Where Are the True Disruptions from this Pandemic? | Ray Ravaglia | 3 Min Read

Covid-19 has profoundly disrupted business as usual within schools, causing institutions across the country to scramble as they attempt to maintain services in the face of unforeseen obstacles. Operational challenges have meant picking and choosing which elements are essential to the function of school. In doing so schools have, knowingly or not, provided insight into what they most value. And while the pandemic provided an opportunity for radical experimentation, the lack of imagination exposed by the results has been profoundly disappointing. 

Wherein lies the purpose of schools? Typical responses, often enshrined in mission statements, say things like “preparing students to be informed citizens,” “developing students who can make positive contributions to society,” or “preparing students for success in future academics and in life itself.” One who did not know this, who only observed the activities of the past few months, would not be remiss in concluding that the ultimate purpose is to “provide students with instruction aligned to the state and national standards and college expectations” with a good dose of “minimize institutional risk and liability” mixed in.

To see the lack of imagination shown by schools, consider the question of service-learning. For many schools, particularly independent schools, service is a large component of the mission, and completion of service projects a condition for graduation. The need for service, and the opportunity to provide service, has skyrocketed during the pandemic. A natural response during the pandemic, in fact, might have been to deprioritize academics for several terms and to fully embrace emerging service opportunities. Yet rather than pushing learning into the crisis, most schools have chosen to waive service requirements for their students.

Consider the academic calendar. Rather than rushing students into ill-considered remote learning in Spring 2020, schools could have declared summer early and spent April and May planning for a delayed spring term that could occur in June and July. Or, looking at seasonal rates of infection, they could have decided to shift from a long summer vacation to a long winter one.

The same holds true for the broader operation of the school itself. The most common responses to the pandemic have been to close physical classrooms and move core instruction online, to focus on preserving the standard class structures as much as possible. While technology is used to place-shift education, the end result is still the same one-size-fits-all approach that was prevalent in the classroom. Opportunities to differentiate, to flip classrooms, to embrace student-centered learning, have mostly gone overlooked. Instead, teachers continue to have the same classes, same class sizes, and the same class structures, as if nothing had changed. While this might be necessary from a contractual standpoint, it is certainly not optimal.

This shovelware approach to going remote ignored the lessons learned in 30 years of online education. For students to be happy in an online classroom, they need to want to be in the online classroom. Purely asynchronous learning, even among highly motivated students, has shown abysmal performance results when it comes to student attrition. Synchronous efforts that have failed to consider the change in medium have also shown dismal results. For students who never signed up for an online course, let alone an online school, it is no wonder that districts are seeing them fail at rates of 20–40%. 

This is not to say that there have been no successes. While most students have suffered from not being physically present at school, some students have thrived in the disrupted classroom for precisely the reason that it has provided an escape from the systemic dysfunctional environment. Less time in the command and control structure, with more opportunity to drive their own education in ways that they find truly compelling, has reminded some students that learning is not the sole provenance of classrooms. Whether schools learn from these successes and preserve increased levels of student autonomy post-pandemic remains to be seen.

I would invite readers to share their stories of radical changes that have taken place during the pandemic that have resulted in significant improvements. Where have people broken with traditional structures and assumptions, only to find new success? And where have people leaned into preserving their missions, rather than their operations, and found that by doing so they have been better able to serve students and their families? 

Ray Ravaglia // January 31, 2021

Ray Ravaglia

Raymond Ravaglia, Chief Learning Officer at Opportunity Education, founded Stanford University’s Education Program for Gifted Youth, was the principal architect of Stanford University’s Online High School and is also author of Bricks and Mortar: the making of a Real Education at the Stanford Online High School. He has presented regularly at conferences on gifted education and e-learning for the past 15 years. He has published in scholarly and professional journals on different aspects of e-learning, was the 1996 recipient of the paper of the year award from GiftedChild Quarterly, and in 1997 received a Central Pioneer Award. Raymond has served as an external reviewer for the Office of Post-Secondary Education of the U.S. Department of Education, has been an advisor to the College Board on the subject of online education, and was a founding board member of the International Council for Online Learning. He received his BA and MA degrees in Philosophy from Stanford University.

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