We keep talking about how the dual pandemics have accelerated changes that existed in society pre-pandemics. Can I share with you a revealed change that makes me hopeful going forward? The deep appreciation for and understanding that content covered does not equal content learned.
Pre-pandemics, many schools had started down the roads towards competency based learning. Schools seemed to be on a spectrum; from dabbling with to embracing concepts like the Mastery Based Transcript, standards-based grading, Universal Design for Learning, and much more. The pandemics hastened schools’ work in these areas for a simple reason: we had to. As teachers began to plan for this school-year-unlike-any-other, they came to the understanding that a traditional approach of course organization by content was not going to work -- or they came to that understanding at some point during the first semester this year. Moreover, teachers realized that a reckoning with racial injustices required different foci and curricular objectives. Courses, and the allocation of time within them, had to be organized differently -- by competencies, skills, and learning objectives. Now, we’re ready to define the outcomes that we care about driving with our work.
This shift in course design hastens another pre-pandemic trend: the shift toward personalization from differentiation. If “competencies gained” is the measure of student learning, rather than “content covered” by the teacher, then there needs to be a deep understanding of where student achievement is on an individual level -- that is, there needs to be deeper appreciation and understanding that students learn differently and at different paces. This shifts faculty work in the classroom from asking the question “How might I present material in a variety of ways in order to reach all my learners?” to “How might I present multiple choices -- pathways, if you will -- in order for students to demonstrate their knowledge and competencies gained?”
If we are in agreement that content covered isn’t the same as content learned, then we should also reframe standardized assessment as a diagnostic rather than evaluative tool. Standardized assessments have a place in a post-pandemic world. The annual standardized assessment as record-keeper -- wherein schools use them to document changes in their student population -- has significant implications for everything from enrollment to equity to wellness within our schools. And, if we’re in agreement that enrollment, equity, and wellness are three of the biggest issues facing independent schools post-pandemic, then recasting the curriculum to be designed backwards from rigorous competencies rather than what’s on AP exams is an imperative.
And that leads us to the question of how students will demonstrate those competencies. The Advanced Placement testing that’s underway in high schools this week all too often requires a narrow set of skills for success that’s not always tied tightly to the competencies of the course. As a result, the students in those courses tend to be the ones with the skills that align to the exam--and that can leave out too many students who care deeply about the subject matter but don’t fit the learning profile. Instead, if secondary schools rethink their most rigorous and challenging courses to prepare students’ with the competencies and skills to find success in higher education pursuits, then they will be better off.
Join us for our courses that are designed to help school leaders and faculty consider how to better align advanced courses with their school’s mission and values, to answer the question “What are we moving towards?”
If you think kids and families have changed a lot in the past five years, you’re right—and thanks to COVID-19, those changes are likely to be more apparent as we move forward. The past five years have been different in part because 2016 was the last year that Millennials graduated from high school, and the first year that K-12 education was completely populated by Gen Z. Enrollment management professionals watched this shift start in their applicant pools, and as these students have risen through the school, it’s visible to all educators. Even though Gen Z kids are being raised by two different generations (Generation X and older Millennials), they’ve still been parented in a similar way, and one that’s strikingly different from generations that preceded them.
Parents and guardians of Gen Z kids, whether themselves Gen X or Millenials, focus on their child as an individual. They’re cynical about institutions, and they question institutional priorities and practices. They see their child as unique, and they want to make sure the child’s setting optimizes what’s best for them. They cultivate talent, encouraging children to focus early on their strengths--and that’s because these parents and guardians believe that only the best win, and there’s not a lot of room at the top.
So when it comes to independent schools, parents and guardians of Gen Z kids have high expectations. They expect individualization, differentiation, and customization, and they have higher expectations of what schools do for families. They also believe that schools should be held accountable if they don’t meet those expectations--and they’re happy to go somewhere else if that happens. In these families, independent school enrollment is a year-to year decision.
That’s why retention is more important than ever in enrollment management. Academic leaders looking at those traits of Gen Z parenting know that these folks are more likely to pick up the phone when something’s not meeting their expectations or is headed off the rails. It’s essential to realize that every time an academic leader receives one of those calls, the interaction is also an evaluation of whether the school is able to meet a child’s needs.
At the end of my first year at One Schoolhouse, I looked at our list of consortium schools to see which relationships were strongest, and where I needed to cultivate more connections. What I found surprised me: the schools we were most connected to had usually had a low-stakes student issue at some point in the year--for example, an academic dishonesty case on a minor assignment, or a student who had chosen not to complete three weeks of work. As I thought about this, I realized that those challenges were moments when One Schoolhouse demonstrated key traits like integrity and empathy. When we managed conflict well, we proved our value.
The same is true for interactions between academic leaders and parents or guardians. Knowing that the parents of our GenZ students are less likely to tolerate bumps in the road provides academic leaders with important opportunities to shore up retention. It’s important to note this doesn’t mean capitulating to a request or acting without integrity. Instead, it’s the time to be an empathic listener, a flexible problem solver, and an ethical educator. If families feel that the problem-solving is transparent, values-focused, and well-communicated, they’re usually going to feel positive about your relationship and comfortable with the resolution, even if it’s not the one they hoped for. (And let’s be honest--if a family wants you to solve a problem with an unethical solution, they’re probably not a family you’re interested in retaining!)
The difference between a good school and a great school is invisible when everything’s going well; only the great school shines when times get tough. Those are the moments when families take the measure of a school. When academic leaders solve problems, demonstrate compassion, and communicate effectively, they turn skeptic parents into school promoters.
Elizabeth Allen as told to Liz Katz -- One of the most frequent requests we get at One Schoolhouse comes from schools who are considering moving a language sequence to online instruction. Schools want to offer more than one option in their World Languages department, but because the vast majority of students choose Spanish for their studies, it’s not financially feasible to have a single instructor teach two or three dozen students at four different levels. That’s when schools call us.
The follow-up question we inevitably get is “When a course is asynchronous, how do students get practice actually talking in a language?” To answer, I turned to Elizabeth Allen, who has been teaching with One Schoolhouse since 2011, first as a summer instructor and, for the past four years, as the teacher of AP Spanish Literature and Culture. Elizabeth was also a part of the facilitation team for our Summer 2020 professional development courses on hybrid instruction. At Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, Tennessee, she teaches Spanish and has served as the chair of the World Languages department.
It’s true that natural conversation is difficult in online asynchronous instruction. In the classroom, teachers rely on that improvisational speech to gauge where their students are in terms of progress and mastery. In teaching online, I came to understand that although I couldn’t replicate the practice of spontaneous conversation, I could address and develop the same skills and interaction through different activities.
Conversation is efficient because it touches on multiple skills: passive listening, active listening, speaking, and cultural competency. Online, by creating new activities, I can get the same information about students’ progress and performance. For example, I can provide authentic language artifacts in the target language by embedding video in the course page, then ask a comprehension and analysis question for students to answer in a 15-second video. I’m still asking them to practice the same skills and providing feedback and assessment.
When students speak in my face-to-face classroom, I can rely on my gut instinct and experience to make a shift in activities and instruction based on their proficiency. Online, I have to have a clear vision and plan very early for differentiation. I build my course well in advance with all the resources I need, and then adjust within the class according to the needs of my students. In my online course, it’s actually easier to differentiate. I can provide advanced students with the activities they need to stay engaged and support a student who needs to work on their skills at the same time. Students are more receptive to differentiation online because they aren’t comparing themselves to each other—they’re focused on what they need.
When I teach AP Spanish Literature and Culture online, it’s not uncommon for me to get richer content through discussion boards—both written and spoken—than I get in a face-to-face classroom. I appreciate the depth that students go into when they’re working online. I think that’s in part because there are explicit expectations and rubrics for all the activities, and students rise to the high expectations we provide. I also think it’s because we focus on the skills we want students to master instead of the activities that give them practice. Thinking deeply about the student experience opened the door to a different kind of creativity in my teaching.
When the COVID-19 pandemic spread to the United States in March 2019, independent school leaders knew that every single decision needed to center on one thing: making school as safe as possible for their communities. As the spring continued, racist violence and the ensuing antiracist demonstrations emphasized that safety in schools requires the dismantling of policies and practices that center whiteness and perpetuate systems of privilege and inequality. The wisest leaders know that safety addresses many facets of experience: our bodies, our minds, our identities, and our relationships.
A year ago, I talked about wellness using the metaphor of the motorcycle. If we think about our academic programs as a motorcycle, then wellness and mental health have traditionally been a sidecar--nice to have, but not necessary. What COVID-19 has taught us is that wellness is actually the road we are all driving on. Our academic program is only going to stay upright as long as the road is smooth. If we don’t take care of our community’s wellness, we’re all one bump away from disaster.
What I hope we take away with us as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is that wellness can’t be an add-on side-car of a program. For too long, we’ve encouraged our teachers and students to practice self-care and balance while constructing workloads and expectations that undermined those things. Moving forward, addressing wellness isn’t going to be as simple as teaching kids how to do deep breathing exercises. Instead, we need to change the way we do school.
It’s a truism to say that crisis is both challenge and opportunity. In Fall 2019, most educators would have said that teaching their courses online was impossible. They would have said you can’t create a high school schedule that keeps kids in stable cohorts, or that they could have half their kids in their classroom and another half learning from home. And yet, by Fall 2020, they were doing all those things, and with successes to be proud of. If we can take one of the most basic assumptions of the twentieth century school--you have to be here to learn--and reconstruct it completely in just a few weeks, then we can also re-evaluate the elements of school that made it so difficult for our community to prioritize wellness.
Because we’ve moved through so many iterations of school this year, we have the opportunity to ask our faculty and students what made a difference. Was it a later start time? Genuine acknowledgement that the systemic injustice in our schools must end? Teaching or taking fewer courses at a time? Significant professional time for faculty? Adjusting curriculum? We can also ask students what they missed: unstructured time on campus, advisory, sports, activities?
It’s hard to say that the pandemic brought us gifts when it took so much away from so many. Looking back, however, we can see that the past thirty years in many schools narrowed a range of priorities for students until academic achievement overwhelmed them all. The pandemics pushed that range wider, so that health and safety, in all its forms, took up equal space, and that racial justice and equity were addressed with the urgency our communities deserve. As we move forward, academic leaders need to continue to maintain the values and practices that ensure every member of our community has the support, systems, and practices that allow them to thrive.
Shh… I’m going to let you in on a secret. Academic Leaders, want to know how to get your business office to love you forever? Go to their office at some point this spring, and ask: So, I know that we put in huge investments in order to make this school-year-unlike-any-other work… how can we maximize those investments as we head into the future?
I know, I know… we aren’t used to talking about investments and money, generally. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Academic Leaders started asking questions that never crossed their lips before:
These are the questions that our business offices deal with every day, but to get the most accurate and actionable answers, they can’t answer them alone. As Academic Leaders, we need to collaborate with our campus leaders in facilities, security, technology, and finance as never before. Our schools were better because of that collaboration, and that’s not something we want to lose post-pandemic.
Business offices in schools also are often the most outward facing of the departments within a school, because they have to be. They are constantly engaging with outside vendors (banks, food service, construction companies, etc.) that give them a window into the ways that culture and industry are changing. This also gives them insight into trends that will affect how schools operate and what that will mean for the student experience, sometimes years before it’s visible in the academic program. That wider perspective is important information for Academic Leaders to have, as we increasingly build competencies in our students that prepare them for life, not just college.
Collaboration with the business office and other outward facing offices (such as enrollment and advancement) might also help us think expansively about what our classrooms might look like in the future and what new opportunities are present in a post-pandemic world to reach more students in more equitable ways.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)