COVID-19 caused profound disruption in the lives of millions of people in Massachusetts. As the state moves toward recovery, communities — especially historically underserved communities — are reckoning with the full economic, health, and social impact of the pandemic. While the effects of the pandemic will endure for years to come, the time to revolutionize our education system is now.
The hard-earned lessons of the past year, along with the resilience and ingenuity seen in communities throughout Massachusetts and a massive infusion of federal relief funding, creates the opportunity for state, district, and school-level leaders to fundamentally rethink education and transform the delivery of instruction to fully support the comprehensive needs of K-12 learners. The investments made now will not only aid in the recovery from COVID-19, but also set students, educators, and families on the path to lifelong success.
The pandemic created unique challenges, to be sure, but it also exacerbated long-standing failings in our education systems. One-size-fits-all education systems, organized largely around measures like antiquated seat-time policies and or an outsized focus on standardized assessments, remain ill-equipped to prepare all learners to succeed in school or in life — even more so in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Now is the moment for state and local leaders in Massachusetts to create the conditions necessary to meet students where they are, and move toward student-centered, whole-learner approaches that are trauma-informed and more responsive to individual students’ needs. We need to prioritize educator diversity and support, so that our educators reflect the communities they serve and have the appropriate training and resources to empower their students. We need to address practical barriers to learning that were worsened during the pandemic — such as closing the digital divide and allowing learning to take place outside of the four walls of the classroom. And we need to support individuals and groups of students with multiage, multi-grade curriculum maps, and develop personalized learner profiles that can record progress of content knowledge over time.
Getting rid of place and time constraints that result in one-size-fits-all instruction, batching kids, forced sorting and ranking of students may be an enormous technical challenge, but COVID-19 clearly demonstrated the severe limitations and inequities created by such outdated systems. Moving towards more student-centered systems is critical, not only to recovering from the pandemic, but to fostering ecosystems that recognize and credential learning in real time for each student, paving a way toward systems that ensure all students achieve mastery.
In many communities, there may be a temptation to return to a pre-COVID normal — to rigid systems and routines that are familiar and “safe” — but to do so would be to miss a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage billions in new federal education investments to implement policies and advance competency-based practices that will lead to better outcomes for all students in Massachusetts. This includes resources to address the systemic barriers to opportunity and access that stand in the way of economically disadvantaged students and students of color, as well as investing in new ways of recognizing demonstrated learning and rethinking credentialing. States also have the opportunity to meaningfully innovate K-12 systems; utilizing innovation zones to create flexibility to plan and launch future-focused learning models is one example of how these funds might be used to create flexibility and modernize teaching and learning. Communities, regions, and states can look to expand educator Grow Your Own programs to improve teacher diversification and address teacher shortage problems.
At the same time, calling out the opportunity and necessity for change is the easy part. With so many challenges to overcome and priorities that need to be addressed, educational leaders face a litany of high-stakes decisions about how and where to devote resources to achieve the greatest positive impact, in both the short- and long-term. But leaders don’t need to tackle these decisions alone. There is a wealth of research and guidance available about policies and approaches that lead to better outcomes for students, educators, and local communities.
Now is the time for state and local leaders in Massachusetts to embrace meaningful education systems change, and to look to existing resources and successful examples from around the country to identify strategies that might work in their communities. This is a potentially transformative moment, yes, but to make it more than a moment will require a commitment to take a holistic view of our education systems, make ongoing investments, and work collaboratively to address challenges that existed long before the onset of COVID-19.