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Teachers have said for decades that inflexibility on teaching, testing and innovation keep them from adapting to student needs.

We should’ve listened.

Now, coronavirus measures have put more than 55 million students out of school, and a year of performance observation could be lost by our inability to administer exams to students who aren’t sitting quietly in neat little rows.

Some businesses have been able to shift to remote work without too many bumps. They had the technology in place, and their workers were already practiced in directing their own efforts when out of the office.

Many offices were arguably ready to go online. Education wasn’t, and the consequences are dire.

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Of course, the fault lines exposed by the coronavirus were there long before the pandemic took hold of our classrooms, made manifest in stagnant student performance and college completion rates.

We are at serious risk of failing to properly educate millions of students this year because we have designed education around schools and systems, as opposed to designing around the learner. We have failed to address the persistent inequities in student access to technology, broadband internet social networks, mentors, enrichment activities, community and service learning, and the other elements that comprise learning.

Parents with means have always known that classroom learning isn’t enough, and have ensured their children have access to enrichment programs, mentors, internships, technological tools and private tutors. While inconvenienced, most of their children will be fine during this time. They already know how to continue learning outside of school. Millions of children will not be fine.

The pandemic should serve as a mandate to recognize, finally, that making education open and accessible to every child involves more than providing seats in a classroom. Today, it means redesigning the education system to create learners who are constantly educating themselves in the home, on the job, in the community and everywhere else. We can’t just teach content in school anymore. One set of textbooks can no longer last someone a lifetime. We have to teach students to seek out and demonstrate learning wherever they are.

Related: Should schools teach anyone who can get online — or no one at all?

This starts with building student agency and ownership, so students know how to identify an interest they want to explore — or a question they want to answer, or a problem they want to solve — and seek out learning opportunities that will advance their goal. Then, recognizing that every learner brings a unique set of skills, talents, interests and needs to their education, we must give educators and students the tools to build unique learning pathways that develop the learner’s academic, human and technical skills.

During the early years, this looks like educators building trust with their students, learning to value each child’s background and identity, empowering students to identify their own learning needs and teaching students to advocate for themselves. Teaching students to set goals and expectations early on fosters confidence, agency and self-efficacy later.

A rigorous, standards-based curriculum is foundational, as are digital tools that enable students to learn at their own pace, pinpoint areas for growth and support learning outside the classroom. And when teachers can access real-time performance data, they can provide remedial and enrichment learning experiences that are tailored to each student.

As they master the art of self-directed learning, every student should engage in project-based learning experiences in their communities, college-credit and technical courses at local colleges, and internship and apprenticeship experiences provided by local businesses.

With today’s technology, we can connect every student to such learning experiences and provide them out-of-school mentors, coaches or advisors who layer on learning experiences, social connections and career advice, both virtually and in-person. The learning that happens outside the classroom should be connected to the learning happening inside the classroom, influencing class assignments and reflected in students’ grades.

Every student will need the skills to seek out, design and communicate learning opportunities as they graduate into a quickly changing job market. Looking forward, workers will need to bounce among many jobs throughout their careers. Those who start out in hospitality may wind up retraining in healthcare; retail workers may need to develop coding skills. Without the ability to chart a course, they will struggle to transition. Without the skills to describe and demonstrate what they know, they will struggle to communicate their skill set to the next employer. But, those who already know how to connect learning experiences outside of formal schooling will be well-positioned to pivot.

These ideas aren’t crazy. Every one of them is already happening somewhere — often in specialized or private schools. For more than a century, Montessori schools have worked to connect students’ interests with classroom learning. Most schools across the United States use some form of education technology. Many offer dual-credit college courses, technical courses or internships for credit. A handful incorporate project-based learning, virtual courses on niche topics and distance-learning programs. Collectively, we have a rich bounty of educational programs, but most are the exclusive domain of a small group of lucky students.

This outbreak was inevitably going to be hard on students, but it didn’t need to be this hard on so many. The next time a student’s educational experience is disrupted — whether because of a major calamity like the current crisis, a family move or even a scheduled school break — they should have the tools and skills to continue learning, regardless of whether their parents have the means to build them a web of extracurricular learning experiences. They should all have access to the technology and learning devices they need to learn anywhere and everywhere.

Students who can learn inside and outside the classroom should no longer be the exception — they should be the norm for education in the twenty-first century.

The good news is that we now have a wealth of knowledge, innovations and resources with the potential to make those connected learning experiences available to every student.

The question is no longer how we do it. The question is why we’re not doing it everywhere.

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.

Phyllis Lockett is the founder and CEO of LEAP Innovations. The founding president and CEO of New Schools for Chicago, she previously served as executive director of the Civic Consulting Alliance.

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Phyllis Lockett is the founder and CEO of LEAP Innovations. The founding president and CEO of New Schools for Chicago, she previously served as executive director of the Civic Consulting Alliance.

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