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We Either Bring About School Reform Now or It’s Never Going to Happen

In the 23 years that I have been in education, I have seen a lot of educational reform come and unfortunately go. Some of them are really good ideas like the small school reform headed by Bill Gates. Others are disasters such as No Child Left Behind, which spent lots of money but made zero improvements. Even currently, the standards movement seems to be buckling under its own weight, and I’m sure by the time I have grandchildren in school, it will be gone. 

What do we need in order to bring about wholesale reform in our schools? Cue the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic, as horrible as it has been with the number of lives lost, is education’s wake up call to make a change. Due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders, there will be no year-end high stakes testing, and yet students will still learn. Students are not physically in school and have to try and learn with only our guidance. Is it working perfectly? No, but some kids prefer to learn on their own.   

School districts and teachers are having to build the plane as it’s flying, figuring out a way to educate children without children actually being in our schools. Teachers are stepping up to the plate, figuring out ways to flip their classrooms, and provide meaningful educational experiences on-line. We have to innovate, and we are getting good at it. Why not continue this innovation and change the way we have done things for seemingly 100 plus years?

Here are five areas where COVID-19 has shown us we should have school reform:

1. Personalized learning for everyone

We talk about differentiation as being a solution all of the time, but what we really need is personalized learning. Personalized learning means that every student gets an education that is significant and useful for them. No longer is it the teacher telling the students what will be learned. This calls for the kids to have some say in this process and to be learners rather than students. This can be done with such teaching strategies as inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and problem-based learning. It lets children explore things for themselves and discover learning. In many cases, with virtual learning, students are getting to pick and choose what they are going to learn and with what effort. Why can’t that continue?

2. Ban homework and grades

We have been under this sticks and carrots philosophy for many years, and although it works for some students, there are a large number of those it does not. Let’s start with homework. We are grading a child on his practice. It would be like going to the football practices and evaluating those for points, and then when the game is played on Friday, one team starts 15 points ahead because they practiced better. The other message it sends to students is it is not OK to make mistakes. If you make mistakes during practice you will be penalized. We should be teaching students to learn from these mistakes, not taking off points for doing so. 

Grades have always been a way to separate the wheat from the chaff, but what ends up happening a lot of times is we allow compliance to have a huge effect on them. If a student turns in their work on time, does what the teacher asks, and stays out of trouble, he will stand a far greater chance of getting a good grade than a more intelligent student who is not as compliant. Many schools during the COVID-19 shutdown have elected to go to Pass/Incomplete for their final grading quarter. Why couldn’t it be that way all of the time? A student either masters the class or does not. Why do we have to assign different levels of passing? 

3. Stop putting children into classes based on age

For some odd reason, when every child turns 6, we throw them into kindergarten classes with one another under the naïve notion that all 6-year olds are created equally. Anyone who has ever taught elementary knows there is a huge difference between these children’s abilities and we spend the rest of their school career trying to prop up the ones falling behind and trying to slow down the ones who can go ahead. What if we put children into classes based on their abilities? It might mean that some kids graduate in 8th grade while some need a couple of additional years, but everyone leaves at the same place rather than supposedly starting there. After children return to schools in the fall (hopefully), they will be in very different places depending on how well they adapted to virtual learning. What a perfect time to place them by ability and not age.

4. More experiential learning and career tech, less AP courses

Somehow colleges have sold the world that people cannot get jobs without going to their hallowed institutions. Because we believe this, we think everyone should be prepared to go to college, but that is not the path for everyone. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is who are the essential workers. We applaud the doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. But what about the plumber that came to my house to back up our sump pump, the girl giving me my pizza order, or the construction workers who are still needed to build our houses and fix our roads? None of these people needed a college degree, and they have a very important job that we cannot do without. Not all essential workers have degrees and yet we are telling our students that everyone has to get one? We need to be putting as much effort into our career tech so that students who are better suited for something else can learn a skill that will one day be deemed essential. 

5. Make a national definition for gifted and treat it like special education has been for years

You knew you weren’t going to get away without me mentioning something about gifted. After all, I am the Gifted Guy. One thing I noticed once we went to the at-home learning model of school, is that many districts were interested in just putting out the bare minimum in regard to assignments. There wasn’t a whole lot of rigorous work being assigned; the goal was just to get the students to the end of the year. What happens then is what happens a lot in our classrooms; students who are gifted get overlooked because they can do just fine on their own. This, of course, is false because although they may get by, they are not going to be challenged to the level they are capable of. Their needs are not going to be met. Special education students, however, did have to have their needs met during this crisis. This is because there is a national definition of what special education is, and the ADA protects the rights of students who fall under this definition. Because there is no national definition for gifted, people are not looking out for their rights, nor could they if they wanted to. Special education and gifted are very similar to one another; they are meeting the special needs of these individuals who are just at opposite ends of the learning spectrum. Why not treat them the same?

The biggest travesty of COVID-19 in regards to education will be if we go back to school in the fall and try to do things the way we have always done them. We need to take the opportunity we have been given and try something else. Because the status quo of school has been compromised, this is the perfect time to try some school reform.

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