Now is the time to rethink California’s public schools.

We do need to do our best to salvage what we can of the 2019-20 school year; there is no debating that. Many students in California already have been out of the classroom for nearly two months, and while some districts had their distance learning plans up and running within days, other districts took many weeks to launch any consistent and scheduled programming. While rapid response to the pandemic emergency is important, it shouldn’t be the focus of every conversation between parents, educators, and district leaders from now until June. What is far more important is not the next few weeks of learning; what will matter most is the next ten months and ten years of learning that will follow when the 2020-21 school year starts — be it virtually or on campus, or a hybrid of both. 

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare some of the gross inequities of our public education system (among other systems). Quality of instruction wildly differs from classroom to classroom; thousands of children have limited or no access to the internet; and many distance learning plans assume that parents and caregivers have the appropriate amounts of time, tools, and resources to guide their children through this new normal. 

This pandemic has also heightened concerns over learning loss, but the reality is that California’s public schools have seen minimal growth in student achievement year after year. Closures as a result of the pandemic will undoubtedly affect learning, but it shouldn’t have taken one crisis to force us to confront another one we’ve been in for decades.

While we don’t know definitively what the learning environment will look like at the end of the summer, we can still start to plan for what we do know. We know that we are headed into a fog without spring academic performance test scores and other assessment results that help us measure student proficiency and preparedness; we know that extended school closures and stressors of this time are likely to intensify the unique learning gaps of each child; and we know that school budgets will be tight throughout California. Most importantly, we know that if we employ strategies that have not led to improved academic performance in years past, we can’t expect different results now.

So I ask, what if? 

What if we create a “good enough” solution for the short term, freeing up our talented educational practitioners to put their minds to work on a comprehensive, innovative plan for the 2020-21 school year?

What if our schools identified and prepared for a robust, thoughtful assessment system — starting when students return — that would give teachers and parents regular information they desperately crave on each child’s academic standing? These assessments would pinpoint each child’s strengths and gaps to enable instruction to be paired to meet individual student needs.

What if we use this time to support our teachers to grow in their understanding of personalized learning to help each child optimize every hour when they return to school? This shift in instructional model would ensure that students are filling their unique knowledge and skill gaps and accelerating their growth.

What if teachers received the gift of time, something that has been nearly impossible to provide before? Imagine a world where teachers had ample time to incorporate learnings from professional development, time to try out a new module, and time to truly plan ahead.

What if we permanently solve the technology gap rather than place a band-aid on the problem? With a little time, partnerships and solutions could be hammered out, and statewide policies could be introduced for a lasting path forward.

If we continue to operate in a way where quick fixes and panic govern our thinking, we will return to the very same educational system that has underserved two out of three children for decades. What if we used this hard moment to transform how we do school for a lasting change that could mean a significant shift in how our students learn going forward?

What if?

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