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Navigating the Next Normal in Education

Almost one year ago, a short article titled “Beyond coronavirus – the path to the next normal in education” was published by Corwin Press (Westover, 2020) which provided guidance for district and school leaders to navigate the imminent uncertainty and chaos of the global pandemic. Oddly enough, the predicted changes caused by the coronavirus unfolded over the course of the past year in much the same way the article had ascribed. However, it is unclear how this crisis will continue to impact education systemsWhat was described were five stages initially shaped by McKinsey as a resource for global leaders to attend to economic and societal changes caused by the pandemic. The intent was to assist organizations with creating a clear path to the next normal, one which would look unlike the years preceding the pandemic that changed everything. The key question for education systems to consider wasWhat will the “next normal in education” look like for school district leaders, site administrators, teachers and students?  

To help bring resolution to this quandaryeducation leaders were asked to consider how best to move across the five time horizons based on the context of their local education communities. And when saying move, there was an intentional emphasis on the need to be “on the move” in regards to how leaders at the district and school levels should navigate the complexities and changing demands for maintaining high quality teaching and learning for all students. In the book Districts on the Moveand in the forthcoming book Schools on the Movewe made a strong case for the collective efforts of district leaders, principals and teachers to focus on developing culturesbuilding capacity, and creating coherenceThese critical conditions for sustaining improvement efforts resonate now more than ever. Once again, 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. 

RESOLVE 

As the coronavirus spread, steadfast resolve among all school districts focused on the safety of staff and studentsand 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 challenge faced by school systems were maintaining student nutrition services, access to instructional resources for learning enrichment, effective communication with stakeholders, and critical servicefor student well-being. There was not a handbook for managing such complex challenges, so the concept of a clear strategy and detailed plan for execution was replaced with attending to urgent demands as fast and efficiently as possible.  

During these chaotic times, attention to organizational culture was the highest priority. It was 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 was essential during these times of uncertainty, and leaders who committed to such actions were successful in laying a strong foundation to move their organizations forward. 

RESILIENCE

Leaders must make difficult decisions during times of uncertainty and stressThis required 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 was daunting. Leaders that approached the work at hand through a collaborative inquiry stance were more successful with coordinating virtual team work, managing distance learning and orchestrating support systems for staff, students and parents. This took 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. Designing high yield strategies and identifying evidence for monitoring the progress and impact of agreed upon strategies. Implementing strategies and adapting based on feedback from the evidence of impact. Refining strategies by reflecting on what worked best and why to develop shared understanding of the most effective practices/supports/solutions for leading the work at handBeginning again with key insights, renewed confidence and a sense of accomplishment for moving forwardAnd for those that attended to the work in this fashion, short cycles of improvement extend over multiple weeks, resilience among staff was developed that reinforced a productive culture with collective capacity to get better with each successful step forward.  

RETURN

Here is where we stand now, at the return phase. Most all school districts in the United States have returned to hybrid or in-person learning. What we have witnessed in every district and each school over the past year is a variability in the learning experiences among studentsThis variance has caused 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 schools and every teacher prepared to overcome student equity gaps and accelerate the learning of all students? Leaders will need a road map for creating 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 a myriad of instructional resources 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 to achieve equitable growth in student learning. 

  1. What are the school-wide priorities for student learning? 
  2. What measures of student progress or growth will define our success? 
  3. Which student success indicators (cognitive skills and application of concepts) will best inform the design of student tasks and learning progressions? 
  4. Which high-yield pedagogical practices will have the greatest impact on student learning? 
  5. How will evidence of learning inform both timely student feedback and adjustments of student learning supports? 
  6. What timeframes should guide our collective efforts with engaging students in short cycles of instruction and improving upon teaching and learning practices? 

REIMAGINATION

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 has been learned from students and teachers who seized upon the opportunity to expand student learning in a world not confined by a traditional classroom setting. In the spirit of Plato’s phrase, “Necessity has been the mother of invention.” It is essential that education systems provide school staff with defined autonomy for exploring innovative teaching and learning experiences that have greater impact on accelerating student learning. 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 leaders, the true impact of innovative practices will be collectively understood and continue to evolve in a way that meets the learning needs of all students. 

RECULTURING

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 in-person, hybrid and distance learning to meet the needs of the families that they serve. 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. And seek out better ways to educate students that reduces equity gaps and accelerates student learning. 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 behaviors and actions that are observed as part of everyday work. Capacity is determined by the confidence and competence 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 priorities, practices 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 individuals 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 this next normal. 

  1. Promote collaborative inquiry mindset and structured process for identifying problems of practiceovercoming common challenges, and sharing of best practices 
  2. 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. 
  3. Cultivate shared leadership by modeling and reinforcing how to serve as lead learner that develops capacity of teams to co-lead improvement efforts. 
  4. 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. 
  5. 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 has impacted every aspect of society and our daily lives. Although there is uncertainty as to how this will ultimately influence 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.  

Written by

Jay Westover is co-founder and chief learning officer of InnovateEd. He has provided leadership training and school improvement consulting for school districts across North America. This article is based on his past bookDistricts on the Move. His next book, Schools on the Moveco-authored with Chris Steinhauser will be published in 2022 by Corwin Press. 

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