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Students, parents and educators have spent much of January scrambling with yet another chaotic start to the spring semester as Covid cases surge across the U.S. Educators and experts are warning school leaders to accept the virus as a constant, and prepare their schools for permanent changes. In many cities however, the start of this school year seemed similar to the start of last year, with few — if any — changes made or lessons learned.
I sat down with Richard Culatta, the chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), to ask him to reflect on this moment in education. In his role at ISTE, Culatta has worked with schools nationally and has unique insight into the challenges educators face as they think about where we go from here.
Salman: We’re starting a third year of schooling in a pandemic, and it often seems we’re seeing the same mistakes over and over again. Why do you think that is?
Culatta: One of the things [is] particularly related to technology. There was this constant tension last time around — or last times around now I guess, we’re kind of in several cycles of this— where schools were putting the majority of their energy around infrastructure. Making sure students had connectivity, making sure there were devices, making sure there was software. And that’s important. We have to have good infrastructure in schools. The problem is, if you just worry about the infrastructure, the learning experience is really terrible. And it’s not effective.
S: What should school districts be doing differently?
C: The only way to get effective, engaging learning is to focus on preparing teachers to use the technology in really transformational ways. And that’s different from just learning how to use the tools. It’s different from just knowing how to upload a document into your learning management system, right?
I know teachers have so much on their plates, and I know that there are lots of stresses, but until we take it seriously and put as much attention towards preparing teachers to use technology effectively, we’re gonna continue to have this sort of mediocre digital learning experience, at a time when we actually need digital tools more than we ever have before to help students in a year where there’s been a lot of interruptions in their learning.
S: Right now, districts are in these ferocious debates about going remote again, school closures, how to stay open: How do you think we can get to an equilibrium where we’re trying not to balance bad choices against bad choices?
C: It’s hard. I don’t think I can weigh in on the right choices here. All I can say is … context matters. Looking at situations in your in schools and communities, and making the right call, makes sense. Not allowing political agendas to sway the decision away from what’s right for student learning, I think is really critical on either side.
Whatever choice we make, keeping teachers prepared to thrive in a digital world, to be excellent users in a digital classroom, that’s what keeps decisions being a choice between good options as [compared to] a choice between bad options.
S: What does effective pandemic schooling need to look like right now? Some districts are remote schooling, others are focusing on in-person, while some are hybrid. What the right answer?
C: Part of this whiplash that we keep getting is it’s like, “Oh, online quick, it’s all remote learning.” And then, “Whew that’s all over, back to normal, back into the classroom, let’s not use technology.” “Whoops. We’re back to remote learning again.”
The thing that we know, this is very clear looking forward, is that we are going to be in a world of disruptions for years to come. We have seen that Covid … is going to be with us far longer than we ever had thought, and maybe forever.
Even before Covid, there were disruptions due to weather changes, there were disruptions due to illness unrelated to Covid. One of the things we have to realize is that school — like all other parts of our life — is going to need to be comfortable living in a hybrid space.
Long before Covid, the idea that learning only happened in school, we know that that’s a myth. We always should have been having this thread. So let technology be this tool that helps tie all of our life learning experiences together, when we’re in school or when we’re out. That’s a shift that we have to see.
S: How can we do that when some districts still haven’t been able to provide all students with devices or connectivity?
C: My answer is a little bit unsympathetic to that. Because schools across the country that are in areas of low socioeconomic status have done it. They’ve solved the problem. They’ve gotten the devices out there ready to go.
I was just talking to our team from Los Angeles Unified [School District], one of the biggest districts in the country. They’ve gotten the devices out, they’ve gotten stuff working. We talked to our friends in Miami.
At this point, there’s no excuse to not have devices in the hands of kids that work. The cost of devices have gone down so much. The availability of broadband: There’s so many ways to get it.
Those are all solvable problems, and they’ve been solved across the country. So, at this point, if there’s a school district that says we can’t figure out how to get devices to our kids on time, we really need to look at the leadership in those districts. I don’t know how else to say it, because districts with good leadership are doing it.
S: Let’s talk about leadership. There have been many school districts that have seen disruptions because there’s been a turnover in superintendents and school leaders and school board changes. How can schools continue to move forward despite these challenges?
C: There are two issues that keep me awake at night, and one of them is this constant churn in education leaders. We are burning through the best education leaders that I know. It is shameful, the way we are treating education leaders [and] the lack of support we are giving them. But we are only beginning to see the repercussions of this churn in school leaders and part of it is because of completely unrealistic expectations we’re putting on them to solve major societal problems and the political crosshairs that we are putting them in between.
We will all pay the price for not letting school leaders do what they do well.
S: What is the other one?
C: The other part that’s keeping me awake at night is working conditions for teachers.
I feel like we have lost the joy in learning. If we can’t find a way to bring joy back to learning, we are going to continue to lose teachers and it’s going to become very hard to recruit good teachers in to our schools.
S: As districts get an influx of federal funding, some want to spend it on education technology. How can those districts make smart decisions so it works for them long-term?
C: Some of that comes down to having a clear vision for the role of using technology to support learning in the school. When you don’t have that … you just go buy a tool and bring it in to use that and it’s not connected it’s not woven together into an effective learning experience.
Set your learning vision, and once you do that, it becomes much easier to make decisions about what tools will support or not support getting you to that learning vision. If you don’t have a clear vision for where you want to go and you start buying stuff, it’s like a funky Lego house that has all the wrong pieces in the wrong order.
Kids can’t wait for us to fix a discombobulated technology suite that we’ve accumulated.
S: At the start of the pandemic, there was talk of not letting things go back to business as usual. From your viewpoint, have you seen actual systemic change in schools? Or was it just talk?
C: Oh, no, we’ve absolutely seen that, but unfortunately, what we’re seeing is a split.
I’ve studied innovation for years and one of the things that we know is that disruption is a huge catalyst for accelerating innovation … but it’s not a given. The disruption doesn’t cause innovation. The disruption sets the conditions for smart leaders to take advantage. We’ve seen many district leaders and school leaders — down to teachers — who are not going to let this crisis go to waste. The painful part is we’ve also watched a number of districts and schools that have gone ‘Whew, that’s over let’s get back to the way it was,’ and the way it was, was broken.
A question that I often ask when I’m meeting with school leaders is how are you going to make sure that the pandemic is not wasted on your school? Because if all this did was cause a bunch of interrupted learning, and a bunch of disruption, then we’ve gotten no value out of these last couple of years.
If on the other hand, yes, we had a bunch of disruption and interrupted learning but out of that, we had a chance to really reset and redesign learning for the future, then arguably, these years could be some of the best levers for change that education has ever seen.
S: What does public education in January 2023 need to look like for students, for teachers, for parents?
C: Anybody who claims to be able to predict the future these days, I would not put much faith in their predictions.
But what we do know is that continued disruption is just going to be part of our lives moving forward. What we need to do is be thoughtful about designing a learning experience that is not so easily disrupted. That can still provide excellent high quality, engaging learning, even when it means that not all kids will be sitting every day in the classroom consistently. That’s totally doable. We absolutely can do that. We should not be caught off guard by this.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story about disruption to education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.