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Learning is poised for big change--two major catalysts are calling into question the value of going "back to normal"

Could two pandemics (yes, two) change schools forever?

Learning is poised for big change--two major catalysts are calling into question the value of going "back to normal"

Schools across the globe pivoted to online learning within days as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across countries, shuttered physical learning spaces, and shed light on learning inequities. But a second pandemic–systemic racism–has lingered in schools and education policies for far too long. In a one-two punch, these two pandemics are poised to alter public schools as we know them.

These pandemics highlight the need to meet both immediate challenges and more long-term lingering obstacles. As talk of a return “back to normal” increases, and with the phrase “the new normal” peppered across every media platform available, it’s becoming achingly obvious that going back to normal is not the answer at all.

In a new Christensen Institute report, research fellow Chelsea Waite and senior research fellow Thomas Arnett argue that 2020 could very well have changed public schools forever, and they outline the key dynamics that could help school leaders effect lasting change.

When COVID-19 hit, educators wondered when–or if–face-to-face learning could safely resume. With at-home learning in effect, awareness was quick to grow regarding the widening gap between students with access to both appropriate learning devices and reliable high-speed home internet and those without one or both.

Related content: Moving remote learning from reactive to proactive

Growing racial tensions and the killings of Black citizens have called into question the role of education in promoting awareness, as well as perpetuating or fighting injustice.

“As overwhelming as 2020 has felt so far, one thing is clear: going “back to normal” won’t serve all students well,” Waite and Arnett write. “And so even as educators work tirelessly just to keep the lights on, there is also an opportunity–and arguably an imperative–for schools to pursue lasting, positive change during this period of instability.”

A framework presented in the report helps break down “why some crisis-induced innovations persist, while others are cast aside when conditions normalize.” Developed by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen and his colleagues, the framework consists of four components that determine what an organization can and can’t do, as well as what it must accomplish.

These four dynamics are:

1. Resources alone aren’t likely to change what schools can do, but resources that power new processes could. Resources matter to a school’s success. After all, it’s pretty hard to teach literacy without reading material. Schools need effective teachers to support students’ learning and development. Inclusive classrooms need culturally responsive curriculum. And online instruction doesn’t work unless students have access to the internet and devices. Without adequate resources like these, schools can’t deliver on their value propositions.

2. To stick around, new processes have to outperform old ones when it comes to meeting schools’ existing priorities. If processes largely shape schools’ capabilities, then changing those capabilities requires effectively replacing old processes with new ones. To do so, the new processes must outperform old ones in meeting a school’s prevailing priorities, or else they will be at risk of fizzling out or reverting to old ones.

3. New priorities are a key catalyst for transformational change because they hold sway over resources and processes. Prevailing value propositions and revenue formulas define the playing field on which new processes must compete. But when new value propositions or revenue formulas take hold, they can catalyze the development of new resources and processes.

4. Change efforts must overcome the persistence of legacy processes and competing priorities. One of the core tenets of the four-box framework is that the longer an organization has to mature, the more it resists change. Most public schools’ models are deeply entrenched, often persisting with the same fundamental DNA through dozens of leadership changes. In this sense, it’s remarkable to see the ways that schools have changed over time given how difficult it is to do so. Changing schools is possible—but leaders should keep in mind the challenges they’re likely to face.

This framework also helps guide recommendations for policymakers and education leaders.

For state leaders, policymakers, and funders:

  • Introduce policies that align schools’ priorities with desired outcomes
  • Make funding available to develop new processes, not just shore up resources
  • Give schools flexibility to let go of the old processes that hold back new ones

For school system leaders:

  • Separate desired long-term changes from emergency measures
  • Invest in building new processes, not just buying new resources
  • Pay attention to what stakeholders are trying to get done
  • Predict the chemical reactions likely to occur when introducing a new change

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Laura Ascione

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