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School superintendents are hearing two urgent and contradictory messages as the nation works to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re being told to help their students and systems “recover” quickly. They need to open buildings, get students and teachers in them and make up for learning loss as quickly as possible. Billions of dollars are flowing from Washington in support of these things.
At the same time, system leaders hear another message: “reinvent.” They should not return to the status quo, but instead learn from the pandemic and create new approaches that provide greater equity in learning opportunities and outcomes. Some of the federal dollars could be used for this as well.
Despite the additional resources, these two imperatives are largely contradictory. Recovery is returning to a normal state, while reinvention involves changing something to the point that it appears entirely new. School systems may be able to recover in important ways, such as addressing or at least mitigating learning loss, as they reinvent. But reinvention is a far from obvious outcome because it requires defying gravity.
Meaningful change in the schools is the challenge of our era. For, as anyone who pays attention to education data knows, schools do not work for countless students — and, most particularly, for students who are poor, of color, are non-native English speakers and/or have learning differences. Arguably, even students who do “well” in our traditional systems could be better served. One-size-fits-all schooling actually meets the needs of very few.
The difficulty of defying the gravitational pull of the status quo in order to reinvent American schooling should not be underestimated. Parts of the system date to the turn of the 20th century. “Gravity” in this case comprises the complex webs of local, state and federal policies, regulations and contractual requirements that hold many elements of our education systems firmly in place. It is also composed of mindsets. Everyone went to school, so we all think we know what “school” should look like.
Defying gravity requires acceleration and a change of trajectory. Money can be a strong accelerant, if used wisely, but altering the trajectory of school systems over time will require an additional set of investments and mindsets than those required to address learning loss. What else will superintendents and other educators need? For starters:
A clear aim: Superintendents and the communities they serve will need to be on a mission to create different learning environments and approaches for students from day one, as opposed to focusing only on helping students recoup their learning while assuming they’ll get to reinvention later.
Permission and support: Superintendents will need to work with like-minded colleagues to create the permission to think differently, time for learning and reflection, and the opportunity to learn from others engaged in similar work. Over time, these superintendents will also need the support of policymakers to disentangle and remove some of the policy complexities that reinforce the status quo.
Tools, strategies and expertise: Superintendents will need to draw on the work and learning of multiple experts who can provide perspective and support in areas such as diagnosing system strengths and needs in delivering equity for students; deep community engagement that builds a shared vision and multiple champions for reinvention; use of the science of learning and development to create educational environments that meet students’ developmental needs; and approaches to school and system design that better meet the needs of students and the educators who serve them.
Time and support to continuously improve: Reinvention won’t be quickly accomplished. It will require time for multiple cycles of trying new approaches, looking at results and making thoughtful adaptations.
Man didn’t get to the moon by aiming to build a better airplane. The goal of getting to the moon was set, and the capabilities were systematically built using multiple approaches. Superintendents won’t reinvent school systems by aiming for recovery alone. They must set a more ambitious goal and invest in the supports needed to achieve the mission.
Dr. Susan F. Lusi is president and CEO of Mass Insight, and former superintendent of schools in Providence, R.I. Rob Jentsch is managing director of school improvement of Mass Insight and a former high school teacher.