The Education COVID Pivot: Parents new role and an Alaskan Experiment

The COVID19 pandemic and sudden redesigned delivery and significant content of our K-12 education system provides an immediate opportunity we should not loose to change the role of parents in the design, delivery and assessment of education. Suddenly parents have a new level of awareness and involvement in their child’s education and we should examine how and what to keep as we move past the immediate efforts to deliver traditional education at home, waiting for a old-normal to return. For too long our education system has focused on the capable-student and the accountable-teacher with the parents left out or on the sidelines, perhaps dropping in as “helicopter” parents or attending a rare parent teacher conference. The role of parents is one we should examine and not let immediately return to the old-normal. In Alaska we have an additional opportunity to use this disruption to examine development of a new teacher preparation program that better meets Alaska’s needs while integrating a new model of academic content delivery, along with increased parent and community participation in the education system.

To begin, let’s look broadly at the education system situation and some COVID issues that will be universally applicable to education across the country. The first and obvious issue is the opportunity for new approaches to blended or “flipped learning models. If not for COVID19, years of delivery reform would have been nearly impossible to design, fund and manage if we’d tried to do it before it was necessary.  We have the opportunity for a “new-normal” and indeed, many teachers will not want to go back to the old-normal and it’s overcrowd rooms and classroom management disruptions that dominated the day. 

As we examine the new approaches to delivery suddenly needed there is an underlying challenge of having a new generation of teachers and more importantly administrators understand that distance delivery and virtual classrooms are not just built from a simple or quick re-purposing of existing pedagogy and unit learning materials. Those of us in education and teacher preparation learned this 20 years ago with the earlier wave of electronic (vs correspondence) distance delivery and it seems we need to learn it again. K-12 teachers have spent 3-4 years being trained in classroom delivery and management of the learning process, may have years of classroom experience; and, now we expect them to have learned new learning platforms, technologies and then transformed their methods in days, without time to test and evaluate the results. “Designing for Distance” was a course offered 20 years ago for teachers thinking about moving modules to online delivery. None of our current teachers have been given that training and we know that delivery of content including meaningful formative and summative assessments is difficult and very time consuming to develop test and meaningfully administer. It’s a nearly impossible task for our current teachers just brought back on contract weeks ago and harbors many immediate shortcomings and long term challenges of finding some new-normal.

To support this work we need a more innovation based approach to funding the path to a new normal for education and indeed many aspects of our civic infrastructure. The current rushed approach is necessary, but lacks an investment in exploring and creating a new normal that is not a pause before returning to the old-normal. Some of what is being created will be good, perhaps even better than what we had and we should be prepared to keep and build on some of the changes. So far CARES Act funding has been exclusively used in the USA for ‘holding our breath waiting to get back to the old normal. In some parts of the country the funding was used to pay university education students to assist classroom teachers with creating new technology-based unit content, but in Alaska this use of the CARES Act funding was not supported. There must be more attention to innovation, entrepreneurship and digital transformation investments to realize the benefits that could come from this massive disruption. 

Long term nothing has changed in thinking about how and why we educate our youth, yet it might if we used this disruption opportunity to rethink education. We continue to have a lack of student engagement and facilitated academic and career exploration that leaves too many of our kids (and their parents) with no plan or inappropriate plans that underpin WHY they are going to school and what they might aspire to be and do with their education. Poor graduation rates and academic K-12 achievement characterize our youth who have not been given the opportunity to become self directed and motivated learners. As we know in Contextual Teaching and Learning theory and its brain research, learning is built on two primary brain mechanisms: meaning and connections.  If there is no meaning to what is being learned, is it any surprise later when there is no learning. If learning is not connected to practical uses and skills, its a surprise that what is learned is discarded as a was of time? Career and Technical education has long offered an alternative path, as well as most of the actual living wage jobs and opportunity for fulfilling careers that are otherwise delayed, encumbered by debt, or lost by the mismatched number of students skipping post secondary education or jumping to pursuing four year programs vs. the need for those with 1-2 years of post secondary education and training. STEM focused education has its merits, but has lacked in practical and full alignment with the meaningful and rewarding career opportunities ahead for our youth. Getting rid of the 12th grade might be a good next step to forcing this issue and examining the critical transition year that is typically wasted for those not in a early honors or a techprep program that turns 12 grade in to a meaningful step toward post secondary career and further meaningful academics.

Finally our immediate delivery change to home based learning creates a high risk of losing the foundation of our education system that brings along all students with formative and summative assessments that leave ‘no child behind’. (Sorry, I’m not advocating for the earlier national program, but the concept and name always was a valuable aspect of our public system.) Currently our temporary system of delivery relies heavily on someone at home or in a childcare environment to insure attendance, engagement and focused learning. These home or care facility education navigators have little or no background or tools to support a teacher’s assessment or need to understand who is falling behind.   Developing tools to address this will be essential, but there is a more important unintended and potential benefit to be realized; that is, a new paradigm for the role and engagement of parents/caregivers in student learning. For too long our education approach relied nearly exclusively on the teacher and child with parents in outer orbits of engagement; “helicopter parents” at best dropping in suddenly only in crisis situations.  A new paradigm of education might even look at educating young parents as being as important as educating the young child and creating a path for parents to be equal partners in education through the K12 system. There is a related discovery here to be explored in how much new immigrant and refugee parents are learning from their kids’ attendance, and perhaps an opportunity here to be developed further in collaboration with traditional ESL and relocation programming.  That is a way of also suggesting we break the daycare role of education for working parents.  There – I said it… the really of our current civic model that uses education as a way to subsidize the availability of working adults, including those only paid minimum wage, to be at a job rather than at home with their kids.

This new report from McKinsey is interesting in many respects and valuable in its more articulate outline of issues and opportunities, though I believe it missed the most important opportunity, that of a new paradigm of parental involvement in education.   https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/reimagining-a-more-equitable-and-resilient-k-12-education-system

Now to Alaska’s unique challenges and the point of my post: 

Most teachers in rural Alaska come from urban or out of state teacher preparation programs and last only a year or two in a rural community’s public school before leaving – rarely staying five years. This approach fails our youth and is failing our communities.

The University of Alaska Anchorage’s College of Education lost its accreditation for its elementary ed teacher preparation program.  Its a long story to be skipped for the moment, leading to the consolidation of the three major academic units of the UA system into one College of Education based in the University of Alaska Southeast. (Somewhat related is the loss of the Alaska Pacific University K-8 teacher preparation program for different reasons, but a tragedy in my opinion because of the opportunity to grow a modestly successful, based on rural retention, applied learning focused teacher preparation model.) Rather than discussing trying to restart the old APU program or restoring the accreditation of the UAA program, I’m an advocate for a bold experiment in Alaska. 

What we have been doing is not working for too many and it’s all been reset anyway.  I’m proposing that we redesign the fundamental approach to teacher preparation in Alaska and abandon the requirement for national accreditation  and take the the UAA or the APU program and restart them as an Alaska model of teacher preparation with a focus on producing teachers that would thrive in rural Alaska and teaching in Alaskan urban schools. Key elements of this redesign would include:

Reversing the decline of our public education systems’s results and continual increase in demands on teachers and the limited time they have with students including an over reliance on standardized testing as a measure of the value and results of education. Think Finland!

Integrate active and contextual teaching and learning methods along with Core Knowledge approaches and student centered work such as the IB International Baccalaureate approach and designs that use the best in new brain research.

Emphasize the use of technology to support flipped education that leverages technology and use of leading online and community content and uses the teachers time in the classroom together with students for information literacy, SEL (social emotional learning), debate/discussion cooperative and applied or project learning… and a bit of fun! In the end we want productive, socially and emotionally balanced productive citizens, not technology screen watching robots.

Early integration of career and technical education awareness (K-5), exploration (6-9) and preparation (10-12) providing context and meaning to the education activity and investment by communities leading to better use of our post secondary investment and motivated and career ready citizens for the jobs that actually need to be filled. For rural students that would include local jobs, and even succeeding at living a productive and successful subsistence life. This element also demands that we have a better way of bringing skilled and experienced individuals in to the classroom to teach with a limited or apprentice-based teacher preparation program rather than the current type M certificate process of credentialing that typically assumes that anyone that can DO, can immediately know how to TEACH.

Parent and community engagement in learning assisting our youth, as well as offering adult learning opportunities in parenting, foundational academic skills, and even bringing back some of the past “community schools” approach of offering learning opportunities for both the youth and parents that creates a strong community culture for all ages around learning and sharing knowledge as well as increasing the utilization of the education infrastructure throughout the day and the year.

Design around integrating Alaskan outdoor classrooms and outdoor experiences, culture and adventures. We are uniquely Alaska and our youth should grow up having the opportunity to have experienced an Alaskan Education, with shared core knowledge, rather than a standardized accredited education like one from any other community in the country as a result of highly standardized teacher preparation. This might include some distinctive Alaskan gateway experiences for our youth.

Focus on a local history, native ways of knowing and the Alaska’s unique ecology inspired curriculum, particularly in a rural Alaska focused teacher preparation track.

Recognize the STEM (Steam, Stream… whatever…) necessities of our 21st century life, but also recognize that more important are skills in information literacy, career planning, live long learning, personal finance, problem solving, systems thinking, innovation, creativity, and civic entrepreneurial thinking. (And dare I include cursive writing?) Focus on challenges that matter and engage our youth in understanding local and global opportunities. Give our youth the opportunity to develop a unique understanding, tools and motivation to be part of the solutions to the next generation’s challenges and that STEM but itself is a limited perspective to build a life and a career.

A new program would be include powerful ideas from the APU program that was integrated with the classrooms from the very first course rather than waiting until the final year for the surprise of being a student teacher. Starting from scratch we might have an opportunity for every teacher to have one or more full time teacher aids that are student teachers working in an apprentice type of learning model, perhaps rotating around the state to gain valuable knowledge from our cultures, industries, and varied lifestyles.   I don’t think this new program and its development needs to apply to all teachers or classrooms in Alaska, and especially for teachers who want to teach in other states and school districts that hold on to the current accreditation and standard/testing focused paradigm, but for Alaska rural schools and teaching Alaskan students that will benefit from our natural resource extraction economy and the skills to build our next value added economy, they will be prepared for fulfilling lives and rewarding careers. 

I believe this will all start with changing the role of parents in the education system and our current temporary COVID learning environment provides the chance if we seize it to creating a new-normal set of expectations for our public education rather than returning to what many felt wasn’t working.

11/8 updates – Anchorage Daily news opinion – “Distance learning isn’t failing Anchorage high school students. http://adn.ak.newsmemory.com/?publink=24b4f5d8d

11/18 update from ADN on disparities in remote learning progress. However, keep in mind that there has been no formal distance training, tech ed specialist assisting teachers, or organized improvement effort to capture and share what’s working and assist with areas that are not working as well. If we are going to do better we need to take a longer view of the situation including consider we may actually keep and benefit from some of the new methods we’ve adopted under duress. http://adn.ak.newsmemory.com/?publink=0a6203452