Michael F. Shaughnessy, via email:
1. Rick, COVID came, it saw, and it conquered, and it impacted a lot of schools. In your new book, The Great School Rethink, you discuss the pandemic’s effects and the aftermath. Can you talk a bit about the consequences of COVID-19 on the education system?
Look, during COVID-19, when schools shuttered across the nation, educators and families suddenly had to scramble. The shift to remote learning spurred new practices and led teachers to explore new skills and attempt new strategies. The pandemic altered household routines and upended how tens of millions of families interacted with schools. Even as schools opened back up, disruption lingered. Students had suffered staggering learning loss. Behavioral and disciplinary issues were rampant. Enrollment in the nation’s public schools declined by more than one million students, the biggest drop ever recorded. Schools struggled mightily to answer the challenges of a once-in-a-century cataclysm highlighted and exacerbated longtime frailties that were hiding in plain sight.
2. One consequence of COVID was a switch to online instruction for many students. How do you think this worked out?
Initially, harried school leaders responded to school closures by throwing classrooms online—telling unprepared teachers to essentially move their classroom onto a screen filled with glazed-eyed, muted kids. Some schools even implemented a widely reviled practice, derisively termed “Zoom in a room,” in which masked students sat six feet apart in classrooms staring at screens, supervised by a nonteacher, while their teacher taught remotely. This stuff was a debacle. It was glitchy, rote, and dehumanizing. It was technology at its impersonal worst.
This was always going to make for a worse experience. At the same time, online instruction created new opportunities for instructional delivery. Just three or four years ago, the technology for virtual tutoring was something totally alien to most parents and teachers. Today, millions of families think it’s no big deal to enroll kids in online courses, when appropriate, and students are more acclimated to such settings. Used well, this potentially opens a whole world of opportunities to customize course-taking and instructional support.
3. As we “catch our breath” and transition back to normal in education, we may have an opportunity to re-evaluate and re-assess what we are doing. But are people doing this? If not, how would you recommend people go about it?
Some of the early signs aren’t promising. When funders, advocates, and the US Secretary of Education started burbling about the need for a post-pandemic “Great Reset,” the grandiose rhetoric left me cold. Look, given what I do all day, I’m well aware that the easiest thing in the world to do is talk about school improvement. It’s a whole lot easier to write white papers, deliver keynotes, and churn out colorful PowerPoints than to change things in real schools for real kids.
As I pondered the opportunities to do better, it struck me that there’s less need for a Great Reset than a great rethink. Instead of more self-assured answers, there might be more value in helping to ensure that we’re asking the right questions. If that impulse doesn’t come naturally to many of those passionately seeking to improve schools, that just may make it all the more necessary.
4. In The Great School Rethink, you address some of the issues coming out of the pandemic. What do you see as the main challenges for education leaders?
Here’s how I see it. As families, communities, and neighborhoods dealt with the fallout from COVID-19, many things became newly clear. Too much school time gets wasted. The parent-school relationship has grown distant. Families need more and better school options. Schools are too inflexible and don’t make good use of new technologies. This doesn’t mean that we need yet another eleven-point plan from on high. Leaders should resist the impulse to come up with those complicated plans, and instead ask hard questions about how schools use time and talent, what they do with digital tools, and how they work with parents.
5. What has COVID taught us about what makes an effective teacher?
During the pandemic, I heard a lot of highly regarded teachers saying that they were having trouble adjusting to online teaching—that their repertoire wasn’t designed for pixel-based instruction. At the same time, plenty of school leaders remarked that they were pleasantly surprised to find that teachers who’d sometimes struggled in classrooms were surprisingly adept when online. The pandemic taught us that some in-person skills translate to remote learning, but not all of them. And remote learning may utilize skills that don’t count for as much in person.
This can all get pretty complicated. But one simple takeaway is that it’s nuts to solely think of teachers as either “good” or “not good.” When we say that an educator is effective, the first question should be “At what?” And the second question should be, “How do we get them doing more of what they’re effective at?”
6. I hear from a lot of educators that we need more time in the school day or year. Do you agree that we need to extend those to make up for lost time during COVID?
Advocates and public officials have long argued that American students need to spend more time in school. Reformers will insist that American students spend too little time in the classroom compared to their international peers. But the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reportsthat, on average, U.S. students attend school for 8,903 hours over their first nine years in school—which is 1,264 hours more than the OECD average.
It turns out that enormous amounts of time get wasted in the school year. For instance, researchers studying schools in Providence, Rhode Island, estimated that a typical classroom in a Providence public school is interrupted over 2,000 times per year and that these interruptions combine to consume ten to twenty days of instructional time. Before locking kids into dingy school buildings on a sunny afternoon or warm summer’s day, we should first be sure that we’re productively using the 1,000+ hours a year that schools already command.
7. In The Great School Rethink, you talk about what teachers actually do during the school day. Can you share some of your thoughts on this?
Teachers perform many, many different tasks each day. They lecture, facilitate discussions, grade quizzes, monitor hallways, fill out forms, counsel kids, struggle with obstinate technology, and much else. Yet when I work with teachers, they almost invariably report that they’ve never been part of a meaningful effort to unpack what they do each day. That makes it tough to know if time is being used effectively or what might be done differently.
If you get teachers to list out what they do each day, you’ll often find that many teachers are spending a lot of time on things that they don’t think matter the most for kids. Post-Covid, school leaders should start asking how they can get teachers to do more of the hand-on-shoulder work that makes the profession meaningful.
8. There’s a lot of concern right now about students’ mental and emotional well-being. Given what we saw during the pandemic, is that a product of technology? Or is there any way that these new technologies can help with that?
It’s clear that kids’ mental health took a beating during the COVID-driven isolation. Today, kids are enmeshed in fewer social networks than ever before. They are far less likely than they once were to engage in things like church groups, the Boy Scouts, and 4-H clubs. One oft-overlooked downside of this isolation is that kids now encounter fewer potential mentors, which matters for everything from learning to college admissions to landing a job.
Technology can help with some of this. They can provide students, especially those who don’t have a lot of educated adults in their lives, with access to mentors they might not otherwise encounter. For instance, platforms like ImBlaze and Tucson, Arizona-based CommunityShare streamline the act of locating experts and potential partners. School systems can partner with these agencies to increase student engagement with potential mentors. This is the human dimension of mentoring, which is something that risks getting lost in all the enthusiasm for AI-enabled tutoring.
9. Rick, after the pandemic, there has been a lot of consternation about school choice laws coming out of red states. Can you tell us about what’s going on here?
You’re right to be puzzled about the proliferation of school choice laws, commonly billed as education savings accounts. Essentially, they entail states depositing a student’s education funds into a dedicated account which families then use to mix-and-match education goods and services from schools and other providers. ESAs are, in large part, a response to the limits of school choice. School choice isn’t a great solution for parents who like their schools but have more specific concerns.
And given that the lion’s share of parents say they like their kid’s school, this means that school choice isn’t much help for many students or families. But because these programs frequently require parents to pull their children from public schools to be eligible for the ESA, are subject to a variety of restrictions, depend mightily on execution, and may be available to only a limited number of families, we’re a long way from the kind of radical evolution that supporters seek and critics fear.
10. Who is publishing your book and how can interested readers get a copy?
The Great School Rethink was published by Harvard Education Press. Readers can purchase a copy on Harvard’s website, or through familiar platforms like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. And, if you visit just the right bookstore, you may be able to pluck a copy off the shelves.
I should say that any readers interested in ordering bulk copies for professional development or book clubs can reach out to my assistant, Greg Fournier (email@example.com), who will be happy to work with Harvard to get them the best possible price.
Learn more, here.