Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Susan Patrick column: Rethinking what's normal in meeting this moment in K-12 education
A Lifelong Learning Ecosystem

Susan Patrick column: Rethinking what's normal in meeting this moment in K-12 education

  • 0
School Building

In late March, one of the classrooms was set up inside the brand new Crestwood Elemenatry School in the Midlothian District of Chesterfield County.

The American Rescue Plan will provide a much-needed $122 billion boost to U.S. schools, and it might tempt many to think we’re on our way back to normal. Exams, alarm bells, report cards and life as we knew it before the pandemic.

Those relics are hallmarks, however, of a K-12 education system that was built for the industrial age, a declining system that is rife with inequities, achievement gaps, ranking and sorting, and failing to prepare all learners for the rapid changes that are afoot in our economy and culture. To go back to that normal would be to fail our nation’s youth once again.

We can rethink normal.

The pandemic has challenged us to realize learning can happen inside and outside of schools, and that with planning, we can embrace more flexible learning models to meet the individual needs of all learners.

Many schools had begun to rethink how learning happens well before COVID-19 shut down schools. They were better prepared for anytime, anywhere learning. They had delivery systems that enabled capturing learning wherever students were. They had strong relationships and advisory systems for students and educators. They set daily learning goals and, most importantly, they monitored progress and moved students on to the next steps in learning based on how they demonstrated mastery and not when an artificial calendar said it was time to do so.

The time is ripe to reimagine education as a lifelong learning ecosystem, one that would place every learner on a personalized path to graduation and guarantee access to a meaningful, chosen career that will build social and economic capital over the course of their lives. This is the true purpose — and promise — of public education. Today’s one-size-fits-all K-12 system, however, was not built for this. It was designed with efficiency for the adults in the system in mind rather than the children, and it’s not the right tool for the task of supporting learners to succeed in a modern world. We can fix this.

The pandemic has taught us that we can do hard things, with the right doses of will and resolve. We now have enough of both to effect true transformation. Transformation toward an equitable future for all requires innovation and changes in the structures and pedagogy that undergird K-12 education, along with the requisite policy and public engagement to produce lasting, scalable change.

We can begin by taking lessons from policies on seat time, competency-based pathways, and shifting cultures and mindsets about what’s possible for redesigning school.

Seat time, or how long students have sat in the line of sight of their lecturing teacher, is a poor, invalid proxy for learning. Learning happens everywhere, in students’ homes and communities, on their jobs and internships, and everywhere they go. States like Oregon and New Hampshire have led the way with policies saying, in effect, that any student who achieves the learning outcomes for a course can earn credit. This opens a whole new world of learning that meets students where they are and takes advantage of those students’ interests, passions and assets.

A student-centered innovation, competency-based education (CBE), is being implemented at deeper levels in more schools every year. In CBE schools, students have agency over their learning. Educators regularly assess what students have learned, and assessment is a positive experience both for students and for educators to know what to do next. All students receive supports based on their individual needs, and advancement depends on mastery, not seat time. CBE is founded on principles of equity for all learners and a belief that all students can learn and meet high expectations.

The gaps and inequities produced by the current K-12 model don’t have to be, and they are ransoming our shared future. McKinsey, the global management consulting firm, estimates if the achievement gaps faced by Black and brown children had been closed 10 years ago under our normal system, today’s gross domestic product would be $426 billion to $705 billion higher. We know COVID-19 rapidly is exacerbating this gulf. Nothing about that normal should command our allegiance. The system we are craving a return to was founded on the outdated notion that only about 20% of students would go on to college, another 20% would go on to skilled trades and the remaining 60% simply would go to school to be prepared for “life adjustments.”

To be sure, making change in the midst of a crisis is difficult. The instinct to go back to what we know is head-in-the-sand thinking, however.

The hallmarks of change that have ushered in every turning point in history are reaching a crescendo in education. From technological innovations to powerful new ideas about teaching and learning, from changes in major political institutions to demographic shifts and the growing will of communities to make our schools better than before, there’s no going back to normal.

Susan Patrick is president and CEO of the Aurora Institute, a national nonprofit organization with the mission to drive the transformation of education systems. Contact her at:


Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News