Build a Better School System

The following commentary is adapted from a speech Kathleen Hermsmeyer delivered at the end of September:

 Over the past seven months, the landscape of education has changed dramatically. You could say that we’ve all jumped from the education superhighway to the road less traveled.  Many innovative educational ideas have been implemented in a hurry out of necessity.  It’s been said that real change takes place in deep crisis. The question at this point is: what’s going to stick around in public education after the pandemic is over?

I’m the superintendent of a network of schools in Southern California that works with parents to provide a hybrid approach to schooling for students.  Under non-pandemic circumstances, our kids spend two to five days per week in the classroom with personalized learning, and community learning experiences on the other days. I’ve always believed that our model is the model of the future!  The idea that all students need to spend seven hours per day, five days a week in a classroom in front of a credentialed teacher in order to learn is an outdated factory model.  We call it “30 in a cell with a bell.”  We’ve been doing the work to pave the way for a 21st century model of education for 20 years, all the while figuring out how best to involve and support parents in their child’s education.  A lot of this support for both parents and students has been provided through the internet.

So while the pandemic has forced educational innovation in all public schools, you can’t necessarily gauge the possibilities and success of distance learning by your school district’s response. Some school districts, particularly big school districts, find it very difficult to be flexible and agile.  In this COVID-19 moment, flexibility and agility are vital for successful implementation of distance learning.  When we look at the very large school districts in California and in other parts of the country and their inability to effectively manage this crisis while smaller school districts and charter schools have risen to the occasion, it illustrates the need for systemic changes in our public school infrastructure if we want improved results.  I don’t believe we will see lasting change in the larger districts unless the actual structure of the district changes—but we may see parents opting their kids out of their neighborhood school to make other choices.

What have we learned from this forced experiment?  I believe we’ve learned four big ideas already:

  1. Some students are thriving doing distance learning—particularly those who like to go at a different pace, set their own schedule and avoid the drama that can happen at school.
  2. Distance learning provides students with valuable life skills by giving them real responsibility over their own learning, building their skills in self-direction, self-evaluation, managing time and persevering.
  3. Ed tech software is not the answer—it’s only a support.  The human relationship between learner and teacher is still the key.  Our teachers need to intentionally spend time to forge relationships with students, particularly when doing distance learning.
  4. We must teach the whole child—students need to be taught more than academic skills—they need coping mechanisms for life in the 21st century.  This was a growing understanding even before the pandemic, but has been brought into sharp focus through the stress of these months.

That sums up where we are today with our educational landscape.  In conclusion, here are three educational trends I hope we’ll see take off in our brave new world of education:

  1. Personalized Learning: Like many other areas of society, there is a growing trend towards personalization.  And this is with good reason!  We are not widgets.  We all come to the classroom with a different set of life experiences and attitudes that shape how well we learn new things.  We all have different interests—and the level of interest a student has in a topic directly impacts their retention of new learning.  The more we can modify our learning environments to allow for students to learn at their own pace, with choice of content whenever possible, the more engaged our students will be in their own educational journey.  Personalized education provides an upward circle of success with the student at the center.  Teachers in this model need to be a “guide on the side” instead of the old-fashioned “sage on the stage.”  This change in role from the teacher as the font of all knowledge to the teacher as a collaborator and supporter of student-driven learning not only empowers and motivates students, but it’s also research proven to improve results—which leads to my number two hope for education:
  2. Brain-based learning: Many practices in traditional schools are counter to high quality learning.  Some so-called “tried and true” teaching strategies that we all grew up with and are still in widespread use are not research-proven to be effective.  Even some strategies that are near and dear to many—like underlining in a textbook or article—are not worthwhile. Parents, it might help to relieve your mind to know that worksheet completion has absolutely no correlation to academic success. Worksheets are often used as classroom management tools to keep kids busy while the teacher is occupied with small groups.  What is research proven to increase academic success?  Increasing reading volume—the amount children read of all types of texts, including books, stories, poems and informational texts.  Also, increasing writing volume for a variety of purposes, not just essays.  And, having authentic real-world experiences and discussing them in depth with an adult.  If your curriculum is getting overwhelming, throttle back and focus on the research-proven, high-yield strategies of reading, writing, listening and speaking,
  3. Integrated learning: One thing that we know about the brain is that learning is most long-lasting and robust when it’s integrated.  We can’t merely focus on isolated skills, we need to put learning in rich context for students.  So learning about the science of the atomic bomb while learning about World War II and reading about Hiroshima makes the learning three times more powerful than if we separate the disciplines.  One of the reasons that subjects are usually not integrated is due to the fact that in middle and high school different teachers teach each subject which usually leads to intense segregation of subjects.  There are also textbook adoptions and pacing mandates by district offices that may not allow for integration.  These obstacles can be easily overcome by innovative school leadership.  Integrated learning helps students move beyond a survey course that’s an inch deep and a mile wide and get into the depth that encourages engaged learning.

So as we move out of this crisis and back to more normality in our society, let’s not frantically struggle to restore schools back to the status quo.  Instead, let’s take this opportunity to build a better school system.

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