We Must Use This Moment to Transform Public Education

We Must Use This Moment to Transform Public Education
Brian Kersey/AP Images for Dawn

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fundamental insufficiencies and inequities of America’s education system, shaking its foundations in ways that make it abundantly clear we must take this opportunity to rebuild from the ground up. There is now urgency to create a more resilient, flexible system centered on learners’ unique needs, circumstances, aspirations, and interests, rather than institutions. We must reinvent our public education system so it can powerfully and equitably support each child in accessing rich learning resources and opportunities. 

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Today, more than ever, we see the power, commitment, and wisdom of young people expressed across the globe, as activists, researchers, and entrepreneurs—just look at the Parkland youth, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, or Chris Suggs for some high-profile young leaders. It is time for us to build an education system that is designed to unleash the potential of our youth to contribute to society now – as young people – and into the future. As we consider what education can be and do, we must begin with a focus on promoting equity and opportunity, breaking down barriers between education and community, and creating the conditions that enable meaningful learning for all students.

Given the immense need for more flexible options created by COVID-19 and the blatant inequitable distribution of opportunity, it is urgent that learning opportunities no longer be limited to those available in a single school building. Rather than simply hobbling together a temporary response to this moment, we can get to work to transform education once and for all to serve, include, value, and love each and every child.

This moment is calling for us to transform the role of teachers into facilitators, advisors, and mentors who enable young people to navigate a rich menu of learning experiences, make sense of their learning, and build safe and loving home bases where youth can explore and contribute to the world and support one another. We must rethink what young people need to know and be able to do, ensuring they develop the robust set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to lead meaningful, fulfilling lives. As we embark on this reinvention, we must build these new systems and opportunities in ways that ensure students of color and others marginalized by our current system receive what they need to thrive and excel.

This transformation cannot happen overnight, but there are ways to get started right now. Districts and education leaders around the country should be asking: Are we creating the time for educators to build supportive, loving relationships with their students to help them to make sense of world events and discover their interests, gifts and aspirations? Do we properly value and credential the learning happening in kids’ lives outside of “school work”? Are we allowing young people to develop learning plans around their interests and aspirations? How do we map and leverage community assets to support young people’s learning journeys?

There are places to look for inspiration in answering these questions. 

Big Picture Learning’s Met High School, a public school in Providence, RI showcases the power of creating and honoring learning both within and outside of school walls, building relationships, and supporting kids to find and pursue their interests. Their proven advisory structure intentionally fosters tight-knit learning communities among groups of 15 students and an adult advisor who meet daily and stay together for four years. Building close and authentic relationships with each student and their family, advisors support students to set learning goals and create learning pathways that are based on their unique interests and aspirations and that leverage the learning opportunities in the local community. There are over 65 Big Picture network schools in the United States.

CommunityShare in Tucson, AZ is an online platform that enables a community to become a human library by connecting community members, industry professionals, parents, and organizations with educators who want to create real-world learning opportunities with their students. From partnering with a community food bank to build a community garden to working with a local rap artist to produce student-made songs, teachers are better able to connect young people with real world experiences in areas that matter to them.

Virtual Learning Academy Charter School is a virtual public school that enables any student in New Hampshire to enroll in anything from a single class to a full course load. Because they are competency-based and allow learning to be demonstrated in many ways, students can gain credit from online courses, pre-designed performance-based tasks, or real-world projects or internships. Whether offered as a complement to a district’s offerings or as a fully virtual alternative for a young person, this state-wide model can quickly and dramatically expand the ways young people can gain credit and acquire competencies.

These are only a few of the bright spots we can look to. Among other publicly funded models are Iowa BIG (Cedar Rapids, IA), High School for Recording Arts (St. Paul, MN), City Garden Montessori (St. Louis, MO), and Norris School District (Mukwonago, WI). Others include those developed in the private sector, such as Portfolio School (New York City, NY), Workspace Education (Bethel, CT) and Verdi EcoSchool (Melbourne, FL).

It’s time for a nationwide commitment and investment to invent wholly new systems that enable a learner-centered, socially just future for education. Leaders must make it a priority to reinvent how we educate young people and prepare them for a world that is vastly different from the one for which their schools were designed. This is the moment when we must think bigger than a return to the pre-pandemic normal. This is the moment we can begin to transform our public education system.

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