Three Lessons for the Post-Pandemic Education Sector

It’s been over 14 months since everyone in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York, was ordered to “shelter in place” due to the virality of Covid-19. And in those months, there has been unprecedented tragedy, hardship, pain, suffering, and loss.

At the same time, many of us have used this past year to shape new habits and decide what should stay and what should go as we start to envision post-pandemic life. And just as we do this work in our personal lives, those of us in education are having similar conversations professionally. Specifically, what should stay and what should go for teaching and learning after the pandemic ends?

Though our country is still mired in debates about when and how schools should fully re-open, it feels critical to shift the conversation to what worked during Covid and how we can ensure those ideas and practices stay after schools return to in-person learning.

There are three lessons, in particular, that can play a key role in improving outcomes for students in the future. They speak to the importance of resiliency, adaptability, and innovation in the education sector.

High expectations and grade-level content

The concept of high expectations for all students in K-12 education has been a cornerstone of the national effort to strengthen public education since the publication of A Nation at Risk and other school reform manifestos in the early 1980s. Research shows that when students feel and see that the adults around them believe in them and have confidence in their abilities, they experience higher self-esteem and improved academic performance.

But we know that many students don’t have those educational experiences. A 2018 TNTP study, The Opportunity Myth, revealed that students spent more than 500 hours each school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them—the equivalent of six months of lost class time in each core subject.

With many students having lost opportunities to learn during the pandemic, providing access to grade-level content upon the return to the classroom is crucial. Some curricula are well-suited to that task. One is Zearn Math, an online math curriculum that includes grade-level content as well as intervention support for concepts from prior grades for students that need extra support. Every lesson includes on-ramps and personalized scaffolding that address unfinished learning in the context of new learning.

A study of over 150,000 Louisiana students using Zearn Math in 2018-19 suggests the efficacy of this approach: Students in grades 3 to 5 who consistently completed grade-level Zearn math lessons showed one-and-a-half times to two-and-a-half times higher rates of mastery than students in non-Zearn schools. Gains were highest for previously struggling students and those in lower-income schools

High-quality instructional materials

Even before the pandemic, we were entering a new era of learning that provided access to an incredible amount of high-quality content online. This trend only accelerated over the past year.

High-quality materials are easier to find and more available now than ever before, with digital libraries like Open Education Resources and Open Up Resources making it possible for anyone to access top-rated K-12 curricula. Organizations like EdReports have made it their mission to increase the effectiveness of teachers, administrators, and leaders by identifying high-quality instructional materials for students at all levels.

In their recently released report, State of the Market 2020: The Use of Aligned Materials, EdReports found that only 41 percent  of K-12 mathematics materials and 52 percent of ELA materials the organization reviewed met standards-aligned expectations. On the positive side, many of the materials that met the organization’s highest “green-lit” criteria feature open-source or digital content, making access possible for teachers, families, and students who are not satisfied with what’s available in school. It would be a loss for schools and educators not to leverage the increased availability of online resources to empower and challenge their students.

[Read More: Bringing College Courses to Disadvantaged Students]

At the higher ed level, Ivy League schools have experimented with making extension courses available and accessible to students of all demographic backgrounds. In one instance, more than 300 high school students enrolled in Harvard University courses online under a pilot program run by a New York-based nonprofit, the National Education Equity Lab. The vast majority were students of color and qualified for free lunch, and 89 percent of the students in the pilot passed the courses, clearing the same bar as other Harvard students and earning college credit. This type of access was largely non-existent a decade ago. Now, it’s easy to imagine how this could be a common experience for many more students in the years ahead, opening up more equitable opportunities for K-12, college and beyond.

Flexibility and choice

We know from research that the pandemic has impacted families and students unequally and that they’ll have differing social-emotional or academic needs post-pandemic.  One-size-fits-all solutions won’t work effectively across the spectrum of needs. Choice, flexibility, and personalization have been critical throughout the last year and will continue to be so upon our return to normalcy.

The pandemic forced schools, nonprofits and service providers to create multiple programmatic and delivery options for families and children who had different needs and resource requirements. The diversity of models provided the opportunity to vary dosage and cost, allowing student needs to be met in a variety of ways.

That innovation should remain when school doors re-open and post-pandemic life arrives. Organizations such as Springboard Collaborative, a nonprofit that aims to close the pre-K through third-grade literacy gap through parent engagement, and Saga Education, a high-dosage math tutoring model for high school students, both used the last year to experiment with adding tech-enabled and virtual elements to their traditional programs.

From online parent coaching to virtual tutoring, these organizations realized the potential benefits of incorporating technology, including lower costs and easier access for students and families, while still maintaining impact and empowering families to select what works best for them.

The months ahead will continue to be challenging educationally. But as we look to the new normal, let’s not forget the lessons of the last year and the resiliency, adaptability, and innovation the education sector showed.

Anu Malipatil is vice president, education, at Overdeck Family Foundation.

Overdeck Family Foundation is a FutureEd funder.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.