A New Possible in Education
By Dr. Mark David Milliron, Senior Vice President and Executive Dean
Western Governors University’s Teachers College
As we look back on the last year and a half of education during the pandemic, it is easy yet disheartening to see what a uniquely challenging time this has been for students and teachers. According to a recent McKinsey & Company report, as the 2020-21 school year began, just 40 percent of K-12 students were in districts that offered any in-person instruction. And students faced multiple schedule changes, were assigned new teachers mid-year, and often struggled with remote learning which left them feeling frustrated or despaired because they haven’t yet experienced this delivery model as part of their regular curricula.
As we endeavor to move through the “beginning of the middle” recovery phase of the pandemic, school districts, administrators, and educators are at crossroads. For many, they can’t simply resume pre-pandemic instruction and classroom time, or just replace what was there before with what was cobbled together during the emergency of the pandemic. There is no getting “back to normal” after this year and a half of COVID confusion and upheaval in education—not even to a “new normal.” We simply cannot go back to how things were. We’ve been through too much and have seen too much of what might be possible.
After being challenged as a nation, it’s time that we work together to vision a new and better build-out in education, and respond thoughtfully, aspirationally, and strategically. Indeed, the U.S. education sector is facing one of its most significant tests ever, and to pass this test we must resist reactionary traditionalism and instead confront confusion, learn together, and bring forward the good work of so many so that together we can reimagine a new possible.
First, we must address the confusion that has arisen as schools were vacated and dedicated teachers and leaders were forced to invent a different mode of delivery and support on the fly. What many bravely did was adopt an emergency strategy for remote learning, and we applaud them. However, there is a sea of difference between emergency-remote learning in this scenario and the highly engaging, high-quality digital learning and support found in the best online and blended learning that talented education professionals have been developing and delivering for the last 20 years. Confusing emergency-remote learning with the best of digital learning is like equating a life raft with a luxury liner. They both float and they both may get you to shore, but the experience for those aboard is going to be vastly different. Most challenging is that this problematic conflation confuses our conversations and pushes people back into a reactive “get back to normal” mindset than forward into what could be possible by thoughtfully and effectively blending the best of learning modes and models in the months and years to come.
Second, with this distinction in mind, today is the day to look to what we know about what works and what doesn’t in in-person, online, and blended learning. There are strong organizations that have been continuously improving and advancing this practice for decades including Western Governors University, Quality Matters, the Aurora Institute, and many regional institutions that have done extensive work with school districts and communities. On top of that, we saw some incredibly inventive and effective innovations from the heroic efforts of many who experimented successfully during the pandemic with gradeless assessment, new learning and engagement strategies, and inventive outreach to close the continuing and deeply problematic digital divide. It is time to reflect on and leverage what we have learned, both over a long history of quality online and blended education, and from the inspiring innovations from the teachers and leaders responding to the COVID crisis at hand.
Reimagine the Road Ahead
With less confusion and more learning, we can use this time to rethink and reimagine our teaching and leading, and our education policies and practices. Funding and fighting for “new normal” school strategies is unlikely to fuel sustainability, scalability, and significantly better educational outcomes. However, by coming together to vision what is possible and working together to design what we want to bring forward from all we have learned over the last year and a half, we have a real opportunity to emerge better and stronger than we were before the crisis.
Most importantly, to do this work, oversimplified arguments about in-class instruction versus online—or traditional versus remote learning models—need to be tabled so we can thoughtfully engage more practical and less polarizing conversations that free us to take advantage of all the tools and techniques at our fingertips. In short, now is the time to commit to exploring and working together to build out a “new possible” in education, one that can help us serve more, and more diverse students, more effectively than ever before.
Dr. Mark David Milliron, an award-winning education leader, author, and speaker, serves as Senior Vice President and Executive Dean of Western Governors University’s Teachers College, the nation’s largest college of education. In nearly 20 years, WGU’s Teachers College has graduated more than 59,000 educators in every state in America and currently enrolls more than 31,000 students.