Looking to the Future
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Looking to the future: What ‘good’ came out of struggle
There is no question that educators and students faced many unique challenges throughout the last year. However, some challenges were not new and were made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, a year of virtual learning, and growing local and national debates over important social issues. Reflecting on these difficulties shows us that amid a year of struggle, there were also seeds of opportunity. As we are looking to the future at Good Reason Houston, we pause to review what good reasons we have to be hopeful for the future of education.
A Growing Conversation Around Social and Emotional Learning
Though school administrators and staff have been working diligently to improve social and emotional learning (SEL) in classrooms for both students and teachers in recent years, this past year of navigating the global pandemic has propelled the conversation more broadly across the community. The pandemic has pushed us to prioritize SEL in classroom instruction, school culture and access to mental health supports. We know that these practices will better equip our students and our teachers to deal with the trauma of current events.
An Elevated Understanding of the Importance of Educators
Teachers are more than just classroom heroes, and the disruption caused by the pandemic seemed to shine a light on just how significant a role they play in our society. Parents, elected officials, community members – all felt the impact of teachers and their contribution to the success of our children. Teachers are mental health supports, connectors to critical community resources, college guidance counselors, a bridge to the world and the global conversations of the day, and throughout the pandemic, our national conversation reflected this more explicitly.
A Deeper Exploration of Inequities
Academic achievement gaps widened for Black, Latino, and economically-disadvantaged children. Aldine ISD made clear strides to advance outcomes for Black students and staff through their equity initiatives. Aldine ISD Superintendent Dr. LaTonya Goffney launched the Black Student Outcomes Working Group to review district data and make recommendations for how to address inequitable learning outcomes between Black students and their peers. This project resulted in the conception of the Young Men’s Leadership Academy, a school that will explicitly support male student learning with a focus on recruiting Black male students, through a historic partnership between Aldine ISD and Prairie View A&M University.
In addition, the disruption to traditional, in-person learning made it evident that access to basic essentials was unequally distributed. Some students were left without such supports as meals, devices, broadband, and extra academic assistance. This was an area where we saw new, emerging solutions to long-standing issues – evidenced by rapid deployment of devices and internet access, meal and water distribution, as well as thoughtful focus on health and safety. We hope this same rapid and collective response will continue to unfold as we navigate how to meet the needs of every child and every school moving forward.
New Funding for Equitable Solutions
We witnessed an infusion of new funding to accelerate progress within educational systems, which, if budgeted appropriately, could have an historic impact on student outcomes. Unfinished learning has led to academic declines, most notably in marginalized populations, and the funding could provide financial capacity for districts to remedy issues made worse by the pandemic, tackle long-standing issues caused by insufficient funding, and jumpstart innovations that have potential to make districts and schools stronger in the future.
A Consensus Around Diverse Instructional Methods
Though virtual learning is not a new concept to education, districts who relied mostly on in-person instruction were forced to innovate in order to meet students’ needs in the moment. Districts adopted new approaches, curriculum, and tools to scale virtual learning. While the data is clear that in-person instruction leads to the best academic and social outcomes for the majority of students, having different modalities of instruction helps address specific student populations who too often have needs that go unmet with the standard one-size-fits-all approach. An increase in access to blended methods of instruction allow schools to better meet student needs and there is no doubt that students will benefit from this diversity of options applied in differentiated and strategic ways.
A Shift in Higher Education
Because of the past year and all of its implications on college enrollment, schools and community leaders around the country are now reflecting on college access, readiness, acceptance measures, and even expanded virtual learning and digital access strategies. Prior to the pandemic, test scores measured college readiness, and now schools are shifting to using transcripts to measure college readiness. Some institutions are grappling with the use of SAT or ACT scores at all to grant admission. Virtual learning has given countless students access to programs or degrees that were previously a barrier, and even high-profile philanthropists are making large gifts to colleges and universities with a focus on equitable access. We know it’s critical that a commitment to benchmarkable measures remain to ensure that we know which students are being adequately served and prepared by our public schools, but we are also encouraged that many institutions are expanding their criteria for what defines a quality candidate that go beyond one standardized metric.
An Inflection Point
While change can sometimes be a slow and arduous process, this pandemic has catapulted some of our existing educational problems to the forefront and served as a rallying cry for educators, district leaders, and policymakers to take action. The challenges of the past year have provided a window of hope and possibility about what could be different in the future.
Looking ahead, our focus shouldn’t be about returning to the pre-pandemic education system, but capitalizing on some of these developments in order to work toward a better functioning system than the ones that existed before. Because we’ve endured this challenging time in education, we now know we can tackle issues better as a coalition aligned on improving student outcomes, and based on some of these examples, we’re hopeful for what the future holds for students and schools in Houston next year. These highlights above remind us of what is possible when we come together to solve problems as a community with a focus on our city’s kids.