Some K-12 systems did well during Covid-19. What made them so prepared?

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Much has been written about how the Covid-19 pandemic has deepened the challenges — academic and otherwise — that have long existed in K-12 education. But what broader lessons can we learn from schools and districts that are truly prepared by their organizational systems and cultures for the challenges they face?

The nonprofit Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) led a detailed effort to explore the question through a project called “What Made Them So Prepared?” which targeted 70 districts and schools with educational models that served students well during Covid-19.

The results were groundbreaking and have applications well beyond K-12 education. The report could serve as a blueprint for any organization — from schools to businesses — on how prepared, resilient and adaptable to change.

It turns out that three key factors have helped these schools to respond effectively to pandemic-related disruptions: 1) self-directed, forward-looking orientation for students and adults; 2) healthy cultures; and 3) strong yet flexible systems. More importantly, the schools were committed to these strategies before Covid-19, giving them a strong foundation for dealing with distance learning and other challenges.

In addition to these key factors, the report also highlights the need for more learner-centred strategies and programs such as mentorship. Strong student-teacher relationships have been critical to student success during the pandemic and to accelerating learning, especially for those students most affected by interrupted learning,” said Stewart Hudson, executive director of the Lowenstein Foundation, the financier of the project (and a financier for my organization, LEAP innovations).

I recently spoke with NGLC co-director Andy Calkins about the Prepared project to learn how these schools and districts – in the midst of a pandemic – kept their focus on self-directed learning and creative problem solving.

Phyllis Lockett: This was an ambitious project. Tell me how you identified these institutions and discovered the secrets of their success.

Andy Calkins: We identified 70 schools and districts through a survey asking about engagement in learning; the quality of health, well-being and support for students and staff; and equality and inclusion. From there, we worked with our partners to conduct more than 20 interviews with faculty and staff. Our goal was to learn how they modeled the traits they want their students to develop: agency and self-direction, caring and collaboration, critical thinking and creative problem solving – not only in their learning design, but also in their mature work cultures and organizational norms.

locket: Okay, let’s take a look at the three most important factors for their success one by one. What do you mean by a “leaning forward” orientation?

liming: Well, these schools and districts had already organized learning around a 21st-century vision of student success: resilience, innovation, collaboration, agency, and problem solving. These are the skills and attributes that employers say they need from employees now and will especially need in the future as jobs become more technology-driven and complex.

locket: And why did that help them deal with the challenges of the pandemic?

liming: Students already had experience in classroom environments that asked them to take ownership and responsibility for their learning. That experience helped them adapt, in the midst of so much trauma, stress and isolation, to the increase in ownership and responsibility that distance learning required, including all subsequent hybrid variants.

locket: What did that mean for the adults in those schools and neighborhoods?

liming: While the norm for educators in many districts was to “wait for guidance” (from the state, school board, district headquarters, the principal), the schools and districts we taught showed agility at all levels, including with students. The professionals at each level defined their work as enabling their “internal clients” (directors for district leaders and teachers for directors) to do their best work. This contributed to the learning-oriented relationship teachers had with students. In this way, the learning model used to be the organizational model.

Here’s an example: Shelby County Schools in Kentucky wanted to move to district-wide project-based learning (PBL) while schools were closed, believing it would help keep students engaged (and promote a partially implemented district priority). The district launched a video blog called “Shelby Speaks” where every teacher in the district could post short videos of successful strategies for PBL-focused distance learning. It redefined professional learning as a way to empower educators and was a hit with educators, who were really keen to make project-based distance learning work.

locket: Talk a little bit about the second key factor, building a healthy culture.

liming: Most importantly, relationships are prioritized. Any school would claim this to be the case, but few bake that into their systems. Most participants in the Prepared project pointed to specific actions they have taken to support relationship building. We could see it in the way they prioritized time, for example through deep commitment to college counseling programs. We also noticed it in their spending habits, such as their investments in school-wide events and interest-based activities. And we saw it in the way they encouraged and recognized staff for building strong relationships with students and with each other.

locket: And this was part of their pre-pandemic cultures, right?

liming: Educators told us in no uncertain terms that the relationships they had before Covid-19 were critical to their ability to respond effectively. There was also a high degree of adaptability and agility ingrained in the cultures of the participants. Although they had never faced such extreme challenges before, they felt prepared to deal with them – and even proud to face them. Their responses to the pandemic were deeply human and focused on making human-centric decisions, something made easier by the flexibility of the systems they had. Da Vinci Schools, a charter network in California, reported that the extent to which they discarded plans and immediately drew up new ones rested almost entirely on the strong, trusting relationships within the school community.

locket: That’s a good follow-up to the third key factor. What about the importance of building systems that can adapt? What has the project delivered?

liming: Without well-designed, well-functioning and flexible systems, these schools and districts would not have been nearly as successful. Their responses to the pandemic were deeply human, with decision making that was truly human-centric, and their flexible systems enhanced this ability.

locket: What role did technology play in facilitating flexibility?

liming: Participants routinely pointed out to us that they were heavy tech users before the pandemic because it was part of their overall forward-looking view of learning and student achievement. But they also told us that technology is a means rather than an end. A prime example of this is how the Envision Education charter network in the California Bay Area designed its remote technical learning model around the findings of a team of educators and students. The model emphasized depth over width, which resulted in reducing the number of classes from five or six to three, though they added more options for varied engagement from students working from home.

locket: What can other K-12 schools and districts learn from the Prepared project?

liming: What we know is that these 70 institutions reported a deep commitment to learner centered learning for the whole child. And they have their own ‘building blocks’ of strong, collaborative, innovative responses to pandemic challenges to build on – many of which we’ve gathered to share with wider educational communities. These schools had a nurtured environment that nurtured 360 degrees of trust, something that all organizations can benefit from. And that builds a culture where it’s easy to say ‘yes’ to new ideas and approaches – and where it’s easy to look forward instead of backward.