Looking beyond COVID to a coherent theory of change

COVID and families
September 30, 2020
Carole Basile

By both temperament (restless) and job description (dean), my default mode is to do something. I am biased toward action. People who work with me know my favorite words are “let’s go.” However, when time speeds up, as it has during the current pandemic, I find it useful to turn to an historian to help slow things down and gain some perspective.

I have the good fortune to work closely with Sherman Dorn, one of our most thoughtful historians of education and the director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. In The Pandemic and Cultural Scripts of School-Family Relationships, a guest blog published this past summer by the Albert Shanker Institute, Sherman reflects on how past historical traumas such as wars and pandemics have altered — or not altered — the systems and structures of education. As someone who has noted that, by exacerbating and highlighting flaws in our education system, the pandemic might inspire us to take necessary action to build a better learning future, I found Sherman’s insights invaluable.

First of all, he cautions against putting too much stock in “this is the end of X” thinking, noting that the 1918 flu pandemic “neither changed Americans’ way of thinking about themselves or the future, nor did any response become embedded as a major feature of education.”

He also notes that the reforms in No Child Left Behind enacted in the wake of the Great Recession “did not help schools prepare for a pandemic or its aftermath.” I take this to mean that, just as generals are sometimes said to be planning for the last war, education reformers often design answers to the previous shock to the system. 

Sherman’s larger point is that we shouldn’t let recency bias prevent us from thinking more broadly and deeply about “how the pandemic and economic turmoil reshapes the relationship between schools and families.”

So, yes, the havoc COVID-19 has wrought on schooling and families has opened up many lanes of thought and debate about the future of education. Some of these lanes point toward operations: How can we better blend pedagogy with technology in remote instruction? Others point toward issues of equity: Can we build an education system that serves all people regardless of race, wealth, geography or any other characteristic? And, if we can, do we have the political will to do so?

As Sherman points out, people across the ideological and intellectual spectrum, from David Mansouri to Diane Ravitch, are asserting that “this is the end of X as we know it.”

Well, if X equals the unquestioned definition of school as it has been for so long, especially the one-teacher-one-classroom model that asks all teachers to be all things to all people, then I surely hope this is indeed the beginning of the end of X as we know it.

What makes a transformation in education desirable is the long-simmering failure of our education system to do most of what we need it to do for all of our learners: prepare them, as economic beings, to thrive in the next workforce and, as civic beings, to thrive democratically as citizens.

To get there, we need more than an opportunity for change — whether caused by a recession, a pandemic or any other crisis deemed too terrible to waste. We need a coherent theory of action.

That is what we are developing through our work on the Next Education Workforce. Note: I use the word coherent, not complete. This work is far from finished. But, after three years of work, I do feel confident that we have developed a theory of action intended to reach our two animating goals:

1. Provide all students with deeper and personalized learning by building teams of educators with distributed expertise, and

2. Empower educators by developing new opportunities for role-based specialization and advancement.

The elements of our theory of action are coming into focus, and we have been putting them into practice. They include the following:

A commitment to integrating team concepts into professional education. 

Two years ago, with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we piloted team-based residencies for our teacher candidates in two partner districts. Before COVID-19 hit, we had expanded our team-based residency model to 14 districts. Like everything, our plans have been disrupted by the pandemic, but they have not been derailed. We have expanded team-teaching concepts to remote teaching for our interns and residents. With a new grant from the Gates Foundation, we’re expanding the team-based model beyond Arizona.

Additionally, our faculty and staff are working with partner schools, districts and educators to develop resources that help educators and communities create the Next Education Workforce. We have a growing collection of resources that includes briefs on topics like deeper and personalized learning, blueprints for how teams of educators might distribute expertise and tools that help superintendents identify district readiness and develop staffing strategies. There are also spotlights on schools, like Westwood High School in Mesa, that are fielding teams of professional educators. Collectively, these resources are designed to help individual educators work in teams and to help school and system leaders design and support teams that can support learners.

Deeper connections between schools and communities.

One of the things that’s becoming ever more clear as we work with schools to design and field Next Education Workforce models is that this is a challenge of both scale and context. While we hold widely applicable principles about the value of team-based educators and best practices about how they can operate, we are not building a one-size-fits-all approach. We are building school by school, community by community.

And that includes bringing community members into the work. One of the core principles of the Next Education Workforce is that we should create more accessible on-ramps to rewarding paid or volunteer work in schools and other learning environments. Communities are rich in people who have a lot to offer learners and teachers. That’s why we are developing Community Pathways to prepare people to go into schools to support teachers and learners. Community Pathways include small, stand-alone modules, courses and experiences. These resources allow adults to explore a variety of educational skills, earn micro-credentials and right-size their learning according to their needs. The first two courses – School 101 and Reading Accelerator – are now available and free.

Personalization for learners and educators.

This is the crux of the matter. While I’ve tried to articulate it at length previously, the central point is that personalized learning for students has to mean role-based specialization for educators. It has to mean that we think hard about the mix of socio-emotional support, academic assessment and instruction; that we think hard about who’s in the room to provide individual tutoring, mediate technology and facilitate small- and large-group instruction.

To personalize learning, we have to personalize teaching. And yet, to personalize teaching, we have to make teaching a more collaborative, even social act.

As we continue to endure both large and small forms of isolation during this pandemic, that is something worth thinking about. How, after the COVID-19 crisis passes, can we come together as educators, individuals and institutions to put learners at the center of the systems and practices of education we build and reinforce?

It is not just something to think about. It is something to act upon. We’ve started. And we’re not alone. A growing list of schools, organizations and education experts are engaged in building the Next Education Workforce.

Many of them will be joining us in January for a virtual event as we ask – and hopefully answer – questions about equity, deeper and more personalized learning and more.