May 9, 2020 - Politics & Policy

How the coronavirus pandemic will transform teaching

Illustration of an apple surrounded by abstract colors and shapes

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Coronavirus pandemic-forced school closures from kindergarten to college will transform how teachers teach and students learn.

The big picture: Our long-held views of schools and the roles of teachers, students and parents will never be the same. That could be a good thing if we seize this opportunity to make changes that actually result in better outcomes for students and better resources for teachers.

Most parents in a new survey by the National Parents Union said schools should use this time as an opportunity to make changes to education.

  • 61% said schools should focus on rethinking how to educate students and should come up with new teaching methods as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Only 32% of parents want schools to revert to the way things were before the pandemic began.

Here are some of the ways experts say education will change:

1. Redefining assessment: Standardized tests have broadly been canceled this year due to school closures. While there will be a need to assess where students are academically when classes resume next year, there will likely be more of a focus on mastery-based assessments already offered by many online learning platforms, like Khan Academy.

  • "If we can focus mastery much more on actual learning than what kids score on some tests, it allows us to start trusting our teachers more in a way we want to and need to," says Todd Rose of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-founder of Populace, a think tank.
  • Many colleges have temporarily waived the SAT/ACT requirement due to the crisis. This could lead to a broader decoupling of much-maligned standardized tests from college acceptance.

2. New power in the hands of students and parents: Many are considering delaying or forgoing college given the risk of a second wave of this pandemic and the uncertainty of the job market on the other side of a degree.

  • That's an opportunity to address concerns about the cost of higher education in the U.S. and how it serves students — and society. Institutions will be under pressure to reduce tuition and justify their value proposition.
  • “Parents and students have more power now than they’ve ever had. Let’s have the conversation about what we want out of higher education,” Rose says.
  • At the K-12 level, school districts are asking for parents' input on reopening plans, giving parents more say than in typical circumstances.

3. More emphasis on personalized learning: Students will eventually return to classrooms and campuses, but virtual education will stay part of the mix.

  • Blended learning options where students are split up for classroom learning for a few days a week and online for the remainder will likely become the norm, says Andy Rotherham, co-founder of nonprofit Bellwether Education.
  • He also predicts a transition to competency courses where students can move ahead at their own pace instead of logging into classes for the entire school day.  
  • "The best teachers have always personalized," says Elisa Villanueva-Beard, CEO of Teach For America. Now with virtual learning, "we have an opportunity to recognize this asset and put it to use in a way that's data driven."

4. Renewed focus on inequities: Larger reliance on remote learning has magnified existing socioeconomic disparities when it comes to access to broadband and devices, plus the availability of a parent to steer at-home learning.

  • More than 21 million Americans do not have high-speed internet, and many children do not have access to devices at home. Not all parents have the tech skills or the time to adequately help their children find and navigate the ed-tech platforms.
  • School districts are working now to plan strategies for the fall — not only what drastic changes will need to be made in the classroom setting to maintain social distancing, but how to prepare more robust online programs, especially given the possibility of being in this position again.
  • "Do children have hot spots? Do they have access to devices?" Villanueva-Beard says. "That’s now like asking if kids have backpacks and paper and pencils. It's essential."

Reality check: Despite the opportunities to make changes, there will be a strong pull toward the status quo because people are longing for a return to pre-pandemic life, especially for parents of K-12 students.

  • "People are craving normalcy — the last thing they want is disruption even if that would be good for them," Rose says.

The bottom line: One of the most impactful changes brought on by the pandemic is a greater appreciation for teachers' skill, patience and creativity. There will also be a greater emphasis on giving them the tools and training they need to adjust to the new reality of their jobs.

  • "Ultimately you can have all the tech in the world, but really great learning is a human endeavor," Rose adds. "It's about the teacher and student relationship."

Go deeper:

  1. Coronavirus has exposed the cracks in digital teaching strategies
  2. Schools struggle to afford meals for low-income children during pandemic
  3. For employees to return to work, childcare centers must reopen too
  4. An expert Q&A on managing children’s behavior during the coronavirus pandemic
  5. College students are considering a coronavirus gap year instead of online classes
  6. Photos: Art students get creative with materials found at home during coronavirus pandemic
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