Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Thinking forward in 2021: We must safely reopen schools, but the goal cannot be a return to normal

What a year!

Since early in March, the CRPE team has been operating at full steam to try to be helpful in the pandemic. In the first few months we pushed for urgent action to prepare schools to move to remote learning. I am incredibly proud of the CRPE team. We were often exhausted, but gratified to be able to help. However, it’s CRPE tradition to look forward, not back, at the end of a year. This seems like an especially good year for that. 

We begin this year laser focused on ensuring our school systems catch kids up, reopen as soon as possible, and begin rebuilding in ways that address the underlying rigidities, dysfunctions, and inequities that we documented last year—and sustain the promising practices, innovations, and “light bulb moments” many educators and school systems launched during the crisis. 

As we turn our attention to 2021, you can expect more data and analysis from our ongoing efforts to track district responses. Our goal is to help catch kids up and to help reopen schools as quickly as is safely possible. We’ll continue to report out data as quickly as we can get it. We will be tracking and studying pandemic learning pods and equity hubs—and will soon have exciting new work to announce. And we’ll be conducting case studies and national surveys of school districts via the American School District Panel, in partnership with RAND, Chiefs for Change, and Kitamba. 

Perhaps most importantly, we’ll be leading a series of conversations and writings about how public education can emerge from this pandemic more equitable, just, and resilient. 

Our touchstone will be the work we began more than two years ago to mark our 25th anniversary. I recently reread the series of papers we produced, Thinking Forward: New Ideas for a New Era of Public Education, and was struck by how relevant they seem today. 

If nothing else, our education system’s response to the pandemic should make it clear that the goal should not be a return to normal. Normal led to widespread failures in supporting the most vulnerable students and exacerbated already-staggering inequities. 

So to end the year, here are a few of my top principles for rebuilding, borrowed heavily from our Thinking Forward series. (I only have eight; feel free to argue for a couple more that would get me to ten.)

1. Design for the tails, not the means.

This year it was obvious: one-size-fits-all systems are not only outdated and ineffective, they also exacerbate inequality. Designing interventions and routines to support the most complex learners will help meet all kids’ individual needs and prepare every student to maximize their talents and solve the wicked challenges of the future. 

2. Rethink the traditional high school, college, career continuum.

School and system structures should flex to guarantee career and college readiness and realize every child’s dreams. Doing so, however, will require a much more fluid set of apprenticeship, mentoring, and career development opportunities. Now is the time to rebuild high school and higher ed with embedded career pathways that prepare all students for rewarding futures, but do not sort them into tracks. 

3. Recognize the critical importance of social-emotional development.

Student engagement, social development, and mental health are now urgent concerns. But they were all escalating problems even before COVID. We must figure out, once and for all, how to meet the full spectrum of students’ social-emotional needs without sacrificing rigorous academic content. This is one important reason CRPE is focusing on learning pods and hubs: they may be ground zero for reimagining school. 

4. Leverage community assets: industry, universities, arts, social services.

Community organizations have stepped up in major ways to support students during the pandemic. Let’s ensure school systems never go back to walling off the critical supports they provide for SEL, career mentoring, enrichment, and other needs. Collective action works in a crisis, and it can help ensure students’ access to stronger support systems and more diverse learning experiences long after this crisis passes.

5. Deploy teacher talent in new ways.

During the pandemic, programs such as Cadence Learning have shown how schools can use technology to ensure their best teachers can reach the largest numbers of students and specialize in what they do best—whether it is virtual instruction, one-on-one tutoring, or providing intensive training and mentorship to other teachers. Why would we go back to confining all teachers to nearly identical roles standing in front of classrooms?

6. Treat parents as full partners.

Last spring, some parents had to bear nearly the full responsibility of schooling. Many realized they knew far too little about what and how their children were learning. It’s long past time we gave families the information and support they need to advocate for their children, help teach them what they need to know, and help teachers solve problems. A new approach to educational accountability should be built around this reality, placing actionable data in parents’ hands. 

7. Provide real choices and multiple pathways for students to find a good fit.

Families, often desperate for options, have made a mass exodus from those schools that could not respond to their children’s needs. Many will return to their previous schools voluntarily, but others will have no choice. When pandemic pods first arose, initiated by wealthy families, some argued they should be forbidden or tried to shame families into staying in sub-par schooling. Others took the view that it’s always better to create more options than close them down, and created free or low-cost options. By creating better options, rather than closing them off, more kids were better off. Period. It’s time to end the choice wars and focus on meeting all students’ needs.

8. Commit to fostering innovation and learning from it.

This year, every teacher was a first-year teacher who needed help to be better. Every problem was a wicked problem that required creative solutions, testing, and discovery. The best districts and schools embraced that reality and either already had or built systems that allowed them to capture knowledge quickly, from wherever in the world it was available. They found ways to keep testing and adapting as they went. As they confront the pandemic’s longer-term economic, emotional, and educational fallout, all schools will need to embrace this problem-solving mentality.

In a recent survey we worked on with RAND, district leaders reported a strong commitment to more flexible options, individualized instruction, parent engagement, and new staffing and professional development innovations. This quote from one of those leaders should give us all hope and energy for the rebuilding efforts ahead:

Public education will never be the same post-COVID-19. The pandemic has forced public education to adopt new practices on the fly, and many will become lasting changes to the way we do business.


It became cliché this year to refer to these “uncertain times.” As 2021 begins, we at CRPE look forward to putting the pandemic—and all the pain and suffering—behind us. But we will be living with uncertainty and change for the foreseeable future. CRPE will continue to try to be helpful and to do all we can to rebuild public education in a way that will prepare every American student to thrive in a rapidly shifting world and solve the challenges of the future. 

Happy New Year! 

In 2020, we reported on district and state responses to the crisis with our rapid-response database and provided weekly updates to the field. Our research became the definitive source for tracking the U. S. educational response to the pandemic and inspired similar state and national efforts, some of which relied on our coding system. You can find a deck summarizing our findings here

Major newspapers, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The Washington Post, regularly cited our work. CRPE experts were quoted in national and regional outlets such as National Public Radio, The Atlantic, Politico, TIME, the Los Angeles Times, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Boston Globe, as well as education-specific outlets such as The 74, EdWeek, Chalkbeat, and The Hechinger Report. 

In May we launched the Evidence Project, a collection of more than 150 researchers from over 100 U. S. and international organizations to coordinate, share, and synthesize knowledge with weekly research updates, a comprehensive database of published surveys, and a topic-specific research library. We created consensus panels and research consortia to sort through complex problems and emerging evidence. 

We advised philanthropy and policymakers about the most urgent short- and long-term needs and developed creative ideas to address those needs. We collaborated with the PIE Network, Great Schools, The Collaborative for Student Success, The 74, TNTP, America Succeeds, Microsoft, and many others to help ensure decision-makers had timely evidence. 

We published more than 116 research reports and blog posts, often releasing more than three publications a week. Our experts presented at dozens of webinars and conferences and provided testimony to the U. S. House of Representatives. 

Mon, 03/01/2021

We are honored to announce a set of grants to help school districts and their community partners launch learning hubs to support students this school year and to inform long-term change.

Tue, 02/23/2021

Schools and districts must set priorities so students don't fall perpetually behind because of school closures and the difficulties of virtual learning.

Wed, 02/17/2021

District and school leaders can no longer presume parents’ trust in schools, or forget that it must be constantly renewed during and after the pandemic.