Let’s not repeat the mistakes the education sector made in responding to the last major disruption of the education system.
In the wake of the 2008 recession, many school districts simply increased class sizes across the board, froze salaries and reduced or furloughed staff. When budgets rose again, many districts used new funds to simply undo those cuts.
We should resist the temptation to revert to old practices when today’s coronavirus crisis eventually passes. A better strategy is to use the current crisis to introduce changes that can not only help get students back on track when they return to their classrooms but also bring about sustained improvements in school performance. Here are seven such reforms:
- Rethink rigid class sizes and one-teacher classroom models to increase individual attention, especially for struggling students. As learning losses mount and the Covid crisis exposes even more systemic inequities for students in the age of higher learning standards, schools and teachers must adjust individual attention continuously to ensure learners don’t get left behind. Before the Covid crisis hit, most students spent their entire day in classes sized without regard to the subject being taught or students’ individual needs. A more strategic approach would have students spend their day in settings tailored to what’s being taught and to whom. Students might be in a large class for one subject, in a small group or a one-on-one session in others.
- Optimize existing time to meet student and teacher needs. Schools also typically organize themselves around an “everything’s equal” philosophy in grouping students and in designing the school day. Schools that successfully educate every student have typically taken a more flexible approach to differentiating time—knowing that students arrive with different levels of knowledge and skills. These high-performing schools deliberately organize curriculum to meet students’ learning needs and to build extra learning time on top of regular school schedules. The lapse in learning caused by this crisis means that this differentiated, flexible use of time must become the new normal.
- Restructure one-size-fits-all teacher compensation and job structures to foster individual and team effectiveness and to reward significant contributions and demonstrated effectiveness. After just a few days of homeschooling, parents across the country appreciate teachers more than ever. Districts can use this moment to move away from across-the-board salary increases and ever-increasing benefits to rethink the entire “value proposition” of teaching—including work hours, benefits, and responsibilities, along with salary. Newfound comfort with remote work will enable new kinds of teacher teaming, job sharing and part-time work arrangements. We could discover that we end up needing fewer teachers because we can leverage other resources and in doing this we might free resources to pay all teachers more.
- Reorganize teacher time for collaboration and learning to deliver great instruction—rather than one-off professional development workshops and isolated work. Teachers are all showing us just how quickly they can band together to get things done and learn new ways of working. But for too long, districts have focused on professional learning in bite-size increments that takes place apart from the everyday work of planning lessons and assessing student learning. Research suggests that in great schools, teachers share the work of lesson planning and adjusting instruction to meet student need. They do this as a regular part of their work week, supported by expert teachers and coaches providing ongoing feedback.
- Revisit school staffing and funding models to increase flexibility and match need. Before making changes to school funding allocations, especially if local and state revenues for education take hits in a recession, it is crucial to understand how dollars and staff are currently allocated, and if these allocations match need. Schools will need more flexibility than traditionally exists to hire staff, define job roles that fit need and match skills, and to organize time.
- Leverage outside partners and technology to maintain or improve quality at lower cost. In tough budget times, many districts may be forced to make difficult decisions cut all but the “core,” eliminating positions like librarians, teachers of electives and social-emotional support staff. Schools and community leaders can get creative about how to fill these crucial needs, such as through community colleges, local businesses and artists, and youth service organizations that may be able to offer improved quality at lower costs. This may also be the case with online or remotely taught courses that could expand curricular offerings.
- Redesign central offices for efficiency and school leader empowerment. Outsiders often talk of central office “bureaucracies” that waste taxpayer dollars and frustrate school leaders with senseless rules. In our experience, we rarely find flagrant waste or huge inefficiencies. Even so, in this world of remote working and constrained capacity, district teams may now be finding ways they can do their work more efficiently. District leaders need a continuous focus on finding more efficient ways to deliver and integrate services, including devolving positions to schools, such as coaching or intervention support. By far the most important opportunity for central offices is moving from a compliance organization to a service organization, where roles, processes, timelines, and routines shift to match the needs of schools.
District and school leaders can’t make these kinds of shifts alone. They will require serious, sustained support from state and federal policymakers to move away from practices and structures designed for an earlier era.
Karen Hawley Miles is CEO and president of the nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, a national nonprofit that partners with district, school and state leaders to transform how they use resources (people, time and money.)