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Public education needs rethinking, not more tinkering

This column appeared in the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot, and the author received permission to reshare the full text with links to the original pieces.

Logo reads: The Virginian Pilot

Opinion: Public education needs rethinking, not more tinkering
By Susan Patrick
The Aurora Institute

A teacher stands at the front of the classroom, handing a child at a desk a worksheet.
The pandemic required some changes to the standard model of education, but the sweeping reform advocated in some corners has yet to materialize. (Drazen Zigic // Shutterstock)

Shortly after schools across the nation closed their doors in March 2020, we heard calls to use this as an opportunity to reimagine education. Returning to “normal” would not — and should not — be good enough.

Now in year three of the pandemic, we are still making incremental changes to a system in need of redesign. A one-size-fits-all approach to education, constructed to cull and sort students, was created for the industrial era: to prepare some students to advance onto higher education and others to work in factories. Our education system was designed to deliver content with one teacher, using one textbook, at one pace and in one place — keeping time on a factory-like bell schedule. Traditional schooling is doing what it was designed to do: produce inequitable outcomes and opportunities — but it can be redesigned.

If these last two years taught us anything, it’s how dire the need to modernize education is. Overnight, we saw how inflexible our system was and how easily learning was disrupted.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can re-envision our system to be flexible and centered on students.

Imagine an education system where learning can happen anytime, anywhere, and where students can get credit for experiences outside of traditional school walls. Imagine a system that is personalized, and acknowledges the gifts, histories, cultures and lived experiences of each child. A system where students progress when they’ve mastered content, not when they’ve reached a certain birthday or spent a certain number of hours sitting at a desk. A system that allows us to know in real time how students are progressing, and what supports they need to thrive.

The good news is there are already examples of schools and districts working to make this vision a reality — here in Virginia and beyond. The Virginia is for Learners Innovation Network (VaLIN), an innovative statewide professional learning initiative to advance education innovation, is working to make personalized, future-focused education a reality in our commonwealth.

Districts and schools are working to redesign learning to achieve the outcomes in the Virginia Profile of a Graduate. We know that some students thrive in virtual learning environments; in Newport News, all students in grades 6-12 will have the option to enroll in full-time virtual learning next year. And in Virginia Beach, personalized learning allows students opportunities to have options for pathways for learning, flexibility for where learning happens, and build skills for more self-directed learning.

We must move beyond the rigid notions of what schooling can be. We no longer have to constrain learning to traditional classroom walls, grades or tests. We must create space for innovation, continuous improvement and creativity. We must move beyond a false dichotomy of arguing pros or cons of in-person and/or online learning, and instead focus on creating high quality learning environments. If we think of the intention of our education system as preparing our students to be future leaders and contribute to our society as informed citizens, we must ask ourselves: Is our system currently fit for this purpose?

We know COVID won’t be the last disruption to learning. We can’t afford not to act at this moment. Education is the cornerstone of our democracy, and if we want the talents of all of our learners available to our communities — our education system must be fit for purpose — not just for yesterday, but for tomorrow. We cannot snap back to the outdated models that have been lacking for decades. Our young people’s futures, and for that matter, our commonwealth’s futures, are tied up in it.

Susan Patrick is the president and CEO of the Aurora Institute in Arlington, a national nonprofit working to drive the transformation of education systems and accelerate the advancement of breakthrough policies and practices to ensure high-quality learning for all.

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