What happens next for America’s children?  

When kids go back to school, will they return to the same one-size-fits-all factory model that perpetuates inequity and racism in our society at large?

I certainly hope not.

The dual tragedies of the pandemic and the brutal murder of George Floyd have brought inequity and racism into clear view. Before, they had ways of staying in the shadows, hidden from many. Now they have stumbled shamefully into the light of day, and our eyes cannot un-see them. 

Is American education ready to respond to the urgent needs that have been exposed?

This summer is a pivotal moment as education leaders across the country think through how they will reopen safely. There’s lots of scenario planning and many logistics to consider.

Those things are important. But the bigger question is, “What can school look like when we place equity at the center?”

To answer that question, educators must lean into what Ronald Heifetz refers to as adaptive work, which demands that we constantly learn new things to wrestle with problems where the solution is not clear. Adaptive work is focused on meaning and purpose. It is guided by a long-term vision, but with awareness that the ground will keep shifting beneath our feet as we pursue our goals.

It’s difficult, messy and will not happen quickly.

But it’s where schools can make a real difference.  

The need for change

While the list below doesn’t characterize every school in America, some common paradigms dominant in our system include:

  • Deep and persistent disparities in achievement based upon race and class
  • Disproportionate discipline and special education placements for children of color  
  • Emphasis on control and compliance
  • Excessive reliance on pressure and fear of failure as motivators
  • An impersonal and often punitive school culture
  • Learning is often characterized by covering material, not enough deep engagement, curiosity, stimulation

Take a moment to reflect: Does this accurately describe your school or district? The downside of this paradigm is that it does not lead to better learning outcomes. It simply isn’t working for a majority of our students.

Can schools instead be places where:

  • A child’s race or economic status does not predict how well they will do in school?
  • The culture and language of children are treated as assets and resources to be valued rather than negated by assimilation?
  • Children are inspired, their curiosity is encouraged, and their dreams are fed?
  • Teachers feel appreciated and are able to teach with joy, passion and inspiration?

To get to this vision, we need a paradigm shift in our thinking. A paradigm is more than a program. It is rooted in beliefs about what is possible and needed.

We must move from:

  • measuring and sorting children to developing talent in all children.
  • pressure and competition to collaboration, curiosity and encouragement of intrinsic motivation to learn.
  • assessment to rank kids to assessment to guide learning.
  • teaching as coverage of material to teaching as cultivating a love of learning.
  • parents as consumers to parents as partners.

Reflect on adaptive questions

While conversations are often dominated by technical challenges around how to manage social distancing, sanitizing and other health risks, we need to start thinking now about key adaptive questions:

  • How will your school/district support the mental health needs of students?
  • How will we address frightened adults, lost learning and students we are failing to connect with and engage?
  • Are school leaders prepared to support staff and students?
  • Are teachers prepared to address heightened awareness about racial injustice?
  • What will we need to know about the children?
    • How were they learning at home?
    • Where might there be gaps and losses in learning?
    • What will their social and emotional needs be?
    • How can we tap into or rekindle their dreams and aspirations?

Take a moment to reflect: What do you anticipate will be the primary concerns of teachers, staff, students and parents? What can you do now to prepare to address their concerns?

I encourage spending the first few days back simply reconnecting. Listen to children’s stories about what they did during the quarantine. Check in with staff, listen to their concerns and help them feel comfortable about returning. Sing, dance, play games and make it fun to be back.

Aim high with a new vision

I hope educators seize this opportunity to reimagine schools and set goals that will produce better outcomes for kids. We should not shy away from setting that bar high.

Learning should be collaborative, meaningful, active and relevant. It should encourage mastery and the development of higher order thinking skills. Relationships and a focus on the whole child should be central.

When students are empowered as learners, they understand what is expected of them and they are more likely to excel because we’ve tapped into their intrinsic desire to learn.

The same is true for teachers. Do we expect them to barely cover curriculum or do we expect them to make curriculum come to life for their students?

We must be willing to create schools where both staff and students are empowered to use education to improve their lives. That begins with building a sense of community and collaboration.

Now more than ever, parents must be a partner in education. In the past, school was school and home was home. That barrier has fallen with the quarantine. Teachers must learn how to build trust with parents through a shared desire to help kids succeed.

For leaders, this period calls for deep emotional intelligence. They have to acknowledge their own stresses and difficulties but figure out how to move forward with courage in service of the greater vision.   

If we don’t aim high, we are going to end up right where we were.

This commentary was originally published by The Holdsworth Center.

Dr. Pedro Noguera is a former classroom teacher who is now a sociologist, researcher and sought-after expert on educational equity. He is Dean of the Rossier School of Education at USC.