The path to a new normal in K-12 is a “many-sizes-fit-all” approach

We must show students that we have learned from both their struggles and success in the past 18 months—and that we will continue to support them where, when, and how they learn best.
Phil Cutler is founder and CEO of Paper.

After decades of unchallenged status quo, the past 20 months have allowed our schools to drastically reinvent themselves to ensure continuity of learning. As we pave the way for a new normal, even amid renewed uncertainty around quarantines and staffing shortages, I believe the innovations from the pandemic have provided us with some stable ground to walk on. 

Our nation’s educators have displayed a willingness to experiment with our usual one-size-fits-all approach of making students learn what, when, and how we determine. From providing asynchronous lessons to reconfigured testing, school closures have forced us to set up more flexible and personalized structures, assessments, and supports to reach and teach our students. Taking stock of this experimentation, it’s clear to me that there is no going back—schools must continue delivering instruction and interventions in ways that actually make sense for our kids.

As a former educator, I know in-class teaching is irreplaceable. But we do have children for whom aspects of distance learning have worked better—both teachers and families reported seeing benefits for some Black students and students with ADHD. And as a new Urban Institute report points out, COVID has provided what lower-income students have needed for years: for schools to break away from the rigid school schedules and time-sensitive benchmarks that often conflict with their home and work responsibilities. Innovating beyond these models can help schools meet all students where they are and close opportunity gaps in achievement, graduation, and career opportunities. 

The last thing we need is to lose the personalization, options, and flexibility we gained in the pandemic, especially as the threat of more learning disruption looms. Findings on preferred methods of learning for Gen Z and nationally representative survey data from parents further illustrate the need for more experiential, personalized, and virtual learning opportunities and supports going forward. 

These can take many forms. While attending recent regional and national conferences (IEI, RTM, ASU-GSV) and interviewing school district leaders across the country, I’ve heard anecdotes about the benefits of providing avenues for students based on their own schedules, passions, and learning needs. For instance: 

  • Boston Public Schools in MA is working with corporate partners to provide career exploration, mentoring opportunities, and a sense of belonging to students outside school walls. 
  • Leyden CHSD 212 in IL, instead of making students retake classes or do more online tests, is giving students the chance to demonstrate their learning in ways that fit them.
  • Columbus City Schools in OH and Hillsborough County Public Schools in FL are supporting learning acceleration with 24/7 online tutoring so students can access help when and where they need it.

We have to keep up this momentum. Though not yet universal, access to mobile devices, broadband connection, and ed tech continues to rise. Educators nationwide have facilitated a post-COVID makeover of everything from classes to co-curriculars. Students have shown us that they are ready to access diverse opportunities and resources outside the confines of the industrial-style school day. We finally have the chance to commit to a “many-sizes-fit-all” new normal that caters to the anytime, anywhere culture we’ve found ourselves in.

As educators, we often preach the importance of lifelong learning for our students. It is now our turn to show students that we have learned from both their struggles and success in the past 18 months—and that we are ready to support them where, when, and how they learn best.

Philip Cutler is a teacher turned entrepreneur. As a teacher, Phil saw how the many inequities present in the education system created lifelong learning gaps for students. Determined to democratize education, he helped found Paper, a 24/7 online tutoring platform that partners with school districts to level the playing field for all students.

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