Providing what all students want and deserve in a post-pandemic world calls for reimagining the educational experience
March 17, 2021
After a year of loss and uncertainty, we’re starting to see glimmers of hope: progress in the fight against the pandemic as vaccination efforts expand; passage of a historic Covid relief bill that provides much-needed education funding; and reopening for some school buildings with in-person instruction that follows public health guidelines.
And yet, so many young people—especially students of color and students growing up in low-income communities—are forced to navigate an antiquated and inequitable education system. The disparities in this system have always existed for our most marginalized children, and the pandemic has only widened them. This profound and centuries-old inequity causes pain and suffering for millions and cuts against our core ideals as a country. Our education system remains rooted in many of the same curricula, practices, and injustices that served the Industrial Revolution. We’re preparing too many children for a world that once was and not for the world of today.
This is a defining moment for a generation of young people. As we address their urgent needs, we must also look to the future and create with our students a fundamentally different educational experience—a new kind of education for a new time. That education must be learner-centered, rooted in equity, and fueled by strong and enduring relationships.
We must look beyond a one-size-fits-all model and recognize all learners as individuals with incredible assets and talents to nurture. We can’t limit our focus to getting students “caught up”—they must be fired up. Our young people yearn for an education that’s relevant, personalized, and grounded in their skills, passions, and concerns. We can and should measure learning happening inside and outside the classroom—and we absolutely must know how students are doing so we can allocate resources where they’re needed most. We need to both understand the learning happening right now and develop new assessments that better measure where students are academically, socially, and emotionally.
Young people today want to create their own educational paths. They want to engage in their communities and learn for the real world: how to start a business, how to keep their neighborhoods safe, how to address mental health in their schools, and so much more. And they care deeply about having a positive impact. More than half of Gen Z respondents in a recent survey said they consider a company’s contribution to society as a very important factor in deciding where to work. Our education system must help catalyze that energy and ensure students develop their critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and empathy amid our increasingly diverse and connected world.
As we develop these new educational ideas and approaches, we must examine each through an equity lens. So what does that look like? An equitable classroom is a safe and welcoming one. An equitable education is culturally responsive and addresses the role of trauma in our students’ lives. An equitable system is fueled by exceptional and diverse educators who reflect the students they serve and empower them to work across all lines of difference. And equity is only possible if all students—especially students of color and students growing up in low-income communities—receive the necessary investments in their education. Today, a young person’s ZIP code too often determines their educational and life opportunities. That’s simply unacceptable, and it can and must change.
The good news is that examples of education centered in equity and innovation already exist across the country. When we find models like the Da Vinci Schools in Los Angeles; Steel City Academy in Gary, Indiana; and other promising schools in and out of the Teach For America network, we must codify their learnings and share them broadly. Our leaders must be nimble and adapt these best practices to fit the contexts of their communities.
It’s clear our system needs to make dramatic shifts, but we must also double down on what we know is essential yet often overlooked: building strong and enduring relationships with young people and their families.
Over the past year, relationships have been more important than ever. Building deep trust has proved foundational for educators to find and engage their students and families during the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, we saw higher outcomes from our educators who viewed their students as family. Loving students and building relationships with families isn’t extra, it’s essential.
In these last months of the school year, we must hold young people closely through the present and keep the future of education in our sights. We must have radical imagination and curiosity to shape learning and teaching for the next decade and beyond. As the poet and activist Sonya Renee Taylor wrote almost a year ago, “We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment.” Simply going “back to normal” in education is not a worthy destination for our young people or our country. We must find a new destination with our students, grounded in equity and powered by their aspirations for themselves and our world.