Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Schools Can Do More Than ‘Return to Normal.’ Here’s How

The pandemic can spark lasting change—or it can reinforce the status quo
By Michael B. Horn — July 07, 2022 5 min read
Illustration of woman hanging paper arrows.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As COVID-19 began wreaking havoc on schools and sowing devastation for students, educators, and their communities, one of the common early rally cries from educators was “we must not return to normal.”

Educators expressing this sentiment wanted to create a better teaching and learning experience that allowed every single student to build their passions and fulfill their potential. They recognized that wasn’t happening before in schools. If that was normal, it was better to leave it behind.

And yet, as schools have reopened across the country and educators have completed a third year impacted by the pandemic, they have struggled to find the time and space to fundamentally reinvent schooling.

See Also

BRIC ARCHIVE
iStock/Getty

Their time has been swallowed by a variety of more immediate concerns, from fundamental debates around what gets taught to operational and logistical questions around masking, hygiene, air flow, transportation, staffing vacancies, learning loss, and more.

As a result, many schools are slipping back to normal and failing to innovate.

This isn’t unusual.

Research by Clark Gilbert, a former president of Brigham Young University Pathway Worldwide and BYU-Idaho, suggests a path forward.

Gilbert’s research found that when there was a “discontinuous” change—an abrupt event in the environment—an organization was able to marshal far more resources to meet the challenge when it framed the change as a threat than as an opportunity.

That means that saying that the COVID-caused disruption is an opportunity to reinvent schooling is not only tone deaf, it’s also unlikely to gain traction.

But there’s a further insight.

Although framing something as a threat caused an organization to marshal the resources to tackle a challenge, it also caused organizations to respond with something called “threat rigidity.”

When this happens, an organization doubles down on its existing processes. That results in more top-down control; reduced experimentation at precisely the time that an organization needs to be experimenting more to adapt to new circumstances; and a focus on an organization’s existing resources, rather than questioning what else it might use to respond to the threat.

When Gilbert studied this in the newspaper industry during the early rise of digital media, he found that organizations that saw the internet as a threat marshaled resources, but “most sites simply reproduced the newspaper” online.

This is, in many ways, what schools did during the pandemic.

Learning loss, reduced enrollments, and more are threats to schools. That has marshaled resources—unprecedented federal dollars, for example.

But it’s also caused most schools to batten down the hatches and try to get back to business as usual, without tackling more fundamental questions around what the teaching and learning experiences should look like.

Gilbert’s work suggests a way to escape threat rigidity.

If there isn’t at least one person in the school system whose full-time job is to focus on the opportunity at hand and innovate, then it’s no one’s job.

After defining something as a threat to muster resources, it’s important to shift responsibility to a new independent group that can reframe the threat as an opportunity. In this case, that opportunity is to reimagine the schooling experience.

If there isn’t at least one person in the school system whose full-time job is to focus on the opportunity at hand and innovate, then it’s no one’s job. That’s because the day-to-day priorities of the organization will drain energy away from any efforts to create something new and different.

In other words, the urgent and immediate tasks in front of someone—even if they aren’t important in the long run—will almost always drown out the important but less urgent work of long-term transformation.

Gilbert’s research highlights the benefits of an organization creating a separate entity that has ties back to the parent group for the sharing of certain resources.

When talking to K-12 education leaders, this framework can feel overwhelming and even impossible. How could administrators possibly grant the required autonomy short of forming a wholly new school?

But public K-12 schools have many ways to create an autonomous team.

A superintendent could free a group of educators in a district from their day-to-day roles and task them with reimagining what they might offer. This group might function as a separate team within a school and pioneer either a new classroom model or a novel way of offering a particular subject or grade. The independent group could also exist as a school within a school, a microschool, or a learning pod. It could also create a new school entirely.

Doing this allows a school system to continue to deal with the immediate and urgent concerns of the community while allowing a separate group to do the deeper, more sustained work of reinvention.

Indeed, nearly all the nation’s 20 largest school districts have taken advantage of this insight to offer more full-time virtual schooling than they did before the pandemic.

The key is to escape threat rigidity by arming a relatively independent team of educators absolved from their existing responsibilities.

What should educators do with this autonomy?

They should explore moving to mastery-based learning models in which educators can better personalize learning and help students build their knowledge, hone skills, develop habits of success, embark on robust real-world projects, build relationships, and strengthen their health and wellness.

They should craft more sustainable and flexible teaching models that allow teachers to co-teach and provide students with more support.

They should explore using technology that saves teachers time, extends their reach, and deepens their understanding of their students. Technology can also improve student feedback, offer experiences hard to provide in the immediate physical environment, and automate manual, laborious processes for teachers and administrators.

And above all, they should rethink the notion that a one-size-fits-all school system that pits students against each other in a zero-sum competition is the right answer for developing students and supporting parents.

As educators clamor for more time to reinvent schooling, carving out autonomous zones free from the day-to-day challenges is likely the only way forward.

Events

School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Top Tips for New Assistant Principals From Those Who've Been There
Nurture relationships, learn on the job, take care of yourself—and other key advice.
5 min read
Image of leaders as a central figures to a variety of activities in motion.
Laura Baker/Education Week and gobyg/DigitalVision Vectors
School & District Management L.A. Cracks Down on Homeless Encampments Near Schools, Over the Jeers of Protesters
Under the new restrictions, homeless people would be prohibited from setting up tents within 500 feet of every public and private school.
David Zahniser and Benjamin Oreskes, Los Angeles Times
5 min read
A homeless camp in downtown Los Angeles pictured on Sept. 17, 2019. A proposal to greatly restrict where homeless people may camp in Los Angeles drew protest at a City Council meeting from demonstrators who fear the rules would criminalize homelessness.
A homeless camp in downtown Los Angeles. A proposal to greatly restrict where homeless people may camp in Los Angeles drew protest at a City Council meeting from demonstrators who fear the rules would criminalize homelessness.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
School & District Management Statistics Update: New Trends in Enrollment, Virtual Schooling, and Special Education
New data in EdWeek's statistics pages point to changes in where students are attending school and the services they're getting.
Conceptual image of allocation.
Lea Toews/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion 10 Ways to Include Teachers in Important Policy Decisions
Teachers are the lifeblood of schools, and they should be treated that way.
5 min read
18Goldstein 1126473545
iStock/Getty