and pedagogy.

Where to Now?
All of these forces are swirling together at this unique time, creating an opportunity for an educational rebirth–a reclaiming of the centrality of public education in our society and a reimagining of what schooling should look like. 

No offense to our new presidential administration or state leaders, but I’m pessimistic about policy’s capacity to leverage this moment.  However, I do have hope that educators and the local communities they serve can realize important shifts should they deliberately consider these various movements and ask big questions about the future of public education. 

For those who take up the mantle, I offer the following considerations:

  • It is time we reclaim education as a public good, an investment in our next generation and in our future. Education should be much more than an individual commodity-focused exclusively on employable skills.
  • It is time we embrace curricula and pedagogy that build foundational skills while simultaneously helping students develop as well-balanced and compassionate leaders who recognize the inherent interdependence of the world and are equipped to solve increasingly complex national and world problems.
  • It is time we surface the unconscious bias and call out the institutional racism in our schools while utilizing education as a means of disrupting inequity in our broader society.
  • It is time we develop the critical thinking and media literacy skills necessary to enable citizens to sort through the deluge of spin, propaganda and outright lies being peddled through certain information streams.
  • It is time that our classrooms awaken the joy and passion of students, designing rich academic tasks worthy of their time and minds. Classrooms should be motivating, energy-amplifying spaces that bring the best out of young people.
  • It is time that we create diagnostic systems that tell the full picture of how well our schools are performing for all students while providing rich and timely information that can fuel bold and continuous improvement.
  • It is time we reorganize the profession and engage teachers in leading the change we imagine for our classrooms and schools.

I recognize this is not a set of crisp policy and practice recommendations.  I wish there existed a simple lever we could pull to help us realize all of our educational aspirations.  Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work this way.  

Instead, it is time for local communities, students, educators and policymakers to come together to make this change happen.  The hard (and fun) work lies ahead.

Richard W. Lemons, EdD
Executive Director, CT Center for School Change