If you only read the headlines about education in the U.S., you would think our situation is hopeless. You would encounter alarming phrases: teacher shortages, pandemic learning loss and historic declines in math and reading scores.
You would also know that, during the pandemic, our classrooms changed dramatically (some argue permanently). Under-resourced students and those in rural areas without internet access could not consistently attend classes, either in person or virtually. Many schools struggled to retain staff. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported steep drops in test scores, especially in mathematics. Black and Hispanic students and students living in poverty, whose scores, on average, were lower even before the pandemic, were disproportionately negatively impacted.
Whenever I hear someone fatalistically reference what these trends mean for the future of education, I counter that we have an opportunity to change our mindset and our models.
While the challenges schools and districts face are headwinds, we must also recognize the tailwinds propelling us forward and the opportunities they create for the students we serve.
Despair is not useful. Optimism is our only real choice if we want to cultivate expanded opportunity and progress in learning.
Two of the most powerful tailwinds right now are the committed teachers who show up for their students every day and the over $160 billion the federal government is investing in our schools. These tailwinds produce new tailwinds, such as the creation and adoption of effective educational solutions s that collect actionable data on how to better support students.
At no point in the history of our country have we possessed such a quantity and quality of information, research-based insights and resources to complement the traditional classroom setting and motivate students, meet individual learning needs, and unlock the learning potential of all students. For example, volunteer-driven after-school programs and new technology tools support students’ learning and help monitor progress in real-time at school and at home. This creates new connections and possibilities for partnerships between teachers and student caregivers.
When I reflect on when I was tutoring under-resourced kids in the 1990s, I can see how much progress we have made in just a few decades. Those students were bright and hardworking, but they didn’t have access to the best resources or solutions proven to accelerate learning. They didn’t have today’s after-school support, enrichment activities and STEM programs, and they certainly didn’t have personalized, engaging and effective blended learning tools designed to work in close partnership with classroom learning guardians.
Today, we need more support for developing instruction models that fully leverage these new tools. New models can accelerate learning and prepare educators to use these new supports to be better equipped than ever, ready to step into the future. We need to evolve our mindset to recognize the possibilities emerging from these past few years and then harness the most impactful ideas.
So, if you were to ask me, “If now’s not the time to despair about education, then when is?” my answer would be: “Never.”
Despair is not useful. Optimism is our only real choice if we want to cultivate expanded opportunity and progress in learning. Pessimism does nothing for our students or their academic and career futures.
What will help is treating broadband as essential as water and electricity. What will help is using tools that are more focused on learning progression than seat time. What will help is adopting models of learning that provide actionable feedback dynamically and in real-time to learners, educators and caregivers. What will help are solutions that are relevant to learners and pedagogically personalized — not just based on pace and place and students’ answers to canned multiple-choice questions, but on how they think and answer questions. With new strategies, new learning models and new technology, there are new possibilities for all students.
These approaches can include after-school programs and summer school, but more learning time is not a panacea. We need to engineer that time differently, in close partnership with learning guardians, for optimal impact. In short, the best learning models should include the kinds of educational opportunities made possible by the intentional integration of engaging, personalized and data-empowered learning solutions. By using all available resources, we can give our bright, promising students the best possible support to succeed in learning and in life.
Despite all the troubling headlines, now is the time to personalize learning and invest in the future of every student. We just need to remind ourselves of the tailwinds — new technology, more data and widespread access to blended learning — and reimagine how we can work together to benefit all students, including the historically least well-served.
Jessie Woolley-Wilson is the CEO and president of DreamBox Learning®.
This story about personalized learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.