If the COVID crisis has taught us anything about education, it's that parents, students, and teachers want choices. Some parents are ready for their kids to go back to school buildings now; others want to wait until they feel that things are safer. Some students are thriving in an online learning environment; others aren't doing as well and crave in-person instruction. Some teachers are comfortable using technology to teach lessons and enhance learning; others have adapted out of necessity but prefer traditional classroom methods.
President Joe Biden's plan is to "Build Back Better." There's no more important place to do that than in our Pre-K to 12 schools. Before the crisis, only 41% of public school students could choose schools outside of their neighborhood. Even fewer could choose among onsite, online, or mixed instruction.
Since last March, school systems have worked hard to ramp up quality online education while navigating national, state, and local debates on when and how to bring students back into school buildings. People have vastly different opinions about education during normal times, much less during a pandemic.
Last fall, a SurveyMonkey poll asked teenagers nationally about their experience with online instruction. While the majority said that online learning was worse than in-person schooling, 19% of students said it was better. What's become increasingly evident is that the traditional, one-size-fits-all model of public education will not work moving forward.
The solution for the next year or so, until the virus is defeated, is straightforward: Stop fighting about opening buildings or not, and give parents, students, and teachers choices. Those who want to go back should go back. Those who want to stay online should stay online. And, for those who want a hybrid model, we should offer that too. Balancing teacher supply and demand will take planning, but, unlike last March, we have time to prepare. Compared to the alternative, a strategy centered around choice will make more people safe, better educated, and happier.
As we look beyond the crisis, here's what we know:
First, some kids learn better online. This was evident even when many school systems and teachers weren't prepared to deliver quality online instruction. We have to accept that kids learn differently and, for some, the online environment is ideal.
Second, ending the digital divide is mission-critical for 21st century education. No child should be left offline. We have a responsibility to provide devices and internet access to all who need them.
Third, school systems and colleges need to upskill teachers. Today’s students are digital natives who respond to technological engagement. We're not going to get a skilled online teacher for every student overnight. It's a generational project that will accelerate as today's digital natives begin to join the teaching workforce.
Finally, school systems need to embrace online curricula. This means using dynamic digital tools and platforms designed to engage students the way the rest of the internet does—for example, incorporating video and gaming instead of just posting PDFs.
Building schooling back better means embracing the tools of the 21st Century rather than retreating to the 19th. That sounds like a tall order, but it's doable in the medium run if we also embrace school choice.
The President and Congress can better the future through targeted federal funding that incentivizes teachers, colleges, and school systems to invest in quality online curricula and training. Meanwhile, states and school systems don't have to wait. We can act now to ensure that every student has a choice between onsite, online, or hybrid delivery.
Senator Jim Rosapepe (D, College Park) is a member of the board of College Park Academy, a bricks-and-clicks public charter school, and a former Regent of the University System of Maryland.