In this story from the front lines of remote learning, a superintendent discusses how the pandemic caused a systematic shift in education, unlocking a cheat code in the process.

Listen: Miseducation: How COVID-19 Unlocked the Education Cheat Code

It’s 7:45 a.m. on a Tuesday in October. You walk into the classroom and see the desks lined up in rows. The teacher paces in front of the class awaiting the signal for class to begin. On the board is an assignment and grading scale. Students shuffle in, take their seats, and begin to get their supplies around. It’s another day of school in 1919...and 1934…and 1967…and 1991…and 2020. Every school in America looks and functions differently, but there’s one thing we have in common: school as we know it looks frighteningly similar to how it looked when your great-grandparents walked twelve miles in the snow uphill to school every day.

There is no denying that school experience varies from district to district, but we are almost all united in how we set up the day-to-day for students. Once they arrive at school, sleep-deprived though they may be, we put them through a regimented, diversified, abbreviated, disruptive schedule that forces the brain to start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Eat. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Go home. Go to sleep too late. Get up too early. Do it all over again tomorrow.

And for their efforts, we give them grades. Grades do a fantastic job of identifying who has support at home, but they don’t always tell you what you need to know if you’re interested in a student’s competencies. Do we need the ability to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses? Absolutely. Do six letters in the alphabet accomplish that goal? Absolutely not.

If you’re an offended school traditionalist thinking, “but it works!”...you’re right. Kind of.  It worked for a long time. That’s a big reason why classrooms and schools today still function very similarly to the way they did 100 years ago. As an idealistic and naive school administrator, I was comfortable with it too, until I came to the realization that our traditional school structure is hindering our students’ ability to be successful in the world they’re entering after graduation. 

Educators are not to blame for the disconnect. We know what’s best for students. The post-No Child Left Behind “era of accountability” forced teachers and schools to prioritize compliance over creativity and compassion. In doing so, we honored the century-long scholastic tradition of asking students to adapt to us when we should have been adapting to them. At some point, our students’ digital competencies far-exceeded our own, and instead of embracing that change, we gave them schedules, textbooks, homework, and standardized tests. Employers are begging—yes, begging us—for creators, innovators, and collaborators. Unfortunately, an emphasis on accountability has stifled our ability to create.

So how do we change this? How can we produce innovative team-players that possess the ability to analyze, think critically, and problem-solve? It would take a meteoric shock to enable massive change to a system that has “worked” for generations. It would take all adults involved in the educational process time to hit the pause button, reflect, evaluate, and renew what they thought they knew versus what they know now. It would take something so epically disruptive that the human brain would be forced to see the world differently.  

It would take a global pandemic. 

And just like that, schools were closed indefinitely. Initially, there was shock and a sense of “what do we do now?” Before the legislators and administrative teams could even conceive a plan for how to educate kids, something magnificent happened. Without prompting, educators started rewriting the script for what school can be. 

Physical separation from students forced educators to get creative with the delivery of content and educational opportunities. This was a learning curve that was rapid and eerily comfortable. Do you remember that first Zoom meeting? You know, the one where you got dressed up, dealt with constant feedback, close-ups, 13 people talking at a time, and a feeling of “this is never going to work!”? A week later, you had a space galaxy as your background while everyone sat comfortably in their pajama bottoms raising their virtual hand. Almost immediately, teachers reached out to students via email, apps, phone calls, social media, texts, Remind, Seesaw, Google Classroom, USPS, and more. This presented the opportunity for students to engage on their schedule, not ours. 

Without much direction or prompting, teachers established the ability to communicate and provide educational experiences to all children through varied, asynchronous opportunities. With that, schools defined the educational experience as taking place “anytime, anywhere.” Additionally, because traditional assessment isn’t an option, teachers provided multi-tiered opportunities to allow students to accomplish a task.  

My daughter, a ninth grader, was asked to document what the last month in quarantine has been like for her. She was given the option to express herself through written expression or other creative outlets. Motivating her to write a paper in the traditional sense is a painful experience, but, like many her age, she is highly proficient in navigating any technology that can take place with a smartphone in her hand. She chose to take pictures that were symbolic of her experience. Given a task, but the freedom of choice to accomplish the objective, she demonstrated creativity, problem-solving, and innovation. Employers would appreciate that kind of effort.

But how are we grading these students while they’re out of school? We’re not. That is mostly due to our efforts to ensure that we’re being equitable, but let’s consider some what-ifs. What if the combination of creating engaging activities and not giving failing grades motivates our lowest-performing students? What if instead of letter grades, we begin to highlight our students’ competencies? What if we could provide a comprehensive evaluation for every student that highlights their strengths and weaknesses as applied to academic standards and workplace standards (such as punctuality, creativity, flexibility, and teamwork)? Instead of sending students into the “real world” with a transcript full of letter grades, we could identify career paths that align with the student’s interests and abilities.  

Flexible schedules. Student choice. An emphasis on engagement. Different “grading” standards and philosophies. Coordinated efforts to provide social-emotional and basic needs support. It’s happening right now. As powerful as those methods and strategies are, districts have rightly gone “all in” on prioritizing relationship-building and connectivity. Though teachers are inherently altruistic and caring, the era of accountability diminished the ability of the teacher to prioritize relationships. That’s what happens when your evaluation, reputation, and livelihood is directly tied to student achievement on standardized testing. This time in isolation has relieved  educators of the relentless pressure of performance.  

This new version of school as we know it has great potential post-pandemic. There must have been some Wizard of Oz stuff happening behind the curtain in order for the entire educational world to adapt so brilliantly. There wasn’t. The secret? The cheat code = empowered educators. Granted the autonomy to care, connect, and create, educators were able to design the experience and provide more than just an education. Free of the burden of performance, school administrators empowered teachers and incorporated a system that allowed access to physical and social-emotional needs for all students. School families (aides, bus drivers, food service, secretaries, custodial, maintenance, central office, teachers, administrators, school boards) united to provide the best experience possible for students because that’s what school communities do.

Someday the quarantine and the restrictions that come with it will end. Students will come back into the schools. Are we bringing them back to an outdated structure that  stagnates the student experience, or are we committed to a new student-centric design that emphasizes compassion over compliance and encourages the acquisition of life-long skills that are compatible with today’s (and tomorrow’s) workforce? It all depends on who is making the decisions. If we’re content with a system that is rooted in century-old traditions—scientifically counterproductive, inherently biased, and not delivering what the workforce demands—we shouldn’t change a thing. If we want to revolutionize the school experience for the benefit of students and society, we should trust the educators to run the show.