In March 2020, McKinsey & Company published an article titled “Beyond coronavirus – the path to the next normal” which provided guidance for leaders to navigate the imminent restructuring of the global economic order. The scale of change caused by the coronavirus will continue to unfold in the months ahead, and will impact every aspect of society and the economy, including education. It is unclear how this crisis will continue to evolve. To this end, McKinsey has defined five stages that if attended to effectively will result in a clear path to the next normal, one which will look unlike the years preceding the pandemic that changed everything. The key question for consideration is: What will the “next normal in education” look like for school district leaders, site administrators, teachers and students?
To help bring resolution to this quandary, education leaders should consider how best to move across these five time horizons which have been adapted to fit the current context of the education community. And when we say move, there is an intentional emphasis on the need to be “on the move” in regards to how leaders at the district and school levels navigate the complexities and changing demands for maintaining high quality teaching and learning for all students. In the book Districts on the Move and in the forthcoming book Schools on the Move, we made a strong case for the collective efforts of district leaders, principals and teachers to focus on developing cultures, building capacity, and creating coherence. These critical conditions for sustaining improvement efforts resonate now more than ever. Our hope is that this guidance can serve as a roadmap for educators as they attend to the diverse academic, social, emotional and basic needs of students in their care.
With the spread of the coronavirus came a steadfast resolve among all school districts to ensure the safety of staff and students, and by March 2020, forty six states in the US had initiated school closures impacting over 95,000 public schools serving more than fifty million students. The immediate challenges faced by school systems were maintaining student nutrition services, access to instructional resources for learning enrichment, effective communication with stakeholders, and critical services for student well-being. There is not a handbook for managing such complex challenges, so the concept of a clear strategy and detailed plan for execution is replaced with attending to urgent demands as fast and efficiently as possible.
During chaotic times, attending to organizational culture is the highest priority. It is critical for leaders to roll up their sleeves and work shoulder to shoulder with everyone else as a co-leader and co-learner. Modeling and promoting a culture of personal, professional and team-oriented resolve is essential during times of uncertainty, and leaders that commit to such actions will lay a strong foundation to move their organizations forward.
Leaders must make difficult decisions during these times of uncertainty and stress. This requires staying focused on key priorities, attending to urgent demands, and maintaining a pulse on the culture and capacity of the organization for informed decision making. The level of resilience needed to sustain these efforts can be daunting. Leaders that approach the work at hand through a collaborative inquiry stance will be more successful with coordinating virtual team work, managing distance learning and orchestrating support systems for staff, students and parents. This takes shape as a structured process for engaging in collaborative leadership. Collectively analyze the situational context to define the most critical work at hand for short- and long-term success. Design high yield strategies and identify evidence for monitoring the progress and impact of agreed upon strategies. Implement the strategies and adapt based on feedback from the evidence of impact. Refine strategies by reflecting on what works best and why to develop shared understanding of the most effective practices/supports/solutions for leading the work at hand. Begin again with key insights, renewed confidence and a sense of accomplishment for moving forward. And when attended to as short cycles of improvement that extend over one or multiple weeks, the resilience of groups and teams will be reinforced as the culture and capacity of the organization improves with each successful step forward.
It is not yet clear what will happen as school districts communicate to stakeholders that teaching and learning will officially resume via distance learning. What we do know is that there will be variability in the learning experiences among students within every school and each school district. This source of variance will cause significant inequities in student learning that can be traced back to Richard Elmore’s framing of the instructional core; content rigor, student engagement and teacher expertise. The most essential question to consider is: “To what extent are all educators prepared to support every student through online learning?” Leaders will need to create a detailed plan for returning to a viable instructional program with clearly delineated strategies for ensuring all students have access to high quality teaching and learning. And such an endeavor will call upon every district and school administrator to be an instructional leader and serve as a lead learner.
Although school sites and individual teachers will have access to platforms for virtual learning and digital resources will be readily available to design student tasks and learning progressions, this will not alleviate the variability in student learning experiences. We know that reducing variability in student learning only occurs when the collective efforts of district leaders, site administrators and teachers are focused on creating instructional coherence and developing precision of pedagogy. Since the school site is the unit of change within any school district, site leaders and teachers must have an implementation plan with clearly delineated strategies that inform teaching practices and student learning supports. Below are six key questions that can serve as a guide for school sites to create instructional coherence and develop precision of pedagogy in an online learning environment.
- What are the school-wide priorities for student learning?
- What measures of student progress or growth will define our success?
- Which student success indicators (cognitive skills and application of concepts) will best inform the design of student tasks and learning progressions?
- Which high-yield pedagogical practices will have the greatest impact on student learning?
- How will evidence of learning inform both timely student feedback and adjustments of student learning supports?
- What timeframes should guide our collective efforts with engaging students in short cycles of instruction and improving upon teaching and learning practices?
As noted by McKinsey, “The impact on how we live, how we work, and how we use technology will emerge more clearly. Institutions that reinvent themselves to make the most of better insight and foresight will disproportionally succeed. The crisis will reveal not just vulnerabilities but opportunities to improve organizational performance.” This is a unique opportunity to reimagine education and to reshape the construct of teaching and learning for the betterment of all students. The challenge will be the desire to maintain the status quo; returning to the comfort of the known past rather than embracing the possibilities of a new future. In spite of this, there should be solace in spite of uncertainty as much will be learned from students and teachers who seize upon the opportunity to expand upon learning in a world not confined by a traditional classroom setting. In the spirit of Plato’s phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In education there will be a necessity to provide teachers and students with defined autonomy for the exploration of new and innovative learning experiences. This opportunity for innovation should be fostered and supported by district and school leaders.
It’s important to note the criticality of defined autonomy as a school system should ensure that all students have equal access to a viable instructional program with high quality teaching and learning. So how can leaders promote this opportunity for reimagination in a way that does not advance student inequities but instead accelerates the potential for deeper learning? The answer is to simplify and focus on what matters most by again referencing the wise words of Richard Elmore, “Task predicts performance.” If there is a deliberate and intentional focus on supporting all students to successfully complete rigorous and complex learning tasks, and the learning targets and performance outcomes of such tasks meet grade level and content area expectations, then there should be confidence in the appropriateness of innovative student learning experiences. As the successes and challenges are shared among teachers and with site and districts leaders, the true impact of innovation in education will be collectively understood and continue to evolve in a way that meets the learning needs of all students.
The aftermath of the pandemic will provide an opportunity to learn from a myriad of innovations and experiments in the education space. School districts will need to consider how to integrate classroom and distance learning following a period of reliance on virtual interaction among teachers and students. District and school leaders will need to anticipate popularly supported changes to education policies and practices as stakeholders seek to avoid, mitigate, and preempt a crisis of the kind we are experiencing today. With this will come an understanding of which innovations, if adopted permanently, might reduce the inequities among students and realize improved learning experiences for all students. Regardless of the shifts in education that occur as a result of the pandemic, school districts and sites will need to reculture in a way that positively embraces what is to become the next normal in education. To do this, leaders can focus energy and efforts on developing cultures, building capacity and creating coherence.
To break this down further, culture is defined by the values, beliefs and behaviors that are felt and seen as part of everyday work. Capacity is determined by the confidence that individuals and groups have in their ability to be successful with meeting the demands of daily work. And coherence is the extent to which all members of the organization have shared depth and understanding of the vision, priorities and outcomes that create collective meaning for the work at hand. Leaders can have a strong pulse on all three conditions if attentive to the following actions. Observe culture by being keenly aware of the expressed attitudes and visible actions among staff. Maintain a pulse of organizational capacity by inquiring of individual’s self-efficacy and the collective efficacy of each team. And gauge coherence by seeking out whether there is clarity of purpose, processes and practices within and amongst teams. So that district and school leaders have a structured process to navigate this journey, the following principles may serve as guideposts for the on-going efforts of reculturing schools in the next normal.
- Promote a collaborative inquiry mindset and structured process for identifying problems of practice, overcoming common challenges, and sharing of best practices.
- Create clarity of focus by co-designing short-term action plans with clearly delineated strategies for supporting all students with high quality teaching and learning.
- Cultivate shared leadership by modeling and reinforcing how to serve as a lead learner that develops capacity of teams to collectively lead improvement efforts.
- Develop collective expertise by engaging in robust collaborative inquiry processes focused on creating instructional coherence and precision of pedagogy to ensure that all students are successful with completing rigorous and complex learning tasks.
- Engage in continuous improvement by defining the desired growth in student learning, seeking evidence to know the impact on student learning progress, and adjusting instructional practices and supports to meet the learning needs of all students.
The emerging landscape in education will continue to shift as the global pandemic impacts every aspect of society and our daily lives. Although there is uncertainty as to how this will ultimately impact the policies and practices of the education system, district and school leaders can strategically move through the impending changes by focusing efforts on navigating the five time horizons. Those that are proactive and intentional with developing cultures, building capacity and creating coherence during these challenging times will be more successful with meeting the diverse needs of students in their care.