What the Pandemic Teaches About the Need to Redesign Education

Schools need to be better positioned for the next crisis. That means making technology available, preparing students and teachers for online learning, and bringing an equity focus to assessment tools.

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Our education systems have been scrambling for direction on how to operate during the spread of the coronavirus. Governors have ordered teachers and students to stay home. Closed schools are struggling to offer online classes. Parents are overwhelmed trying to homeschool their children.

But, ironically, the pandemic has done education policymakers a favor, showing them a path to preventing panic if there is a subsequent COVID-19 outbreak or another kind of emergency that disrupts schools. If school districts are to prepare for future crises, they will need to redesign their systems in three ways:

1. Prepare students and families for online learning and engagement. The Internet has been a powerful tool for connection and engagement during this time of uncertainty. To ensure that the next transition into online teaching is seamless, education professionals must learn the needs of all their students because not every family will have access to computers or Wi-Fi. And students living in homeless shelters who already struggle to find hot meals must continue to do that while trying to navigate their assignments online.

Materially and emotionally supporting these most vulnerable students and their families starts with preparing and building a relationship with them. Before creating classrooms that operate completely online, administrators need to work alongside students and families to get them interested in online learning. This must include prepping families in advance with a plan on how to use and get access to technology resources during a crisis.

2. Prepare teachers. Once the needed digital tools are in place, educators must prepare for the very different experience of leading online classrooms. Teachers need to adapt curricula to an online format and have internal conversations about how to problem-solve during a crisis.

I teach an introduction to public service course at Binghamton University. When the university moved its classes online in March, I struggled to rapidly adapt class activities for my students and could have benefited from additional preparation and more collaboration with others about procedure. University administrators did their best to keep instructors informed about COVID-19 developments, but they could not have imagined how quickly the school would have to adapt. We need to build on the lessons we're learning now to be ready for the next crisis.

3. Redesign assessment standards with an equity focus.
On March 20, Betty A. Rosa, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, decided to suspend state assessments. In taking that action, Rosa was joining school administrators in other states, since testing students would not be fair to those struggling with human loss, unclear expectations and uncertain outcomes from schooling in a time of educational disruption.

The fairness issue points to the need for policymakers to find assessment tools that can work effectively with online schooling, that are rigorous and, particularly, that have an equity focus to accommodate the learning needs of all students including those from low-income, disadvantaged backgrounds.

I serve on the Obama Foundation's My Brother's Keeper Advisory Board creating student-centered education policy. My work has shown me the importance of social equity in classroom management and evaluation standards. Schools in Maryland, New Jersey and New York have adopted the Legacy Lab Day Model, which is aligned with MBK frameworks addressing opportunity gaps facing boys and young men of color, to evaluate students in a way that helps them come back to the classroom stronger. The model is effective in person and online because students get immediate feedback from teachers, peers and themselves on how to meet evaluation standards. Policymakers can work with their schools and school districts to identify other equity-focused assessment tools already in use and apply them more widely.

Education leaders have to consider the possibility that the pandemic crisis could last into the summer or peak again in the fall. Investing in online learning, preparing teachers and redesigning evaluation standards can ensure that children have access to quality education regardless of what's happening in the outside world.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

A master's in public administration student at Binghamton University