K-12 Education Needs Reimagining

Jonathan T. Jefferson

Humankind's illusion of dominion over the earth has been shaken back to reality by an unseen stealth attack, perpetrated by the world’s only true superpower, mother nature. Among the billions of people taking shelter at home from her COVID-19 wrath, are tens of millions of American school children. Crisis of this magnitude reveal competent leaders, bumbling idiots, and opportunists. Allow your own assessment of the facts to determine which categories you would place New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo in.

On May 5, 2020, while giving one of his daily Coronavirus updates, Governor Cuomo said, “The old model of, everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom, and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms — why, with all the technology you have?” This statement, and the question he asked, initially set off a firestorm of criticism. Randi Weingarten, United Federation of Teachers union president, tweeted,  “Hey @NYGovCuomo .. what about the amazing educators .. who are “reimagining education” EVERY DAY during this #COVID19 crisis.. Why not start with the thousands of them... and @NYSUT and the #NYSRegents.. They have wonderful, creative, caring ideas ... #justathougt.” Apparently in response to concerns raised by the likes of Weingarten, Governor Cuomo established a "Reimagine Education" advisory council. Weingarten is among the 20 members on this committee.

When I initially saw the criticisms leveled against the governor, I was not surprised. After all, I asked this same question when I began my career in K-12 education nearly 27 years ago. Why are our school systems, modeled after factories during the industrial revolution, still operating in the same fashion during this pandemic as they did during the Spanish Flu? Staunch defenders of this outdated model inevitably came to its defense. In his book, “Who Moved My Cheese?”, Spencer Johnson posits that having cheese makes one happy. When you are comfortable with the way things are, why change? One reason to look for new cheese is to avoid being stuck with the old and foul. Another reason is that if you do not change, you can become extinct.

The governor's committee is chaired by a college president, and he is joined by school district superintendents, a teachers union president, and an assortment of other experts and advisors. Noticeably missing are school-age children, and more young adults who have recently graduated from the K-12 system. Young people can speak about the challenges they are now facing in their current line of work or area of study. One youthful voice is not enough, as their life experiences vary greatly. I hope the governor's advisory council does not defend what is, but joins in the conversation to consider what could be.

School buildings are definitely needed, but they should be a part of a blended model that includes an equal amount of time learning outside of buildings. The era of stay-at-home moms is long past. Parents who do work from home do not necessarily want their children underfoot. Children still need to attend schools to engage in group activities that prepare them for a group working environment, musicians need to get together to learn how to harmonize in bands and orchestras, many vocational trades require hands on experiences, and sports teams need places to practice and compete.

Technology allows for automation. The taking of attendance and grading of most exams can be done instantly. Students, parents, and teachers can review progress reports continually, and the need for in-person parent and teacher conferences can be eliminated. Virtual conferences could be scheduled as needed. Also, Imagine dialing in for PTA meetings, imagine never needing to make up for a snow day, imagine cyberspace inclusion and exploration. There are countless possibilities.

I am only scratching the surface here regarding what technology is capable of. Asynchronous and synchronous lessons, video and audio productions, international collaborations, self-paced learning, etc. Instead of spending millions of dollars on new classroom buildings, consider splitting the day to allow secondary students to attend either in the morning or afternoon. Days, weeks, and semesters could also be alternated. COVID-19 may inspire a mountain of positive innovations. I hope children, not crafty seasoned educators, take the lead in determining what the future of education will look like.

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