Public Education After the Pandemic
Researcher Robin Lake, director of the non-partisan Center on Reinventing Public Education, wants to seize post-covid opportunities to improve the nation's schools
In a normal year, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has a full slate. The nonpartisan research center engages on issues like school financing, charter programs, and special education, among others, to help guide education policymakers to make smarter decisions.
But 2020 was anything but normal. When covid-19 hit last spring, the pandemic threw school districts across the country into crisis—and the CRPE and director Robin Lake went to work. Lake and her colleagues quickly shifted their priorities to provide insight on remote learning, school reopening plans, and student mental health. “We’ve been doing our own surveys and tracking other people’s, trying to be a knowledge hub during this time when it’s been crazy and we need to learn new things quickly,” Lake tells The Elective. “What’s happened over the last year is a really complicated and interesting picture, one we need to keep tracking and keep understanding as we try to get out of this mess.”
Lake has made a career out of translating academic research into the kind of policy guidance legislators, school leaders, and parents can use to improve student performance. In addition to leading CRPE Lake is also a researcher at the University of Washington, and after becoming a faculty member she spent several years as a legislative aide in the Washington state legislature. “It’s a little bit of an unusual path for someone in education policy, but it was helpful,” Lake says. “Being able to meet lawmakers from around the state really gives you an interesting and important lens into the diversity of experience and need and viewpoints.”
The analysis from Lake and her CRPE colleagues over the last year have been essential reading for many of us at the College Board. Naturally I wanted to learn more about her work and insights. We recently spoke about the state of public education after a pandemic-tested year, why policymakers need to pay attention to student voices, and what students need to get back on track for the year ahead.
To gauge the impact of the last year, you’ve paid special attention to student surveys and what young people themselves are saying. What are you hearing?
I think the student perspective has gotten a little bit lost in the shuffle. And the story that’s been coming out in many surveys is that the kids really are not OK right now. I think almost every student has struggled in some way—with mental health, with feelings of isolation.
Once you look beneath the average, the different effects on different kids are going to be really important to watch. Girls have really struggled more with anxiety. The digital divide in tech access has impacted low-income kids in particular. Students of color and low-income kids are reporting more challenges with not completing their courses or failing classes. So those differential impacts are going to matter a lot as we think about what students need from us.
The students are really articulate about not wanting to be framed as victims. Kids are clear that they have a lot of power and they want to be treated with respect. They can do well under any circumstance, but they need adults to also do well. And there are some real problems with how adults have responded during the pandemic. Students want to hear more from teachers checking in on them, seeing how they’re doing. They don’t have many adults they feel like they can turn to.
Some school districts and schools react to student mental health needs and struggles by essentially treating them as babies, and that didn’t go well. Kids were insulted by that, they were checked out, they were not motivated to work hard. What we’ve seen in research for decades is that effective schools combine high expectations with high-care environments. That’s the magic connection. It’s a tricky one, but it’s one that great educators know how to achieve. There’s no formula for it. The success depends on talented educators, coherent schools that make room for teachers to do their best work in coordination, and school districts that help remove the barriers and organize priorities.
A lot of these themes are not really new. But they’ve been exacerbated by all the disruption right now and made much more intense. Hopefully that’ll motivate people to quicker action.
Are you hopeful that we’ll see some fundamental changes coming out of this moment, a deeper rethinking of public education?
Shame on us if we don’t! I think there’s a huge opportunity here. And I’m afraid that in the rush back to normal, as we’re all so relieved to get kids back into classrooms, we’re really jumping back into the old model of schooling too quickly.
We need to keep listening to kids. Take some time, really hear students and parents about what went well and what really didn’t. So many kids did not get what they needed, and there were systemic reasons for that. It wasn’t bad intentions among individuals. It was a failure of systems that had been poorly managed, poorly constructed, not designed to be responsive to individual student needs.
We could start really individualizing education for kids. That complexity we’re seeing in student surveys, with some kids thriving and some kids really struggling, is not something our systems are designed to deal with. They treat everybody the same, even though everyone is not the same. And we really need to deal with that.
An outdoor learning demonstration in front of a public school in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, on September 02, 2020. Outdoor learning spaces, like learning pods, helped students go to school safely during the pandemic.
What are some examples of things that have worked well during the pandemic, some new approaches to individualizing education that we could keep or expand?
One thing we heard in studying learning pods was how much students valued that experience—the strong relationships, the ability to customize education, the ability to bring in community resources to meet whatever needs students have. It would be great to see some ongoing support for that kind of small-group learning.
We have seen technology enable teachers to do one-to-many teaching, where master teachers do what they do best for a large group of kids, and other teachers can organize with small groups, which is better for those who love mentoring and support. We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of rethinking how we broaden our idea of teaching.
And there’s all kinds of low-hanging fruit, things where you look and say, ‘It’s crazy we weren’t doing this before!’ Make sure every kid has a computer, has the flexibility to be online when they need to be, has the ability to stay engaged when they’re taking a sick day or traveling with their families. I hope school districts will really keep that, the power of technology to provide basic communication between teachers and parents and students. That’s a no-brainer and we should definitely keep that.
There are also some real leapfrog innovations, things that can shift the trajectory for kids. Starting with an individualized plan for every kid. We’re starting to see some of that as students come back: what does this specific child need? Bring the power of diagnostic tests to that plan, and customize solutions for the child. We’ve seen online courses that allow kids to customize their educational plans according to their needs—that seems like a really basic and powerful thing we can do on a much broader basis.
I hear you talking about the need for individualized learning and diagnostic assessments, but we’re in a moment of deep skepticism about tests in school. What does the future of assessment look like to you?
I’m excited about the assessment conversation right now, because it’s gotten very real very quickly. Parents and teachers understand very clearly right now that we have to know how kids are doing in a variety of ways. That can’t just be somebody’s notion—there has to be data behind it.
At the same time, I think there is real clarity about the things that weren’t working previously. Let’s start building from what’s useful, what’s efficient, and what’s meaningful. How do we know if kids are getting caught up? A lot of the tests we use in schools are a little bit behind in helping us understand that. We need tests that are clearly useful in guiding learning.
Masked students walk the halls between classes during the first day of school at Stamford High School on September 08, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. Ensuring the mental and emotional well being of students will be crucial post-pandemic.
We also need to think about how we can build really meaningful measurements of well-being beyond academics. It’s very tricky business, and there are a lot of awful measures out there that don’t give a valid read on that. But there are also some very basic things we could try. The OECD does a survey that includes a measure of joy. And I think everyone is interested in that—are our kids happy and joyful? We can get to a serious measure of that, and we should watch it. It doesn’t tell us everything, but we can get there.
We have a lot of work ahead. My fear always is that we lose sight of what’s the North Star here. We’re getting back to school, so now what is the measure of success for rebuilding? Is it just that kids get caught up to where they were? I hope not, because that wasn’t good enough.
You’ve spent many years researching some pretty contentious issues in education, from charter schools to state accountability systems. Do you think it’s still possible to get consensus on some big changes to public schools?
It’s a really messy time right now, but I try to go into all of my conversations with optimism. I think there is a really strong collection of interest groups that share a common set of ideas about what needs to be done. What’s the 85% we agree on, and can we set the other 15% aside so we’ve got something we can work on together? A successful movement recognizes that people come to the table for a lot of different reasons, and they need each other to get things done. A lot of strong litmus tests don’t contribute to that purpose.
The concept I was trained in here at the Center is to challenge all assumptions and to reframe problems. We really work on the idea that public education is a goal, not a particular set of institutions or policies. To me, that means we don’t take anything as a given. Let’s start with the problem we’re trying to solve. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of saying, “OK, this is the box we’ve built, so how can we do our best within this box?” But it’s so much more effective when we can rethink it from the beginning. And it’s more fun!
There are so many experiments with new models of schooling right now. Microschools, schools focused on rethinking career pathways, online learning programs. They’re taking on the idea that school is not a building, but a set of learning opportunities for kids. Our job is to organize those opportunities well, to give them coherence.
My experience is that a lot of the conversations happening in education feel like they’re disconnected from what parents and students are feeling on the ground. I hope the pandemic is a little bit of a reset on the urgency of need. Somehow, we need to get over ourselves.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.