Hodas: Like the Dinosaurs, Public Education as We Know It Is Facing a Meteor Moment. We Must Adapt to a New Model Beyond What We Know as ‘School’

Before the COVID meteor knocked them for a loop, school districts were the primary providers of child care, nutrition, recreation and education — not to mention the largest employers of adults — in their communities. By the time our crisis has passed, families, school staff and district administrators will have spent at least a full frantic year cobbling together alternatives to the bundle of school services districts once provided.

Many districts labored mightily to respond, and there are inspiring examples of rapid adaptation. But when students could no longer gather safely in school buildings manned by school staff, learning for many children halted and an essential community safety net suddenly vanished. The pandemic reminded us that, sooner or later, single points of failure will, inevitably, fail.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou, when a system shows you what it is, believe it.

We’ll be dealing with the aftermath for years to come: the impact of lost learning, the budget cuts that still loom, the decline of trust in school districts.

It’s understandable to want to rewind the clock. But attempting to re-create the pre-COVID school system may not be possible. And it would miss a 100-year opportunity to foster a new ecosystem of diverse providers, services and spaces for learning eager to work with districts to support students and families.

Under the old model, services, curriculum, facilities and personnel were owned, controlled or operated by schools and districts themselves. When schools require — or citizens desire — a more inclusive and flexible approach, one where families, community groups and grassroots providers of services and spaces also play central roles in the education of children, that centralized model breaks down. It doesn’t know how to coordinate services it doesn’t deliver itself, especially from a wide range of providers.

This spring, many schools could not measure student and teacher attendance, let alone participation, let alone learning outcomes, when students were at home. Imagine how inadequate existing processes will be when students gather in third-party facilities to follow fourth-party curricula led by fifth-party instructors.

That’s not an extreme hypothetical. It’s what happens every time a group of kids meets in a library with a college student or retired teacher using the local museum’s geology curriculum. This is not confined to wealthy parents setting up private arrangements: Many districts are working with community partners to create free or low-cost learning pods, making out-of-school programs an integral part of the learning day for all kids. As cities like San Francisco and Indianapolis are demonstrating, pods — and other arrangements that enable formal education to occur outside of school, and outside normal school hours — are luxuries only if we allow them to be.

This year, more students than ever before, both rich and poor, will receive instructional support from multiple sources, including their district teachers, their families, community-based tutors and mentors, peer study groups and instructional help desks.

Families that send their child to learn in a building other than their school will want confidence that their child and all the others are authorized to be there and that the facility, the instructor and the curriculum are likewise approved. The district should want to know who showed up, who participated and what material was covered. The library and the instructor need to document their contributions so they can be paid and audited.

In the past, this trust and verification was embedded in the “Good morning!” greeting of an assistant principal standing at the schoolhouse door. Now, as we redistribute some of the work of schools into communities, we have the responsibility and the opportunity to build new trust systems that welcome a range of new contributors into the public education system, while keeping out bad actors.

The policy and data frameworks needed to support this trust and verification are both less daunting and more beneficial than they may appear. Less daunting because many of the components are already in use or under development, including learning- and case-management systems that allow multiple providers to coordinate services, and app-based electronic “wallets” that store professional credentials so they can be instantly verifiable at any location. More beneficial, because public policy that supports a distributed system of trusted components will build public education systems that do not suffer the vulnerabilities inherent in a single point of failure.

Without these frameworks, school districts risk becoming ever more dysfunctional as they struggle to coordinate services they no longer control and accommodate demands from families for a broader range of options. Missteps and breakdowns will accelerate the decline of trust and participation in public education to a degree that could threaten the system’s viability, as families with the means opt for private alternatives and families without means fall off districts’ radars. As we’ve discovered in so many other aspects of our civic lives, institutions work only if enough people believe in them.

Conditions have changed irreversibly. We can look forward and embrace this as an opportunity to rethink and improve what we mean by “school” by distributing its functions and its resources throughout the community. We can welcome, expand and ensure equitable access to a greater diversity of public educational experiences and supports. We can offer new employment and training opportunities for a workforce under unprecedented stress. Or, we can look backward, put our heads in the sand and allow the remnants of the old system to collapse on top of us.

Some 66 million years ago, an actual meteor struck the earth, initiating the Paleogene Era. The explosion and the ensuing firestorms and dust clouds devastated the environment and eliminated most plant and animal species, including the gigantic dinosaurs that dominated the planet right up until the moment of impact. A catastrophe for the dinosaurs, but this extinction event enabled the greatest diversification of life forms Earth has ever seen. With the dominant species gone, those that were left underwent rapid evolution and spread. The continents began to take their modern shapes and new environments formed across them, jungles and forests and grasslands, ice caps and deserts. New species flourished, including nearly all the mammals, fish and plants we know today, interacting with one another in new ways — more complex, more social, requiring the development of ever more intelligence. The dinosaurs that survived did so by growing feathers and evolving into birds.

This is our Paleogene moment.

Steven Hodas is a senior fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

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