Join Ahead of the Heard for a lively back-to-school series expanding on Andy Rotherham’s original Eduwonk post, What’s Your Magic Wand?, featuring reflections on wish-list education solutions heading into the fall from teachers, school leaders, academics, media types, parents, private sector funders, advocates, Bellwarians…you name it.
At Bellwether, we’re focused on the 2021-22 school year ahead but also on what we’ve collectively endured since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a gross understatement to say that it has been a lot, that mistakes have been made, that many rose to the occasion achieving amazing things for students (while others did not), and that countless lessons were (re)learned. It has been a season where optimism was sometimes elusive and where challenges often seemed insurmountable.
So we thought we’d do something a little different…and try to have some fun.
We turned to contacts across the country in the education sector and asked them this simple, hopeful question. Answers vary as widely as each participant’s background and will be featured over a two-week span.
Teachers, students, and families will enter into a 2021-22 school year unlike any other. If you could wave a magic wand, what’s the one education issue you’d address or solve right now, and why?
Assistant Director, National Assessment Governing Board (submitted as a parent and not on behalf of the Board)
“In order to address massive and unknown variations in learning, my magic wand would have schools and teachers implement universal diagnostic testing, with frequent assessment updates and teaching aimed at attaining fundamental skills and knowledge as swiftly as possible.
The first step would be to get kids situated in the classroom by establishing a warm and welcoming environment for students to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically. Almost immediately, kids would be given diagnostic assessments to determine their skills and knowledge in reading, math, science, and social studies. There would be no ceiling, no floor, no false constraints of what we mistakenly call ‘grade level,’ and no assumptions of what kids did or did not learn for the last 18 months.
As a next step, teachers would immediately figure out plans for each kid. Group them by similarity (with flexibility built in as the weeks progress and diagnostic assessments are updated, enabling kids to move up, out, in, or over skill levels/topics) and by skills/knowledge, not age. Assign teachers by strength. Group size matters less than the effectiveness of the instructor. Use technology wisely and strategically.
I’d incorporate this within my pet idea of ditching twelfth grade completely, except for those who need that year for final refinement of skills and knowledge. Instead, for that ‘senior year,’ 17-year-olds would spend their mornings working on life skills and reflecting on what they do in the afternoons, which would be working, volunteering, or interning (depending on family circumstances) with the elderly, with the young, or in nature. The 17-year-olds who qualify to work with youth would be assigned to assist teachers with tutoring so that differentiated instruction can be a real thing, rather than a myth.”
Parent; School Founder; International Education Leader; General Education Polymath
“With a magic wand, I’d like to give students the choice to consume less K-12 public school, on an individual kid basis, with a very short leash/prove-it approach that’s easily revoked.
Students would still attend school but less of it, possibly just three days each week. In exchange, individuals (not the school system) would take full accountability for their learning.
At the elementary levels, students would attend school until lunchtime and then go home every day.
High schoolers would unobtrusively come and go during class (no need to fake desire to use the bathroom). They could skip a whole class without penalty, while remaining accountable for the learning, and giving the teacher a timely heads-up.
During these school breaks, high school students would have three choices. First, go to a school-designated lounge. Second, leave campus, go out for walks, or get coffee with a friend (many schools have had open campuses for seniors for a long time). Third, participate in anything fitness-related if a gym class isn’t already using the space/equipment.
This idea starts with older students but works younger steadily, beginning with the uber-responsible kids and working toward the moderately responsible. It would require parent permission and freedoms would grow if students hit certain milestones.”
Co-Founder and CEO, New Classrooms
“The pandemic laid bare the profound implications of reforms that were aimed exclusively at optimizing an approach to schooling born in the industrial era. It is time to redesign the way in which we do schooling in ways that by design are mindful of breakthroughs in brain science, that leverage advanced technological tools, that enable learning both within and outside the classroom, that meet the unique strengths and needs of each student, and that systemically support the development of the whole child.”
Chief Partnership Officer, Branching Minds
“The pandemic shined a spotlight on a gross inequity with which most educators were already quite familiar: Many students (particularly students of color and students from rural communities and low-income families) still lack access to consistent, high-speed internet and devices at home. As more and more educational assessments, assignments, programming, and school-home communications have moved online, it’s even more important for policymakers and educational leaders to address the disparity so that all students can succeed.”
Daniel T. Willingham
Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia; Author of Why Don’t Students Like School?
“Modern physical plant for every school.”
“Unfunded teacher pension obligations. They are absorbing increasing amounts of education funding in some of our largest states and preventing badly needed investment and innovation.”
Michael J. Petrilli
President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute
“My magic wand would be teaching dramatically more history, geography, and science in grades K-3 when the kiddos return this fall. That’s because it solves three problems for the price of one! First, alongside teaching foundational reading skills like phonics and phonemic awareness, beefing up kids’ content knowledge (and thus vocabulary) is the best way to boost their reading comprehension. Second, teaching little kids about the wonders of faraway places and faraway times, and the mysteries of the natural world, is the perfect way to avoid the temptation to do terrible, boring, ‘remedial’ education in the wake of the pandemic. And third, the early years are the ideal time to give kids a solid grounding in these subjects, without all of the controversy surrounding topics like Critical Race Theory, given that almost nobody thinks 6-year-olds are ready for all of that.”
(Editorial note: Some organizations listed in this series may include past or present clients or funders of Bellwether.)