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School Leadership During a Pandemic

How the COVID-19 Pandemic has Changed Education in America

July 19th, 2021

A teacher participates in an online staff meeting alone in her classroom at Middletown High School.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been to the American education system what the Internet was to traditional journalism, or Netflix was to home entertainment viewing. It caused an unexpected but irreversible paradigm shift, ushering in as many benefits and improvements as it caused sleepless nights to leaders, parents, and students. As our nation cautiously reopens, we can now take a collective breath and reflect on the permanence of the changes that the COVID-19 pandemic left in its wake. Most notably, mastery-based assessments replacing standardized tests, innovative pedagogical approaches that leverage technology, narrowing of the digital divide, and greater collaboration with parents will be among COVID-19’s lasting legacy in education.

Mastery-Based Assessments Replacing Standardized Tests

Many tests were canceled in a year where students could not gather in groups to take standardized tests in person. As a result, students applying for college admission were free from the stress and preparation of standardized aptitude assessments for the first time in decades. As a result, parents and educators are rethinking the value of standardized tests and conceptualizing more equitable ways to evaluate academic proficiency.

Many predict that mastery-based assessments will replace standardized testing. Such tools, often used by digital learning platforms as Khan Academy, assess students’ knowledge aptitude in a way that does not put those who struggle with standardized testing practices at a disadvantage. The result is an academic progress review process that more accurately portrays teacher and district success at achieving academic outcomes. Unshackling teachers from the constraints of standardized testing preparation also allows them to customize their classroom activities and leverage more creative and engaging teaching modalities that may be more impactful for achieving a fundamental goal of schools—developing the next generation of our nation’s leaders.

Innovative Pedagogical Approaches that Leverage Technology

The possibility of spending nearly an entire academic year instructing students remotely via online video streaming solutions like Zoom, paired with hands-on instructions from parents, may have seemed like an inconceivable academic approach two years ago. However, we now realize that for the current generation of students—digital natives who cannot remember a time before any answer was a Google search away—technology offers very real, very tangible benefits for academic instruction. When used in tandem with direct instruction and student collaboration, digital learning tools allow for a real-time adaptation of curriculum in a way that traditional modalities simply cannot achieve.

Perhaps most beneficial, technology can help ensure greater equity in education than traditional, analog methods. For example, for dyslexic students who struggle with long reading assignments, multi-media learning can differently enable understanding. Similarly, for the student who takes ill during the school year and finds themselves at risk of falling behind their peers, video instruction can allow them to keep pace with classwork and concepts, while they simultaneously focus on their health and recovery.

The caveat to digital education tools enabling equity in education is that to be successful, the nation must commit to closing the digital divide in communities across the country, which leads to the next trend.

A Narrowing of the Digital Divide

When remote learning became the best platform to enable students to continue their academic development in 2020, the severity of the digital divide in our nation became glaringly apparent. Students in underrepresented communities, particularly those living in rural communities, and students of minority families, were left at a disadvantage. While their more affluent, typically suburban peers used their school-issued laptops to take classes from homes wired for high-speed Internet, disadvantaged students sat on school buses converted into Wi-Fi hot spots or attempted to complete homework assignments from their household’s only computer—or even a smartphone, their only Internet-enabled device.

As a result of the detrimental academic crevasse caused by the digital divide, local and state governments, sometimes with the support of private sector businesses and non-profit organizations, scrambled to improve local infrastructure and available resources to give students access to modern technology tools and Internet. Even though schools are reopening, the pressure to enable greater technological equity across our communities is still being applied by parents and educators. Continuing improvements are made to ensure technology is used to enable education rather than act as a barrier to academic progress.

Greater Collaboration Among Parents and School Districts

Never before have parents and teachers needed to work so closely to enable academic progress. The pandemic led to the need for remote learning and homeschooling week after week. This reality necessitated parents to become extensions of schools’ faculty, corresponding daily in some cases with teachers to understand and relay curriculum and concepts to students. As a result, parents and schools have forged new, stronger, mutually dependent relationships that continue even as schools reopen. Many districts have asked for parental input on reopening plans, the ongoing use of technology, and even shifting pedagogical methodologies. Such collaboration keeps parents engaged in their children’s long-term academic success, and gives district leaders highly valuable insight into parents’ expectations and their desires for the future of education.

Looking to the Future

Education in America is only one facet of society forever changed by the COVID-19 crisis. While we slowly return to some elements that we had to sacrifice —like playgrounds full of laughter and high school theater—we cannot ignore what we have learned. Though challenging, the pandemic encouraged us to innovate and iterate on established practices. In many cases, we learned more efficient and effective ways to achieve academic outcomes. Those school districts that continue to evolve and leverage these lessons will be positioned for continued long-term success.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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