By Jamie Meade
In March, schools were closed due to COVID-19, resulting in education systems across the state scrambling to respond to the needs of their students. For many, a whole new system of education was designed in just a few days—an impressive, timely response from education leaders and teachers, and we are so grateful.
During this time of remote learning, we’ve unfortunately seen growing disparity in student learning and overall well-being due to multiple, complex factors, including basic needs of food and safe shelter. Additionally, some students do not have access to Internet or technology devices to connect with their teachers and peers. During the initial phase of the response, tending to these needs necessitated a focus on crisis management from many education leaders. Sadly, gaps in academic achievement will be exacerbated, and many children will emerge from this crisis at an even greater disadvantage.
Some school systems, based upon their unique local context and readiness, have started to shift their attention from crisis management to providing innovative learning experiences. As a result, we’ve seen new models of learning that cultivate important skills—such as creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving. We’ve also seen the power of mindset—such as empathy, resilience, and adaptability—on full display.
If there is a silver lining for public education in this crisis, perhaps it is that these extraordinary challenges have heightened awareness that academic content mastery alone is insufficient for success in today’s world.
To thrive in the 21st century, our youth must have deeper learning experiences. Deeper learning equips students with not only rigorous academic content, but also the ability to apply their knowledge while using essential skills and mindsets in new, even unexpected, situations. Deeper learning prepares students to be lifelong learners and contributors in this uncertain, ever-changing world.
Superintendent, Nancy House of Milford Schools (OH) recently shared the disappointment her students felt when school buildings were closed, just prior to the opening night of their spring play. But an incredible community service experience emerged when Cincinnati Children’s Hospital reached out to ask cast members to provide the vocals for their COVID-19 public service announcement.
“The students and their director, Katie Arber, were honored to be able to share their talent with such an esteemed community organization as Cincinnati Children’s Hospital,” shared Superintendent House.
This unexpected situation cultivated communitywide collaboration, adaptability, and empathy as students had the opportunity to contribute to the needs of their community.
As we emerge from this crisis, the gap in academic content mastery is not the only problem we must solve. We must also address the gap in deeper learning: the acquisition of 21st century, transferable skills and mindsets. There is much at stake if we emerge without a renewed education system.
Will the Health Crisis Help Transform Public Education?
Will these challenging times be the lever that propels the transformation of public education? Visionary leaders across the country are asking that question. These leaders are not simply struggling to restore the status quo. The world will never be the same, and public education must also become a renewed, responsive system to serve today’s youth. Now is the time to thoughtfully examine what we are learning from this crisis.
Education and community leaders must come together to envision and build a hopeful future for their children and their communities. We must use this opportunity to re-imagine the public education system and redefine our definition of success for our students and schools. We can no longer be solely dependent upon standardized tests of academic achievement for evidence of highly effective education systems.
Leading Together to Transform the Education System
Since the onset of this global pandemic, we’ve heard strong messages over the airwaves about the importance of hope—and rightfully so—our mindset matters! However, whether the power of hope can see us through this crisis, depends upon what we do in this moment. Hope is much more than passive, wishful thinking; hope is an active approach to life. A hopeful outlook enables us to see beyond today’s problems and hardships. Hope enables us to shift our attention to the solutions for tomorrow. Hope is the foundation of strong, visionary leadership.
Psychologist, C.R. Snyder dedicated his life’s work to the science of hope. Snyder’s research indicates that high hope people never “go it alone.” They build strong networks and work together to solve problems. In fact, powerful outcomes emerge when we set “we” goals, rather than “me” goals, particularly in desperate times. Not only can shared goals for the future positively galvanize a group, but a network also gains momentum-building agency toward their goals. In other words, they lead together!
As cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
The Power of a Network
The superintendents of the Ohio SOAR Network and the national EdLeader21 Network—comprised of more than 200 school systems across the country—really understand the power of a network. They meet regularly to collaborate and share their learning across the state and country. During these unprecedented times, the power of leading together is even more evident. While these visionary leaders do not yet have all the solutions to the challenges they’re currently facing, they are committed to collaborative learning as they work together to transform their education systems.
During a virtual network convening, superintendents shared the following insights on navigating the COVID-19 crisis:
“What I found inspirational is the rapid shift our staff made to go to remote learning,” said Granville Schools (OH) Superintendent, Jeff Brown, who also is chair of the Ohio SOAR Network. “We are in a unique timeframe where we are starting to see this shift away from things that we don’t necessarily value as educational organizations. It is happening at the federal level and the state level. What’s elevating during this time is what we have been trying to promote through our Portrait of a Graduate this whole time.”
“Our circumstances made it necessary for us to shift into crisis management mode. Now, we must lift ourselves up and focus forward, once again, on visionary leadership,” Lakewood City Schools (OH) Superintendent Dr. Michael Barnes said. “This shift is critical to advancing our collective commitment to fostering 21st Century designers, learners and innovators.”
“This uncharted territory provides us an opportunity to forge multiple pathways to get to where we need to be as a district, as a community, and as a state,” Mechanicsburg Schools (OH) Superintendent Danielle Prohaska said. “This time of crisis, and its impact on education, has illustrated the immediate need for 21st century learning, focusing on Portrait of a Graduate skills and competencies in order to design multiple pathways for student-centered learning. Pivoting to distance learning in just a matter of days was a catalyst that forced districts across Ohio to embrace the risk associated with change and focus on 21st century, student-centered learning.”
“I’m very pleased with how our educators have leaned into this moment,” said Jeff Greenley, Superintendent of Belpre City Schools (OH). “Some teachers have flourished in this new paradigm. It’s all boiling down to the care of the kids.”
“Resistance to change was averted by the imminent need of our children to persist through this unparalleled time,” said Dr. Ruth Zitnik, Superintendent of Maysville Local School District (OH). “The urgency by our educators to embrace our students and maintain connection literally catapulted us into a fast-track of learning. In retrospect, our children taught us to be brave and to take risks. Our Portrait of a Graduate took on new meaning as we built remote classrooms while modeling empathy, problem solving, and critical thinking. We had no choice but to become 21st century learners!”
These insights from education system leaders reveal that if we emerge from this crisis, only to restore the status quo, we’ve missed a grand opportunity. Throughout history, the world’s greatest leaders have brought hope in times of despair. They have helped people see a better future, to imagine tomorrow’s solutions for today’s problems. My hope is that we emerge more empathetic and more adaptive to the needs of today’s learners by equitably preparing every student through deeper, 21st century learning. I hope our public education system becomes responsive, not to our past, but to our children’s future.
Vice-President / Chief of Staff
Battelle for Kids
This blog was originally published in the Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA) Journal, June 2020.
Contact us to learn more about how we help districts realize the power and promise of 21st century learning for every student.
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