Looking Ahead: Future Proofing the U.S. Education System

By Steve Klein and Richard Kincaid
December 2020
illustration of a man on a boat

The U.S. educational system is now experiencing a test run for the future. COVID-19 has demonstrated that despite the widespread use of online learning in many educational settings, we are still woefully unprepared to meet the needs of all students in such an environment.

When students do return to the physical classroom, educators will likely face additional challenges—both academic and psychological—that go well beyond the normal. As with technology, our ability to meet these immediate challenges will require a clear-eyed look at our current capacity and a well-coordinated effort to address our shortcomings. What we do now—and what we learn from our mistakes—will help us prepare for a better future.

Addressing Technology Challenges in a Time of Crisis

Educators’ inboxes are currently overflowing with emails about how to deliver online learning. Based on COVID-19 projections, it is likely that schools across the country will not reopen this academic year; consequently, this immediate attention to virtual learning is warranted.

Unfortunately, educators have little context for reviewing the multitude of offers they are receiving, which vary in quality, technology requirements, and subject areas covered. Teachers also lack training in how to effectively use these resources. As a result, many are doing the same thing they have always done, only now in front of a web camera.

Major Challenges

Gaps in internet coverage
Communities that lack wireless connectivity or have limited bandwidth are unable to access or take full advantage of online resources. This challenge is especially pronounced in rural communities.

Lack of hardware capacity
Children from economically disadvantaged families may not have a computer at home to access online learning. In addition, if families have multiple children but only one computer, it is difficult to ensure each child has sufficient online instructional time.

Outmoded instructional pedagogy
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that many teachers lack training on how to deliver curricula, structure homework, and administer assessments online. Some are using asynchronous delivery while others are seeking to run classes in real time, with students logging on to attend lectures and participate in discussions.

Inequities for special needs students
Providing an equitable education to students with special needs has been perhaps the most glaring challenge of the present crisis. At the very least, students with special needs may require additional assistance—in the form of lesson design and computing technologies—to benefit from online instruction. In the long-term, we must ensure that our commitment to equity is not the first casualty in a crisis.

Insufficient at-home instructional supports In a shelter-in-place scenario, parents and caregivers are expected to help their children set up technology learning stations, access online instruction, and reinforce instructional content, while also doing their own jobs from home. This situation is less than ideal for all involved parties, and it is unsustainable for the long term.

Addressing Academic and Social-emotional Needs in an Uncertain Future

While issues related to online learning are currently demanding our attention, we need to begin planning for what we will encounter in the fall. Inevitably, COVID-19 will have an impact on students’ academic preparedness and their social and emotional well-being. We know that it already is.

For example, when schools do reopen, students are likely to show up at least half a year behind grade level. And these academic challenges will be especially pronounced for high school students who may not be ready to progress to the next subject area (for example, from algebra to geometry), putting them out of grade-level sequence. In addition, issues of social-emotional trauma will need to be addressed for both students and school staff members who may experience post-traumatic stress due to isolation, prolonged anxiety, or the loss of loved ones.

The good news is that within a span of several months, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to diminish. As a society, we will need to deal with the long-term damage that has been done, and we will need to be prepared for the increasing likelihood of other such crises, driven by climate change, political and military conflict, and pandemics that will fuel global dislocations. For many people around the world this future is already here.

While educators are to be commended for their ingenuity and resilience during this time of unprecedented change, too many are having to go it alone. This disaster has highlighted weaknesses in our ability to harness technology and weaknesses in our decentralized models of instructional delivery. To address these challenges, we will have to draw on our greatest strengths: our willingness to work together, look honestly at the facts, determine the best way forward, and have the courage to take it.

The American educational system was unprepared this time. Let’s be ready for the next.