A Case for Rethinking America’s Education System
by Natalie Rebentisch
While the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to adapt in ways we never imagined, it also presents a rare moment to reflect on our current education system and revisit both what and how students learn.
It’s been weeks since schools first closed their doors in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Many are now reporting those doors will remain closed throughout the remainder of the school year.
With schools now looking at a fall timeline for re-entry, educators around the country are grappling with ways to minimize the fallout from the six-month gap, fearing the extended absence may very well have erased any gains students made the previous year.
In Cleveland, schools are considering opening in August, a month early, to bring students back up to speed. In Maryland, schools are entertaining a year-round schedule and longer school days.
These ideas are well-intentioned and could be real solutions under normal circumstances, but it seems more and more likely that returning to normal may not even be an option at this point. Because we are still months, possibly even a year, away from developing a vaccine, experts say the future will likely resemble a roller-coaster model with waves of openings and closings as social distancing measures are relaxed, but the virus continues to spread.
We’re currently seeing this play out in Japan, where, after a month of relaxed measures and reopenings, a sudden uptick in positive cases forced officials to issue new stay-at-home orders and school closures for a second time.
The situation in the United States is not likely to be exempt from this scenario, and we need to be prepared. Schools need to quickly shift their thinking from trying to get back to normal to finding ways to transform the educational experience in order to meet this unique moment.
Because of this pandemic, we’ve had to change, and change can be scary. But as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. We should look at this as a rare opportunity to think through not how we go back to where we were, but how we get to where we’ve always wanted to be.
For decades, our education system has been plagued by structural complexities that dictated both what students learn and how they learn. It has been difficult to change this because, as some might say, it was too big to fail (or in many ways, succeed).
Public school students have long endured outdated instructional practices that don’t reflect our modern society. Take our current K–12 curriculum for example. According to a report by the Code.org Advocacy Coalition, as of 2019 only 45% of public high schools teach computer science. At the same time, twenty-four states require that students learn how to write in cursive.
And yes, that is cursive specifically, not just how to write in print.
So, is this really the best we can do? Is this what we want to go back to?
What else do we need? What can we leave behind? What assumptions can we test? Speaking as someone who works in the education industry, I see a wealth of perspectives on this topic. Here is a list of ideas put together by Harvard Ed. Magazine. And if you want more, you won’t have to look very far to find them.
Over the last few weeks we’ve seen how quickly necessity can bring change. Because of this pandemic, education has transformed before our very eyes. Lessons that once took place in schools are now happening over Zoom at the kitchen table amongst pets, siblings, and working parents.
In addition to what we’ve managed to incorporate or transition to, this pandemic has made us starkly aware of our deficiencies—how far behind many schools lag in terms of digital capabilities—and how laptops and internet access are vital to learning outside of a classroom. It has brought to light the cracks in our system that we’ve been covering up with Band-Aid solutions or simply ignoring over the last few decades. And it has given us an opportunity to improve.
So instead of going back to how things were (and because we may not even be able to), let’s use this time to try out new ideas—to build a better education system that more accurately reflects the world we live in today; one that is more inclusive; one that provides for more flexibility. An education system that meets this moment.
For if this is the best of all possible worlds, in the words of Candide, what then are the others?
Natalie Rebentisch is Lead Project Strategist for ScribeConcepts, an educational publishing team supporting disruptors in curriculum development. She has worked as an embedded partner with Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate Project; EL Education K-8; Great Minds Humanities; Harvard Democratic Knowledge Project; and other passionate content creators.