Across school systems and around the globe, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on students. Some have thrived in online learning environments, while others have suffered from low-quality or interrupted learning — often with disastrous results.
As the economy begins to rebound and educators work toward creating a new post-pandemic normal, these disparities in learning are likely to become amplified, resulting in a K-shaped recovery with a widening gap between those who are succeeding and those who are struggling, according to a new report “K-Shaped Education Recovery” by ISTE and Education Elements.
If school systems on the lower end of the K-curve want to shift their downward trajectory, they’ll need to consider carefully how they approach the transition back to “normal.” While those at the top face their own challenges — such as how to pivot and scale what they’ve learned into hybrid and face-to-face environments — those at the bottom might best use the current moment as an opportunity for a total reset, according to the report.
The key to climbing from the lower end to the upper end of the K-curve is to create a throughline across strategy, leadership and teacher abilities.
“So often, we overlook that individuals at every level of an organization need — and deserve — to be part of shaping the solutions we seek. It's when we create a fully inclusive throughline that reaches from the boardroom to the classroom that we see real growth and change,” said Joseph South, chief learning officer for ISTE and a co-author of the report.
After working with thousands of schools during the pandemic, ISTE and Education Elements have collaborated to identify five components of an effective throughline.
1. Upskilling teachers and staff
Across all industries, employers are recognizing the need to upskill their workforce to help them perform more effectively in a digital-reliant world. Educators are no exception. Teachers and staff were forced to develop new skills during the pandemic. Those who had negative experiences with online teaching may be tempted to abandon those skills once they return to the classroom. A more effective approach is to leverage and expand on their new knowledge with upskilling three key areas:
- Social emotional
2. Accelerating the pace of learning
COVID-19 has had a massive destabilizing effect whose ripples will continue to shake education for years. Significant change has become the norm for the foreseeable future. In this turbulent environment, school systems don’t have a year (or even a semester) to adapt to major changes. Educators will need to become adept at rapid, job-embedded and informal skill development.
3. Broadening engagement options
Cycling between remote, hybrid and in-person interactions hasn’t been all bad. We’ve all experienced different ways of engaging with people and content, and we’ve discovered that sometimes virtual engagement is more convenient or effective. As schools transition back to face-to-face learning, students, families and educators at all levels are asking for different modes of engagement to fit their situational needs.
4. Sharing leadership across all stakeholders
Systems scientist Peter Senge describes leadership as “a system’s capacity to shape its future.” To lift up the lower K-curve, school systems need a stronger capacity to learn and adapt. In a complex district with many different stakeholders, leaders need a broad repertoire of leadership strategies to keep moving forward.
5. Personalizing professional learning
School systems can no longer get away with one-size-fits-all professional development. Individual training needs can vary widely even within the same school building, and teachers need targeted, personalized learning opportunities to meet the demands of a constantly changing education landscape. Plus, experiencing personalized learning for themselves will help teachers personalize the learning in their classrooms to help mitigate learning gaps.
Throughout the pandemic, school systems that had three or more of these components in place typically fared far better. They were able to adapt to changing conditions and still continue to meet their goals.
"No matter how unprepared a particular school system felt during the pandemic, they can start right now to build on what they learned and lay the foundation to absorb future shocks that surely will come," South said. "We can choose to take a future-focused approach instead of just trying to go back to normal. 'Normal' didn’t serve us well then, and it won’t serve us any better now."
By creating a throughline across strategy, leadership and teacher abilities, education leaders can build forward momentum and put their school systems on an upward trajectory toward recovery.
About the report
The report “K-Shaped Education Recovery” was written by Anthony Kim, founder of Education Elements, and Joseph South, chief learning officer at ISTE. This report is the product of a partnership between Education Elements, a consulting company that supports education leaders in preparing their systems for the next generation of leaders, and ISTE, a strategic national educational technology organization focused on evidence-based learning transformation. Download the report here.
If you're a district-level leader, don't miss Anthony Kim from Education Elements discuss how districts can make K-12 learning more equitable, personalized and digitally advanced.
Nicole Krueger is an ISTE blogger and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.