Back to School: What’s Your “Magic Wand” Education Solution? (Part Four)

Photo courtesy of Pixabay for Pexels

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?

Hadley Bachman
Program Manager of Community Development, The Ohio Statewide Family Engagement Center at The Ohio State University

“If I could wave my magic wand and change one thing in education, I would change the ‘old way’ of thinking about family participation. We used to think about family engagement just as mom volunteering at a bake sale, or parents coming in when the principal calls them about a discipline problem. We still hang onto some of these old ideas when we assume families are hard to reach and need to be ‘fixed.’ I’d wave my wand and help school leaders and policymakers see the power of family voice in decision-making, leadership, and evaluation in schools. No one understands what motivates children better; no one sees the barriers in education more clearly; no one feels the effects of implicit bias more poignantly. Without family voice at the table, we stay stuck in outdated and misguided ideas about how to fix educational problems — doing ‘to’ instead of ‘with.’”

Mark Schneiderman
Senior Director, Future of Teaching & Learning

“I’d focus on resilience in schools, specifically on the thing that would radically change education but creates anxiety: the notion of schools addressing extendibility and redundancy. Viewing the classroom and teacher-student interaction as the only way teaching and learning can take place is by definition limiting both systemically and for individual students. Schools need enduring partnerships and to consider themselves a hub but not always the driver. For example, if an AP physics teacher retires, instead of a ‘now what’ moment, what if a school had an ongoing partnership with a non-traditional provider, or with a college physics department, or with an online provider? This is threatening to some, like unions, who view anything non-traditional as privatization of education. However, our colleges are learning that they must adjust or they will be out of business. As schools see families and FTE dollars leave and have to scramble to provide a digital academy option in the pandemic it begs the question: why not think outside the box and lean on those ensuring partnerships?”

Celine Coggins
Executive Director, Grantmakers for Education

“If I could wave a magic wand, I would require vaccine passports for all students over age 12 as well as the teachers and staff that interact with them. Our goal should be access to safe, in-person school for as many students as possible. The past two years have been incredibly disruptive. Students at the secondary level have very limited time left with access to free public education. We know masks, school cancellations due to positive COVID-19 cases, and general uncertainty can deter kids from school and toward other options. We know that the public system lost tens of thousands of older kids prematurely over the past 1.5 years. We cannot risk continuing to accelerate the dropout rate. We cannot risk another year of minimized learning and widening inequality of opportunity. We cannot risk people’s health unnecessarily. 

I recognize that some teachers unions have taken a stand against mandatory vaccinations. I hope they will shift their position and use their bully pulpit as a force for good in the service of public health. We as a society have a long history of supporting vaccination as a condition of school attendance in cases where the risk of spread greatly outweighs the risk of the vaccine. This should be no exception.”

Jared Bigham
Senior Advisor on Workforce & Rural Initiatives, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce; Board Chair, Tennessee Rural Education Association; Active Member, National Rural Education Association

“I always say there are no ‘silver bullets’ in education, but I do believe there is a silver buckshot that could significantly change student success: establishing universal pre-K for all students, with an emphasis on kindergarten readiness. We constantly play a game of catch-up with more than half of our students across the country, when we could change the dynamic significantly by starting students on their K-12 path ready to learn on Day One. Look at kindergarten readiness scores for any feeder pattern, and you’ll see that same percentage play out almost exactly at every milestone marker we track, all the way to postsecondary.”

Brad Allan
K-12 Director, Hanover Research

“I want to address and solve the problem of measuring so-called non-cognitive skills and outcomes. I’ve always been on Team Non-Cogs in the imaginary competition between hard and soft skills, but the availability of measurable outcomes renders the competition moot (as well as imaginary). If we could magically get up and running on non-cognitive skills’ measurement, we could reverse-engineer ways to build them, and thereby equip students with skills that underlie success in life beyond the classroom.”

Leslye A. Arsht
Co-Founder and Board Chair, StandardsWork; Former Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Education in Iraq

“I would have all high schools offer 10th graders* the opportunity to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to help students identify career areas of interest. Then, expand their Career Exploration programs (including dual enrollment arrangements with colleges and universities) with two goals in mind: 1) helping students identify career opportunities they are interested in and good at, and 2) introducing a wide array of mastery-based instructional approaches to keep 12th graders engaged in learning, especially for high-demand careers that don’t require a 4-year degree. 

*The U.S. Department of Defense would have to agree they ‘own’ the tests, and they can’t recruit students in 10th grade (they can identify high-performing students for recruiting in 11th and 12th grades). Currently, the test is offered by guidance counselors to students they think should (or want to) consider the military. But many students (especially ones who have little exposure in life to the countless kinds of career options that exist) would be so much better prepared to make education and life choices with access to these tools.”

Meredith Olson
President, VELA Education Fund

“The magic wand I would wave would allow students freedom to combine the settings, methods, and social arrangements (people) for their learning in novel ways. That would mean greater flexibility of time and place, and more opportunities for solo learning (getting lost in a book!), mixed-age learning, engagement with adults and family members, participation in community organizations, and enrichment opportunities. Less homework, less stress and deeper, more meaningful experiences and family time.”

Stay tuned for more in our “Magic Wand” series and join the conversation on Twitter @bellwethered.

(Editorial note: Some organizations listed in this series may include past or present clients or funders of Bellwether.)