While 2020 has brought immense challenges, these challenges have the potential to spark innovative solutions in education.
In October, a tweet from Travon Free, an American comedian who has written for The Daily Show and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, turned my thoughts to the possible lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on American education. He tweeted: “We're never returning to normal. We're building something new.”
Although many talk about getting back to “normal,” do we actually want to go back to where we were? The pandemic has illuminated many simmering issues and laid bare inequities and other problems in American education.
Restructuring Education Formats
In a 2010 TED Talk (made into an engaging video by RSA Animate), the late Sir Ken Robinson discussed the disconnection between traditional education paradigms and the societal needs of the 21st century. Because many education systems were designed to support the commerce brought on by the Industrial Revolution, he said, schools traditionally include many factory-like aspects: strict schedules, ringing bells, students taught in “batches,” and separated subjects. Robinson argues that these structures limit the creativity and potential of many students.
As COVID-19 concerns upended typical learning structures, districts across the country employed myriad different learning models, many of which include virtual learning at least part of the time. Though the implementation of widespread virtual learning has been challenging for many stakeholders, many experts expect that as we move beyond the pandemic, districts will need to continue to offer virtual options for some families. Some students have found the autonomy and flexibility of online learning beneficial, and the rapid shift in delivery of lessons has allowed greater consideration of student-focused and individualized options for learning. In short, the disruption of the education status quo in 2020 has provided an opportunity to ask questions such as
What works best for different students, and what resources do we need to move beyond traditional approaches?
How can we best offer opportunities designed for students’ varied needs and abilities?
Those in the education policy world know well the vast inequities between districts, states, and student groups. However, the pandemic brought many of these imbalances into sharp relief for many more people. As districts across the country struggled with immediate shifts to virtual learning or hybrid structures due to pandemic shutdowns in spring 2020, less affluent districts had the additional burden of limited resources to respond to the crisis. In addition, many students did not have the technological capabilities or internet access required for virtual learning. Families with multiple children (and in some cases, parents working remotely) have struggled to meet the requirements of online classes and assignments without adequate tools. As the pandemic makes it likely that virtual learning will continue in many locations through the spring 2021 semester, the impacts of these inequities will only increase.
Many education policy experts highlighted public school funding structures as a major cause of these inequities long before the pandemic. On average, local funding accounts for 45 percent of overall funding, with state funding averaging 47 percent and federal funding 8 percent. The main source of local funding is property taxes, which means that districts with lower property values and fewer affluent businesses receive less than wealthier districts. Though state funding formulas often direct targeted funding to poorer districts, it is rarely enough to balance the inequities. With the pandemic making these imbalances impossible to ignore, we are offered an opportunity to reevaluate. Rather than continuing with a broken funding system, we have the opportunity to ask:
How can we disrupt traditional formulas and make changes that could ensure equity and fairness to all students, regardless of their location or background?
How should we frame this message for legislators, so they may consider restructuring traditional systems?
The Early Childhood Crisis
High-quality early childhood education is critical to individual children and to the larger society. The first five years of a child’s life are particularly important for brain development, and experiences within these years provide the foundation for children's health, growth, social-emotional development, and learning achievement. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child offers evidence that “early experiences affect the quality of [brain] architecture by establishing either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and behavior that follow.” Additionally, research from economist James Heckman indicates that high-quality birth-to-5 programs show a 13 percent return on investment, based on better education, health, social, and economic outcomes for children.
Early childhood education in America was in crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the situation has become increasingly dire in 2020. Programs have long struggled with inadequate funding and resources, which manifest in low wages, high teacher attrition, and lack of spaces for the number of children who need them. Conversely, lack of sufficient public funding to offset early childhood costs means that the resulting tuition rates are beyond what many parents can afford for the programs that do exist in their communities. As the nation has struggled through the pandemic, these problems have increased dramatically, as programs have faced quarantines, shutdowns, and loss of staff. The National Institute of Health states that COVID-19 has “pushed the early childhood education system to the verge of collapse.”
The pandemic has brought increased focus to the precarious position of early childhood in America, and without a thorough restructuring of funding and support systems across the country, early education could continue to deteriorate. Going forward, we have the opportunity to ask
What are the immediate steps we must take to protect the early childhood field?
How can we deliver the message to policymakers and legislators that high-quality early childhood education is fundamental to our recovery?
No matter how much we may ache for “normal times,” our post-COVID lives likely will differ from pre-COVID times. In the education world, we realize that many expectations and requirements we traditionally held for schools may not have been permanent or ideal. Despite the struggles of schools and educators this year, we are provided an opportunity for introspection. How can we rebuild our structures in ways that offer equity and opportunity to all students? Students, teachers, parents, and administrators have shown remarkable resilience this year. We now have the chance for transformation that truly gives them the support they need.
Bridget Thomas (@DrBridgeQIP) is Senior Education Researcher at QIP and Adjunct Professor at George Mason University. Her work focuses on early childhood policy and translating research for multiple audiences.