The COVID-19 pandemic has upended school systems around the world. The pace has been frenetic as systems have had to stand up remote learning overnight, plan whether and how to reopen schools amid changing epidemiological circumstances, and support students academically and emotionally. The scope of the challenge has thus far left little time for deeper reflection.

Yet crises often create an opportunity for broader change, and as education systems begin to make decisions about investments for the new school year, it’s important to step back and consider the longer-term imperative to create a better system for every child beyond the pandemic.

The process starts with a key question: What are we trying to achieve, for whom, by when, and to what standards? Research shows that top-performing school systems can vary significantly in curricula, assessments, teacher behaviours, and even desired outcomes. What unites them is a focus on excellence for every child, regardless of race, gender, income level, or location. That core value should inform the areas to keep in our current systems and where to innovate to create more effective and equitable education for all.

While greater use of technology in education may be inevitable, technology will never replace a great teacher. In fact, a single teacher can change a student’s trajectory.

While we mustn’t lose sight of what we have learned through decades of research and education reform, the COVID-19 pandemic is driving educators to accelerate new models of learning and innovate beyond the classroom. Lockdowns forced students around the world to learn from home, resulting in a dramatic increase in the use of online tools, such as videoconferencing, learning-management platforms, and assessment tools. In a month, Google Classroom doubled its number of users in parent registrations. At the same time, the pandemic has highlighted and even exacerbated many of the inequities in the school system, from the learning environment at home to access to devices, internet, and high-quality education. There is now both the political will and a sense of urgency to take on the challenge of fixing long-broken delivery models.

Recommit to what works: Get the basics right

Will the COVID-19 pandemic completely disrupt global education and usher in a fully virtual, all-inquiry-based, 21st-century-skill, insert-buzzword-here future? No, actually. We know from decades of study that every school system must first get these basic elements right:

Core skills and instruction
Students need a strong foundation in literacy and numeracy. You can’t code if you can’t do math. You can’t communicate effectively if you can’t read or write. You can’t innovate without knowledge. Yet UNESCO estimates that 60 percent of children around the world aren’t meeting basic standards. Other studies show that US students who can’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. Research has identified the curricula, instructional materials, and teaching methods that are most effective in helping children learn. And the earlier that children get exposed to those skills, in prekindergarten or other programs, the better. Systems need to ensure that the knowledge is being adopted in both remote and in-person environments and evaluate new ideas against those benchmarks.

Performance measurement
It’s hard to achieve excellence without data on current performance and benchmarks to aim toward. However, data should be used primarily to inform—to direct support to the students, teachers, and schools that need it most—not to punish. Instead of eradicating tests altogether, systems need better assessments and better tools to help each student succeed. Formative assessment becomes even more critical and must thus be more intentional when the teacher is not teaching in person.

Harness technology to scale access

Research demonstrates that just handing out devices to students doesn’t lead to improved learning. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that giving lectures on a video call is rarely a substitute for face-to-face learning. The challenge isn’t just to adopt new technologies but also to incorporate them in ways that improve access and quality.

Support children holistically

Previous research has outlined the correlation between mindsets and academic performance, but the shift to remote learning has put it into stark relief. Students with high levels of self-motivation, persistence, and independence have thrived, while others have struggled. Similarly, the emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness of the need to address anxiety, depression, and other mental-health issues as a precondition to helping students learn. It’s a reminder that schools need to address the whole child, helping them develop skills and awareness that go beyond what they need simply to find work. Educators play a critical role in helping children learn how to become effective citizens, parents, workers, and custodians of the planet.

Help students adapt to the future of work

The COVID-19 pandemic has likely accelerated workplace automation as employers continue to automate tasks to reduce costs and minimize the spread of infection. School systems need to help students adapt to rapid changes in the workplace and other impacts of rapid digitization, from ethical standards and cybersecurity to the impact on health, forensics, and many other parts of the economy.

Invest in new models of teacher preparation and development

Although most education experts recognize the importance of great teachers, teacher preparation and development still fall short in many systems. That has to change, starting with creating more linkages between teacher training and local schools, much like the linkages between medical schools and hospitals to anchor learning in real-world practice. In more advanced systems, there is an opportunity to reimagine teacher training and development more fundamentally by leveraging advanced technology. Corporate learning programs successfully use simulations to train workers before getting in front of a customer or patient. Given how much teachers improve in their first two years, simulations could provide teachers a valuable learning experience before they spend their first day alone in a real classroom of children. While some early products are emerging in that space, the power lies in customizing and applying them at scale.

Unbundle the role of the teacher

School systems can examine the areas in which teachers spend their time and free them to spend more time on high-value activities that require deep teaching expertise and relationships. The stress of remote and hybrid learning is already catalysing some systems to rethink teacher roles and allocation. In the short term, such reimagining may involve teams of teachers, with some providing remote and others providing in-person learning. It might also involve new roles, such as learning navigators to help students adapt to remote learning.

Allocate resources equitably to support every student

Many education experts argue that the current methods of allocating funding, teachers, and resources to schools are fundamentally unjust. Globally, there are significant inequities among countries, yet donor funding is insufficient to close the gap to universal enrolment, let alone the gap to universal high-quality education. Achieving Sustainable Development — to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all —will require a significant increase in investment for the students most at risk of falling behind. The stress of remote and hybrid learning is already catalysing some systems to rethink teacher roles and allocation.

Rethink school structures and policies

Education systems now have an opportunity to rethink the school structures that were forged in the 18th century. It’s increasingly clear that school calendars organized around a long summer break aren’t ideal for learning. For students who struggle with remote learning through the COVID-19 pandemic, a long summer hiatus could be devastating. In some countries, existing policies on sorting students too early can preclude opportunities for students sorted into different pathways or tracks. Other systems rely overly on repetition, which can label and demotivate students.

Bold education systems can take an agile and research-based approach, running opt-in pilots in small pockets to test parent appetite and student outcomes. Smart systems will also expand their partnership networks, collaborating with academia to bring the best of learning science, with employers to create linkages to the workplace, and with philanthropists to access funding. All school systems must challenge themselves to reshape their models to deliver a better education to every child.

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in IndiaToday.com. The original article can be found at https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/featurephilia/story/how-will-nep-2020-affect-the-coaching-industry-in-india-1790173-2021-04-12)