January 28, 2021 – John Watson
Back in the summer, the New York Times ran an article whose title explained a key problem with the health care response to COVID-19:
Before public health officials can manage the pandemic, they must deal with a broken data system that sends incomplete results in formats they can’t easily use.
Public health officials in Houston are struggling to keep up with one of the nation’s largest coronavirus outbreaks. They are desperate to trace cases and quarantine patients before they spread the virus to others. But first, they must negotiate with the office fax machine.
The story goes on to provide accounts of fax machines spitting out a thousand pages with incomplete information, as well as the need for Washington State to bring in “25 members of the National Guard to assist with manual data entry for results not reported electronically.”
There are parallels to education that have been evident throughout the response to the pandemic, and may be even more clear as districts consider long-term changes for fall 2021 and beyond.
When we picture the U.S. health care system in response to COVID-19, we think of doctors, nurses, ICUs, testing, vaccines, etc. We know that the system has been challenged everywhere, and overwhelmed in some places. But we tend to think of the problems as being due to the challenges of a new virus, not primarily because of antiquated systems. But as the Times article explains, antiquated systems are a major part of the problem.
We’re now seeing a similar dynamic in education. I’ve written that I’m somewhat skeptical about long-term innovations in education coming from pandemic-induced changes. But I’m also not entirely consistent on this issue. I’ve had several conversations with superintendents and cabinet-level district leaders who are being very thoughtful about long-term innovations, even as they have to maintain focus on the continued near-term challenges.
Will they succeed in shifting the system? It’s too early to tell. But it’s clear that in order to be successful, they have to navigate the fax machines of education.
What are these? Accountability requirements. Funding systems. State assessments. Employment contracts…and many more.
All of these things serve a purpose. None are as clearly outdated as fax machines. But these and other policies and procedure are likely to hinder the implementation of long-term changes.
I hope I’m wrong, and that a year from now we’re talking about all the adaptations that have flourished in school year 2021-22, driven by the requirements of the pandemic, and the new focus on inequities, as well as the many roles that schools play in society, beyond education.
I hope the fax machines of education don’t get in the way.