Friday, April 24, 2020

Virtual School: Wild West of Education

Education today is a bit like the wild west since, within days, teachers across the country transitioned from school as we know it to multiple models of virtual school. And now that we're more than a month into this new education paradigm, people are trying to make sense of it.

Yesterday, I listened to school committee members grapple with this new reality as they looked at education from multiple perspectives including preschool programs, before and after school programs, summer school, and K-12 programs. They were eager to understand what is happening, but clearly as they spoke, I realized how difficult it is to understand the many efforts at play across so many different people and programs. I found myself desiring a better framework for this discussion, a framework with a sense of priorities, goals, and mission.

Where could this start?

First, I do think it has to start with safety? Are students, families, and educators safe? What does safety mean at this time, and what is a school system's responsibility for that? First, most, if not all, school systems are ensuring that students get their free and reduced lunch support. Also, most school systems are making sure that children are attending virtual school programs in some way, and if not, systems are reaching out to find out why to make sure that children are safe. This is very important.

Next, I think system leadership has to look at current funding issues. What is the best way to financially sustain school systems at this time? In this regard, it's critical to decide what you are going to do about services that are not utilized at this time, and decide what is in the best interests of the employees and the system. There are many financial support programs available, and the financial experts have to make those decisions hopefully with the lens of what's best for people's lives and the long term sustainability and success of the school system.

After that, it's time to think about program priorities, realities, objectives, and vision going forward. As I listened to the school committee discuss these issues, their commentary streamed related to multiple topics, topics I've been working with for the past six weeks, and topics that I know my colleagues have been thinking about and acting on too. The responses to program priorities, realities, objectives, and vision differ due to students' developmental stages, family supports, program standards, professional relationships, and more. How do you begin discussing this "wild west" of teaching and learning? What takes priority?

I think a discussion like this would profit from the following framework?
  1. What are the overarching priorities for each level including preschool, elementary school, middle school, and high school? How are schools meeting those priorities now?
  2. What are the current successes and how do we know those are successes?
  3. What are the current challenges and how do we know those are challenges?
Once there is a comprehensive understanding of what is happening now, then I think it is time to think ahead with the following questions:
  1. What more do we need to know? I know that I would like to know more about what families are thinking--what do they need, what works best for them with regard to virtual school, and what other ideas/comments do they have at this time? I believe a well designed, easy to complete and analyze survey may be a good way to get an initial review of this information.
  2. What is working for my colleagues? What have been the highlights; where are the challenges? I believe that the best way to gather this information is via building level administrators who can meet with teams in their buildings to query about these details, and then present that information in an easy to understand shared document or presentation.
After that, I believe it is important to think about what we've learned with the following questions:
  1. With clear trends about what families desire most, how can educators respond to that more?
  2. With clear trends about what appears to help students learn in engaging, memorable, meaningful, and successful ways at various developmental levels/content areas, how can we do that more?
  3. Moving forward, how can we respond to upcoming parameters from the state/national levels in timely, sensitive, and logical ways--what processes will we use? What will the timeline look like?
  4. With regards to long term vision and "silver linings," what can we cull from this transition from school as we know it to new ways to think about school? How can we think about this? What kind of research should we do? How do we understand well what's happening in our schools while also finding out what's happening around us? Are there ways to maximize the strengths and capacity of our own system and systems around us? What are our long term goals for students and families in this regard?
Overall, at this time, it's important to create loose-tight frameworks and timelines for sensitive, thoughtful, and helpful response directed towards what serves students and families best. Obviously, to serve students and families well, educators and other staff need to have realistic expectations, professional respect, and the supports they need to do their jobs well. There's much to learn at this time, and with thoughtful, inclusive, respectful action, much can be accomplished.