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The K-12 learning landscape in the United States has shifted dramatically in the past several weeks. Educators have mobilized for remote learning, with remarkable efforts. The learning curve has also been steep. 

Beyond technical challenges, school closures have surfaced big vulnerabilities in our educational systems. Some are obvious, such as inequities in access to resources needed to continue learning at home. Others, such as our reliance on “seat time” as a measure of progress, will be more evident over time — we need to quickly understand and orient around actual mastery of skills and knowledge to meet individuals where they are rather than where we’d predict them to be. Looming further out is our ability, or inability, to respond to the possibility of future rolling closures or student and teacher absences due to the coronavirus.

To address these vulnerabilities, district administrators, school leaders and teachers are going to need to adapt and develop approaches that are more flexible and personalized than ever before. Systems will need to be redesigned with resilience in mind to ensure that schools and districts can serve every child with rigor and equity, now and into the future.

How might we get there? Imagining a more resilient future amidst crisis seems a little daunting. Getting more concrete about what stages along a progression toward a long-term vision might help. Then leaders can take stock of where they are, adopt a continuous improvement mindset and “just do the next right thing” to move forward manageably. 

Stage one — ensuring access, and testing assumptions: Many leaders are currently in the first stage of implementation: moving from initial closure (perhaps even taking a pause to plan) and then tackling basic needs and launching pilots. Educators are confronting myriad technical challenges as they seek to connect with every student, and design and deliver initial instructional plans through a variety of modalities (analog and digital, synchronous and asynchronous). They’re beginning to uncover the challenges in the best-laid plans, and approaches for one student don’t necessarily work for all. Assumptions are tested as we learn what works and what doesn’t, and for whom.

Stage two — orienting toward improvement for every child: Moving forward, teachers and leaders can begin to focus on not just access but also improvement. This work isn’t necessarily about honing the perfectly delivered lesson or “learning menu” so much as it is about improving remote learning to meet the holistic needs of each and every child (especially those who need more support to engage in learning at the right level). This requires getting more specific to understand the needs of individual learners and the environments they’re learning in, and identifying tools or differentiated approaches aimed at meeting unique requirements, particularly for kids who need more support. This will require increased communication with students and families to understand progress and sticking points.

Stage three — preparing for re-entry: As the “school year” draws to a close, it’ll be time to deeply consider how students and teachers will re-enter learning together after this break, whether in person or otherwise. The diagnostic work will be both academic and non-academic, seeking to answer questions not only about where students are in terms of mastery of skills and standards but also reactions to the collective and individual traumas experienced through disruption. How will we know what learners — children and adults — need? And what will be our plan of attack for providing it? In some cases, this might mean extending our runways through summer schooling. In others, it might mean starting up again even before buildings can re-open.

Stage four re-entry with a focus on personalization and learning for mastery: As we re-enter, it’ll be time to organize to deliver the personalized, mastery-based support and instruction necessary given the depth and breadth of needs. For some, this will mean accelerating unfinished learning. For others, it may mean figuring out how to re-engage with the bigger picture of why school matters. For all, it will mean reconnecting deeply as communities, building trust and safe spaces for transparent learning and discovery. Planning for this stage can and will be supported by the recent innovations already underway in schools prior to closure — see, for example, the many profiled here. Access to the practices and approaches they’ve already been testing will provide rocket boosters for the rest of us.

Stage five building strategy and conditions for resiliency: Finally, we’ll need to organize systems and structures for resilience, allowing for learning and development (across many domains of whole-child development, not just academic) regardless of location, anytime and anywhere. This will mean developing truly interoperable in-person and remote learning approaches, drawing from high-quality resources that are organized around desired learner competencies. Every student and educator will need resources for learning inside and outside of school. It will require imagination and a reorganization of resources as well as the flexibility to adapt as we go. This stage is perhaps the most challenging, as we don’t have great examples of what these systems look like (yet). Our best hope lies in learning together and sharing openly and transparently with one another to test pathways and approaches.

How school systems navigate along this progression will differ; context, as well as community perspectives and engagement, will matter a lot. Teams will need to develop and communicate about specific practices to adopt and conditions to support those practices at scale. They’ll also need to identify clear metrics for decision-making and checks to ensure that choices reduce inequities. With every step forward, solutions will need to be reconsidered and re-negotiated; structures appropriate in one moment might hold back progress in the next.

The collective work underway — done right, and with an eye toward equity and sustained improvement — will help us build better systems for the future. Together, we’re developing strategies that will be useful not just in times of crisis but also for accelerating progression toward meaningful, effective learning for each and every student going forward.

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 here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Beth Rabbit is CEO of The Learning Accelerator.

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