December 8, 2020

Speak Up: A Call to Revolutionize Education

Brady Cook
Headshot of Brady Cook with title Superintendent of the Michigan Center School District with blog title

Speak Up: A Call to Revolutionize Education


September 1, 2019, was on the verge of being a great day. I was happy, healthy, and hanging out with lifelong friends. Things were going splendidly...and then I died. Sudden Cardiac Arrest. I woke up in a hospital bed two days later. I lay in the hospital bed for a week evaluating my life. Turns out the things that I thought were really important actually were not. Things I downplayed or treated with indifference were critically important. Confronted with a traumatic disruption of life as I knew it and blessed with newfound clarity, I walked out of the hospital emboldened and grateful for a fresh start.

Everyone associated with schools underwent their own traumatic event in the spring of 2020 when, on top of the anxiety associated with a global pandemic, the established norm of school made an abrupt and uncomfortable shift. That may sound hyperbolic, but not when you consider the emotional swings that have accompanied the “COVID School” experience. Teachers had to reinvent themselves while still subject to the pressures of achievement, evaluation, and attendance expectations. Parents and guardians had their lives epically disrupted when, instead of sending their students to school, school came home to them. Students who deeply depend on relationships as a catalyst for inspiration had to adjust to a version of school that supplanted the joy of learning with rudimentary tasks. Yes, we all experienced trauma and a disruption of life as we knew it. But with optimism that schools might “get back to normal” soon, we should be emboldened, grateful for a fresh start, and prepared to use the adversity we experienced to impact meaningful change moving forward.

First, we must acknowledge an irrevocable truth: While “COVID School” presented some significant challenges, it was the best ally we’ve ever had in illuminating some of the problems with the traditional school model. Did engagement decrease? Yes. Did failure rates increase? Yes. Did achievement suffer? Likely. Attendance? Spotty, at best. We can go a couple of ways with this. We can assert that these things happened because “students need traditional school,” or we can dig deeper and get to the root of why.  Here’s the why: We forced the traditional model of school into a non-traditional hybrid/virtual setting. Problems with engagement, failure rates, achievement, and attendance were here before March; the virtual/hybrid model threw gasoline on the fire.

We can do better. We can do better. In one of society’s most inhumane ironies, educators have always had little say in how education should function, and we’re often ostracized for challenging the status quo. Fortunately for us, we just picked up a powerful ally: the parents and guardians that worked alongside us the past nine months. When you have the educators and the parents/guardians functioning in unison in a school community, fighting for what’s best for students, meaningful change can and will happen.

I have a challenge for everyone reading this: Speak up. If we remain silent, we’re complicit in prolonging a model that is not best for our students. Take what you knew before March, mix in your experience during the last nine months, and share what you think will help push schools forward post-pandemic. I’ll start.

Equity is everything

This is a challenge that makes delivering a high-quality virtual education for all impossible. The moment schools go virtual, students are scholastically married to their circumstances at home. The same could be said for a traditional school setting. When students leave the safety, comfort, and familial feel of a classroom, they are at the mercy of influences beyond their control.  Schools love to throw “for all” in mission and vision statements, but backing that declaration up means being cognizant of every student’s circumstance in every scholastic decision that is made. Standardized tests essentially inform school districts about their socioeconomic status because they’re so overtly inequitable, but at least we can assert control over what happens within our own walls.  

Learning > grading

Letter grades are so deeply embedded in school culture that the mere mention of abandoning them makes people hysterical. Content and modes of instruction have changed drastically over time, but the standard grading scale just won’t go away. It is imperative that we provide detailed feedback about the progress (or lack of progress) students are making in school, but we can do better than just relaying a letter in the alphabet. For me, this isn’t an argument about providing a summative accountability measure (like a grade on a report card); it’s about the educational malpractice that happens on the way there. For example, what pro-learning argument can be made that supports not accepting late work? When the goal is to complete tasks in order to “get a good grade,” learning becomes secondary to compliance. The conversation for each student could (and should) revolve around what they know and don’t know and what skills they possess or need to work on that will allow them to be successful and employable post-graduation.  

Trust the teachers

An inspirational theme that has endured throughout the past nine months is that teachers are conscientious, adaptable, inspiring, and selfless. I believe parents and guardians have always known this, but when you literally live it each day, you develop a deeper appreciation. If we’re connecting the dots, we can make the assertion that teachers are incredible, but the “COVID School” experience has still been difficult. It would have been much less difficult if teachers would have designed the experience. Unfortunately, those who know the most about education are often consulted the least. What might a teacher-designed COVID School experience have looked like?

For starters, teachers would insist on hitting the pause button on standardized testing, teacher evaluation, traditional grading practices, and complex attendance procedures. A learning plan for all students would have been developed around engagement and equitable practice. Imagine if your student(s) had been asked to research, plan, and develop projects rooted in something they love, where they could have demonstrated mastery through a mode of their choosing, instead of checking assignment boxes and showing up for video meetings. The teacher’s role in that scenario would have been to engage, inspire, and provide authentic feedback to encourage growth and curiosity. What would that have done for the level of engagement? Attendance? Failure rates? Teachers know what buttons to push; we just need to give them permission to push them.

We are all excited to get back to some semblance of normal in schools, but let’s have the courage to create a better version of what we’ve always known. We are emboldened, with  newfound clarity and a fresh start. This is our chance to revolutionize education. Speak up.