So many people in education—from teachers to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona—have called this moment, as schools emerge from the darkest shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, our chance for a “reset in education.”
It’s a sentiment that repeatedly comes up in my interviews with teachers. They wonder if the pandemic’s disruption of schools was a once-in-a-generation chance to transform the education system, which is riddled with inequities and pedagogical practices that date back decades.
Some educators also wonder if we’re on the verge of squandering such a chance. That may be; in the rush to get students back on track, we’re at risk for overlooking many of the lessons learned from the last couple years.
This story is part of a special project called Big Ideas in which EdWeek reporters ask hard questions about K-12 education’s biggest challenges and offer insights based on their extensive coverage and expertise.
“I hoped that we would take the time during the pandemic to reimagine and rethink how we do school for students,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. “I feel like the window for possibility is closing because once we start going back to the old systemic processes and practices that we have normalized at school, then it’s harder to change those things.”
Kelly knows there’s a desire to return to normal. But she also knows that “normal” wasn’t working for some kids, particularly students of color. And even before the coronavirus disrupted schools, teachers didn’t always have the tools they needed to create learning conditions for all students to thrive.
To be clear, when schools abruptly shut down at the start of the pandemic, teachers and students suffered. There were real challenges for making sure students were safe, fed, and learning. But Kelly said she also saw some positives during those initial school closures, like a renewed focus on relationships and an emphasis on student-centered learning. She wants those elements to stick around, although she’s worried they won’t.
“There’s a huge emphasis on testing to get students caught up—quote, unquote—to where they’re supposed to be at this time,” she said. Instead, “we have to figure out how to maintain the things that work for students.”
But, too often, teachers feel as if they aren’t consulted as districts plan new initiatives that they will be asked to put into practice: “The teachers know what works,” Kelly said. “We need more people to not only listen to teachers, but we also need them to implement the things that teachers say.”
The EdWeek Research Center asked a nationally representative sample of nearly 1,900 teachers, principals, and district leaders what the pandemic impact they would most like to see in their school or district a decade from now. The two most common answers were more attention given to student mental health (21 percent) and less focus on standardized testing (20 percent).
Smaller numbers of educators also named more attention to staff mental health, more wraparound services for student well-being, and the added flexibility of moving some meetings online.
Educators expect disruptions to have some silver linings
Unsurprisingly, 92 percent of educators said the overall impact of the pandemic on the state of K-12 education in their school or district has been negative. Just 3 percent said the pandemic had a positive impact, according to the same survey.
More than a million people in the United States have died from COVID-19, leaving more than 200,000 children grieving the loss of a parent or caregiver. Doctors have sounded the alarm for a youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. Students—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with disabilities—have lost academic ground during the turmoil of the last two years. And teacher stress levels have risen as they have worked to meet students’ growing academic and social-emotional needs, despite persistent staff shortages.
Educators say these challenges could persist long after COVID-19 case counts dwindle—whenever that may be. When asked for the survey what they expected the lasting negative impacts of the pandemic on education to be a decade from now, a majority of educators pointed to a decline in teacher retention, an increase in student behavioral challenges, a decline in educator mental health, and too much screen time for students.
And yet, educators still think there will be some lasting positive effects from the pandemic, too. A majority said they expected to continue to see added flexibility for moving some meetings online, more attention to student mental health, better integration of technology, and the ability to offer remote learning when necessary, such as during inclement weather.
Teachers may have more power than they realize to drive systemic change.
For example, Melinda Caudill, a kindergarten teacher at Liberty Elementary in Lexington, Ky., has continued offering families the choice to attend parent-teacher conferences virtually or in person. She said more families have been able to participate now that there’s a virtual option, something educators elsewhere have noticed as well. Students whose parents are more involved in their education are more likely to have higher grades and test scores, better attendance, and better classroom behavior, research shows.
“I have a lot of parents who are single moms, working the night shift, and they would attend from their car while on a break,” Caudill said. “Or they had little kids in the background. Those are parents I might not be able to reach [otherwise].”
It’s also been more convenient for her—a stress-reliever at a time when teachers have more on their plates than ever. “I can do it from home if it’s a later conference,” Caudill said. “I wouldn’t be stuck at school.”
Transformational change isn’t easy
Of course, making lasting change on a systemwide level is hard enough when conditions are good—and for a lot of the past two years, school and district leaders were in crisis mode, making real transformation even more difficult.
Joy Patton, a teacher-leader in Tennessee, remembers asking her principal in January 2021, “Where do you want to land after the pandemic? What instructional changes are you really hoping to make that we can start working on now?”
“The principal looked at me and said, ‘That’s a really good question. I’ll have to think about that,’” Patton recalled, adding that she walked away with the impression that he had no idea what transformation he wanted to see.
The principal was in survival mode, she noted. He was dealing with quarantine logistics, contact tracing, staffing shortages, and parent complaints: “You don’t have time to come up from the fray to really think about where do we really need to go?”
But Patton also wonders if the lack of innovative thinking is part of a systemic challenge. School leaders are so focused on operational logistics and test scores, they can miss the big picture of how schools can move forward instead of just maintaining the status quo, she said. And district leaders can be reluctant to scale innovative work that’s happening in classrooms, Patton said, citing project-based learning and standards-based grading as examples.
After all, most administrators aren’t trained for transformative change, wrote Renee Owen, an assistant professor of education leadership at Southern Oregon University, in an Education Week Opinion essay earlier this year.
“In schools, there is a constant striving for improvement, but improvement—getting better at what we already do within the systems we already have—will never fundamentally change who we are or how we think,” Owen wrote. “We will continue to get the same results unless we are able to see education in a completely new way.”
‘Necessity is the father of transformation’
Christopher Dede, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has studied educational transformation for decades. At the start of the pandemic, he wrote in a blog post that the crisis was an opportunity for schools to transition away from a “one-size-fits-all” model of lecture-style instruction. Instead, schools could create—and, he hoped, sustain—a “‘new normal’ of universal, blended, personalized, lifelong learning.”
He saw pockets of that innovation happening in individual classrooms and even some schools during the early stages of the pandemic.
“But the rush of people who try to go back to the old model, and who say that online education is defective, … is very disturbing,” he said in an interview. “As is typical with education, the rest of society has picked up on the benefits of hybrid [models]. But education just has dismissed it.”
Here’s the good news: Teachers may have more power than they realize to drive systemic change—especially at a time when school leaders are desperate to hire and keep good teachers. Teachers can “vote with their feet” and leave a school district that refuses to innovate, Dede said: “If many talented teachers start to do that, that will put pressure on the system … so they can try to hang on to people who don’t want to be mired down in the old model.”
As Dede has written, “Necessity is the father of transformation"—and educators say something needs to be done. Students are disengaged, teachers have one foot out the door, and the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic are becoming hard to ignore.
“Because innovation is an out-working of problem-solving, we just might be at a place where the problems are so bad that we realize we must innovate in order to survive,” said Patton, the Tennessee teacher. “At this point, the problems are so big and so undeniable that we just might be willing to try something new.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2023 edition of Education Week as Teachers Are Ready For Systemic Change. Are Schools?