School Reopening Debate Shows the Flaws in One-Size-Fits-All Education Model

School Reopening Debate Shows the Flaws in One-Size-Fits-All Education Model
(Kim Jun-bum/Yonhap via AP)

The debate over how – and how soon – to reopen schools sounds like so much of our political debate nowadays. People on both sides ask Americans to line up on one extreme or the other: all schools must fully open in just a few weeks, or else schools cannot open for the foreseeable future. But parents are right to reject that false choice, because neither option really gets to what our kids need to succeed. 

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In the wake of the pandemic and subsequent school closures, there’s a divergence of opinions on what the future of education should look like. National, state, and local polls find varied views from parents and teachers on what a “good” reopening looks like. A decision that works for 75 percent of families can still be unworkable for the remaining 25 percent. And with more than 55 million K-12 schoolchildren in the U.S., a dissatisfied minority can represent tens of millions of families. 

Instead of focusing on a one-size-fits-all plan that satisfies some, angers others, and confuses everyone, now is the time to focus on providing a variety of educational experiences and bottom-up options for all students. In every state, every local community—every family deserves the flexibility to respond to schooling differently. 

This approach recognizes the varied needs and risks that states, communities, and families are facing. Some kids do better with remote learning, while others need in-person contact, and still others may have health risks that make daily attendance dangerous. We must respect the individual comfort level of each student to attend or opt out of in-classroom education. 

There are reforms we should begin to adopt as soon as possible—such as focusing on small learning communities to continue in-person education. This is a step that some families are already taking—forming “learning pods,” micro-schools, homeschool cooperatives, and hiring teachers independently. Facing the pandemic threat, they are reimagining the “when and where” of the school day. This approach is one that puts education and kids’ needs first. 

There are ways to begin to offer this approach to all families. Education funding can directly follow students, through proposals like offering education grants directly to families, or through education scholarship accounts. This could enable all families—not just those with financial means—to participate in learning pods and access outside learning opportunities.

Instead of focusing on the road back to the old one-size-fits-all status quo, states and school districts should be working to put in place student-centered models for continued learning. They should prioritize new school authorizations, schools-within-schools, and partnerships with community organizations to enable students to learn in places away from home. Open enrollment would allow families to attend public schools other than the one for which they are zoned. In an era when so much education is done online, distance learning reciprocity would allow students to enroll in courses approved by other states or districts.

Education scholarship accounts are not new, but they are an idea whose time has come. They would expand the ability of families to customize and fund their child’s education with pre-tax dollars. 

The education nonprofit, yes. every kid., has assembled a playbook that can help guide policymakers as they consider how to ensure that every student succeeds. Its recommendations focus on reforms that give educators freedom and autonomy to utilize the methods and teaching styles that work best for their students. They empower families to choose the right learning environment, recognizing that every kid has unique interests, learning styles, and motivations. 

These ideas might sound ambitious. After all, we’ve grown accustomed to the status quo in our education system. But the pandemic is highlighting the weakness of the current model. And these ideas embrace the recent joint message from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Federation of Teachers, and the school superintendents’ association: “A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.” 

We know that the solution to our current challenges isn’t one rule, issued in Washington, and imposed on every school. Our country is far too diverse for that. We need a locally led, student-centered, bottom-up approach to education in the time of coronavirus—and we need the same approach after coronavirus, too. Let’s get working on it. 

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