A year ago, most of the nation's schools shifted to a radical new mode of delivery. Even with months to refine this system, just "good enough" proved to be plenty challenging. There have been far too many gaps in digital access, way too many kids not showing up, and damage to learning that will likely still be measurable decades from now. And yes, these educational gaps (like the pandemic health gaps) were amplified by differences in affluence and race.
To be certain, things could have gone much better.
But do we really believe the status quo was genuinely different, or just a paler version of the same truth? The system has under-challenged and under-estimated kids for decades—not just in high school, when students officially drop out or do little more than 'show up.' It's a pattern that goes all the way back to early grades, when once eager students slowly begin to disengage, out of frustration, boredom, and marginalization.
Rather than view schools under the pandemic as an abject failure, let's first acknowledge that elected officials, educators, and families demonstrated a seismic effort to respond to a rapidly changing reality. We never before saw so many educators rise to a challenge in such a short period of time—driven by professionalism and moral urgency. We have never changed so much about school so quickly. And all of the people driving the change were, themselves, mourning a lost way of life, lost loved ones, and daily news coverage of devastated communities.
And while no one wanted a pandemic—the damage is incalculable—it gets full credit for taking us off-kilter, perhaps the only way we might ever knock the famously entrenched status quo off its perch. If we integrate the best that we've learned about remote learning—teachers doing what they do best (forming relationships, coaching, and questioning), technology doing what it does best (personalizing the presentation and pacing of information), and systems doing what they do best (providing quality and coherent curriculum, support, and accountability), then we will have changed schooling in a way that advances, not hinders, equity and drives a much needed wedge into "schooling as usual."
Remote learning and many other pandemic-inspired innovations will be a new feature of post-pandemic schooling. Imagine learning that is more culturally relevant, more individualized, and higher quality. Imagine anytime learning that blends opportunities across home, school, and community. Mediocre quality is a bug in this year's version of remote learning that can—and will—be improved, with one important proviso: It requires that parents successfully resist schools' gravitating back to the way things were.
For the first time, it is not just professional educators, advocates, vendors, and membership associations with the deep insights into schooling and a vision for the future. Parents, having spent the last year being schooled in schooling, are now much less likely to be sidelined or dismissed out of hand, assuming their narrow interest (in their own child) or poor grasp of pedagogy disqualifies them from being on the same playing field. With newly-intimate knowledge of how the system may have let down their own children, they also have lifted the curtain and found there's no all-knowing wizard. That realization has created an inestimable shift in the balance of power. Now families have their own direct vision of the way things are and the way they could be.
Let's not call that a failure. Let's help families translate that vision into a demand.