K-12 students returned to school this year amid a "perfect storm of bad news" in Education Week. Reading and math scores fell sharply during the pandemic, especially among students who were already struggling. In my home state, we learned from the state's annual report card and a recent report from Advance Illinois that, in addition to significant gaps in academic achievement, our schools have seen significant declines in student enrollment and widespread teacher burnout; And our students face growing inequalities and reduced well-being amid chronic absenteeism and rising truancy rates.
As these examples show, we must undertake a seismic restructuring of our education system to overcome these challenges. It cannot repair the cracks in the foundation in another.
In his new book, From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating a School for Every Child, renowned author and co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, Michael B. Horn provides a clear-eyed blueprint for what that foundation should look like. I recently spoke with Horne during a Yas Prize community meeting about the need to completely reinvent our K-12 education system and how we might want to approach that work.
Phyllis Lockett: What has the pandemic taught us about continuing education? What did it show us about opportunities beyond the four walls of the classroom?
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Michael Horne: The "Zoom School," in its failure to provide meaningful connections and exempting students from work, showed how serious we are about schools being a place for every learner to master knowledge. Schools that have done well during the pandemic are those where students have already developed agency and the philosophy that learning doesn't have to be delivered to you in the school building between 8am and 3pm. In these schools, students were not restricted when they were given step-by-step instruction without a teacher standing in front of them. They had a sense of where to find their own learning opportunities and how to independently find answers to their questions. Those schools did well during the pandemic because they engaged their students.
Lockett: You've talked about the need to "demolish" the current K-12 system. What's on your mind?
Horn: The underlying structures of our education system are not built to optimize every child's learning. In fact, the method they built guarantees the failure of many children. The school is designed around this archaic idea, which equates learning with seat time rather than mastery of material. For all the previous plans to "reinvent" K-12 education, no one has questioned the fundamentals of time-based instruction. No wonder the system produces the results it does. Not every child needs exactly 180 days to master the knowledge and skills needed by third graders. Conversely, some children need more time. It is an arbitrary system that cuts off learning for children based on a calendar, but does not provide them with a productively differentiated path. In our current system, time is fixed and learning is variable, then students are labeled and sorted accordingly.
If we are serious about reaching every student—from all backgrounds—and allowing them to realize their potential, we need to dismantle those underlying structures.
Lockett: How would you redesign some of the support systems for students?
Horne: In the book, I devote some time to team teaching and the importance of creating a web of support for students. Our schools need every teacher to be a superhero—delivering all the content to a classroom full of kids. It's just not a winning recipe. If you take a team approach, an adult works with students on their social-emotional learning and how they connect to their learning. And another leverages data to create small group opportunities based on learning objectives. And another that connects learning to real-world projects and helps students build social capital in the community, it also creates a more accessible classroom that is open to the outside world. Or there are other ways teams are structured to better support the student.
Lockett: I was on a panel earlier this year at (SXSW Edu) where we discussed the apparent contradiction between crisis and innovation: We must innovate to meet the challenges presented by the pandemic.
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