One of the major adjustments of the COVID-19 crisis is the sudden shift to home learning families with children have been forced to make.

No one expected to suddenly have to shift to this new model where our kids are at home instead of in the classroom.  And while we’ve all enjoyed the neighbor teacher parades and newfound appreciation for the hard work everyone involved in education puts in, this crisis has shown us we have some significant challenges to be addressed in our education system.

While some children adapted well to this new learning model, far too many have only fallen further behind for a number of reasons.  We certainly want to see kids back in schools in the Fall, but should they just go back to the way it’s always been done?  Instead of viewing this recent change as a negative, Upstate Jobs suggests leaders put their energy towards new approaches in education to address the underlying problems brought to light by the shutdown. 

Our current approach to education is simply not reflective of today’s workforce needs – we instill in our children an insistence in a college track to the detriment of teaching skills that can translate to needed jobs today and tomorrow.  Further, the bureaucracy within the system is so massive and unyielding that we aren’t able to adjust quickly or effectively to either workforce demands or new approaches to learning.  That bureaucracy also put such unyielding shackles on the system that innovation and freedom is nearly impossible.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, access to technology, devices, and broadband is not guaranteed to many students, truly crippling their ability to learn remotely.

Let’s examine a few of these issues.

Should College Prep be the Only Goal for High School Grads?

For starters, our education system simply does not prepare our children to live in today’s digital world. Most schools have few, if any, actual courses in coding or use of application programs notwithstanding a shortage of software talent so severe TechRepublic’s CIO Jury reports an estimated 1 million computer related jobs will go unfilled in 2020.

While it’s common for curriculum requirements to mandate studying a foreign language, no such requirement (or even an option exists at most schools), to take a computer language course.

Trade skills are another growing gap in the labor market. One only needs to look at the wages being paid for skilled trade workers to see how the market is valuing that talent even greater than most college graduates. While BOCES programs offer opportunities for students to learn trade skills, many courses go unfilled as school and cultural influences demean the value of pursuing these opportunities.

Far too much of our focus is instead just pushing kids into college, whether it is right for them and whether they have the right prerequisites to pursue that path. Once in college, too many are burdened with massive student loan debt and may not even be gaining the skills needed to get a job that will allow them to pay off the debt.  Is that the path we should be promoting as the goal for all students?

Were we to shift more focus to workforce-based curriculum, maybe we could be helping students learn skills – from coding to plumbing – that result in job readiness without necessarily having to go to college.

Greater investment in how we encourage students to take advantage of opportunities to learn trade skills, both traditional and digital, would allow more children access to jobs that exist today.

Too Much Administration & Bureaucracy Just Reinforcing Outdated Methods

New York spent more last year on education per capita than 48 other states.  Is that because we have schools like palaces and the best tools and technology available?  Hardly – it’s because our system has an enormous bureaucracy, full of administrators so far removed from the classroom that wouldn’t know a smart board from a chalkboard.  We spend lavishly on administration at the district, regional, and state level, yet many districts struggle to provide teachers and students the tools they need to succeed.

Many of these administrators are paid like corporate executives, oftentimes making 3 or 4 times that of a teacher actually delivering instruction.  In the business world, whenever an organization finds inefficiencies or bloated administration, there is an immediate pivot towards finding ways to automate that inefficiency out of existence.  Why aren’t we doing that in education?  Wouldn’t the money saved on eliminating even one $100,000+ per year District, County or State administrative role be better invested in making sure our students actually get the tools they need to succeed? 

The pandemic crisis put a spotlight on the divide where kids who are traditional learners in a strong, family supporting environment are succeeding, while others that need a more hands on approach fall further behind. 

Ask any teacher if they think the traditional model of a single instructional approach works equally for all students in the classroom and they’ll give you an exasperated laugh.

Properly deployed digital education approaches can help individual students advance at their own pace by learning in a fashion customized to how they best take in information. In this form of one-to-one learning, teachers evolve to a blended role that includes coaching an individual student while other students are working on developments right in the same room.

No Room for Our Teachers or Schools to Innovate

Massive bureaucracies like the one we have in the New York education world are really good at two things: self-preservation and squashing innovation.  How can we expect our teachers to succeed if we don’t allow them to seek creative solutions to instruction?  How can we expect our students to thrive if we don’t give them the freedom to explore and achieve?

Local decision-making in education was long ago stifled by institutionalized models that force a once-size-fits-all approach to nearly every component of operations and then tying funding to participation. 

Take, for example, the acquisition and deployment of technology-based learning tools.  For many districts, access to technology is driven by their Regional Information Center (RICs).  These RICs serve as a procurement engine and technical support vehicle.  So, when a district needs new technology, they seek it out through their RIC, wait for the approval, then wait for the RIC to install the technology.  There are multiple problems with that approach – first of all, it takes so long for a technology offering to be approved first by the state, then a RIC, that by the time it’s approved, it’s no longer leading edge.  On top of that, the limited budgets RICs have for support, along with below market salaries for RIC technicians result in agonizingly slow response times and sub-standard support for local districts with technology deployment.

Lower income school districts are also handcuffed into using RICs due to the advantageous funding mechanism created by State aid. Some districts receive over 80% of money spent through the RIC returned as revenue in the following year. While utilizing buying power of the State through the RICs can provide leverage for greatly discounted services, many districts have no financial alternative except to use the RIC for all technology hardware and support. This comes at deep discounts but for service that is below industry standards and as noted above, often includes outdated technology.

So, in a digital world, where we need our children to have the best technology and resources, our low income school districts most in need are instead given older, less sophisticated tools that are also hampered by inadequate levels of support.  How can our students, teachers, and districts compete and succeed if we’re restricted from giving them the tools to do so by unnecessary administrative processes?  Let’s find some way to streamline and improve this process.

Access to Technology & Broadband

Perhaps the most significant challenge identified by this crisis is the fact that far too many of our children lack access to technology or broadband that allows them to learn remotely.  Many of us may complain about our children spending too much time on screens, but depending on the family’s income level, there are a significant number of students not having access to a computer needed to continue their education remotely.  How would a student that doesn’t have a computer at home even participate in learning during this pandemic?

Beyond devices, there are far too many areas of the state where high speed broadband is just not accessible.  While many of us take for granted that we have Wi-Fi in our homes and in a variety of businesses, that are many areas of the state that do not have access.  In some districts, innovative approaches to this problem include a combination of school provided educational broadband access, WiFi hotspots and approaches to asynchronous learning – where students without broadband access at home are asked to come to a hotspot once a day to download their lessons and upload completed assignments. 

We simply cannot have a serious discussion about the “new normal” and remote learning without an aggressive approach to improving broadband access and getting technology tools for learning in the hands of our teachers and students.

This pandemic and related shutdown will have a significant and lasting effect on our economy, our approach to daily living and social interactions, and to our general way of life.  We must be serious about how we learn from this crisis and take the opportunity to overhaul our educational system so that our record investment in student education actually achieves the outcomes we seek.

We can’t count on the educational bureaucracy to lead these changes. That change will have to be led from bottoms up – with both active school boards and legislative leaders ready to fight changing the status quo for the betterment of our students and communities.