Originally published in The Daily Independent - September 8, 2021
By Charles Woods, Insight Academy of Arizona
Our education system has had for years glaring inadequacies that were ripped open by the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve been both a successful administrator and teacher and have worked in many educational settings, from traditional brick-and-mortar public and charter schools as well as virtual schools.
What I can say without equivocation is that the system I have observed during this health crisis has failed too many students. The good news is it’s not too late to make the necessary changes to get us back on course.
One early and visible problem emerged at the onset: the pernicious inequity of funding noticeably widened the gap between teachers and their students. Schools with the financial resources ensured that students got laptops for remote learning within a few weeks. Even that is too long in a country with abundant resources. Many students in poorer and rural districts simply did not have that opportunity.
Further, the Census Bureau reported in January that high-speed broadband wasn’t reliably available to 3.8 million households with school-age children.
This disparity in technological accessibility put the most disadvantaged and vulnerable students simply out of reach of educators when the virus came calling. We often talk about achievement gaps — these conditions resulted in an achievement canyon.
Not only was the gap widened between students and their teachers, but it also became apparent that educators themselves were suffering from a skills gap. Traditional credentialing of teachers remains in many ways archaic and few programs require competency in the tested technology that enhances student learning.
Just knowing word processing and spreadsheets is not enough today. I saw it first-hand where otherwise great instructors were not able to operate the technology needed to get students back on track.
Many, unfortunately, left the profession, unable to meet the new demands required in a Zoom-enabled classroom.
To make the best use of the technology out there will require more rigorous credentialing requirements for new graduating teachers but also for existing teachers. Robust professional development programs will have to become readily available to enable the transfer of effective classroom methods into effective virtual programs.
How else can we ensure that the academic development of our children continues without interruption?
Public polling results on these issues have made one thing crystal clear: expand options for school choice. Surveys routinely show that parents favor increased schooling options. In December, the non-partisan EdChoice Annual Survey showed record-high support for education savings accounts (81%), school vouchers and tax-credit scholarships (78%), and concluded that 53% of Americans supported some form of private school choice.
More recently, the American Federation for Children reported the highest levels of support ever, finding 71% of voters back school choice and “65% support parents having access to a portion of per-pupil funding to use for home, virtual or private education if public schools don’t reopen full-time for in-person classes.”
That same polling underscores a more important point; parents of disadvantaged students know full well that the current system is not working.
Sixty-six percent of Blacks and 68% of Hispanics are not happy with the position they are stuck in and want the option to be able to send their child to the public or private school of their choice.
Allowing parents to direct education dollars would go a very long way to ensuring innovation can occur and student-focused learning can flourish in ways that have not been uniformly demonstrated in this pandemic.
Whatever entity that can offer a state-of-the-art and effective virtual experience will be well-positioned in the event of another lockdown. The bet is on as to which is best able to deliver what is needed most and parents need to have a greater say in the educational course their children can take.
No matter the learning environment a child is in, the education community at large needs to be far better prepared to ensure that in the event of another crisis, learning is not disrupted.
All students need access to computers and the internet and teachers need the skills to adapt to virtual learning. The two go hand in hand. Schools need to wake up because parents have spoken and they are watching.
Editor's note: Charles Woods is Head of Schools for Arizona Virtual Academy and Insight Academy of Arizona.
To learn more about Arizona Virtual Academy, visit azva.k12.com.