Here we are, over four weeks into California’s lockdown with no end in sight. I’m worried. I'm worried for 13,000 socio-economically disadvantaged students in my son’s school district who still do not have Internet access or computers and for the teachers who have no training in distance learning — not to mention the parents who feel unequipped and overwhelmed.
Yet, we are told not to worry — a hybrid rollout is happening. What does that mean? If it’s anything like the initial efforts, I’m really worried. “Get Ready for Distance Learning, Starting Tomorrow.” As a parent, I received that email four weeks after the school district closed due to COVID-19. During the four weeks prior, I received no resources for teaching my 11-year-old son at home — just links to online learning opportunities, requiring expert-level navigation skills to find grade-level aligned and appropriate content. As an education consultant, I’m one of the lucky parents with the experience and resources needed for at-home distance learning.
COVID-19 has shined a light on the access gaps in public education with the opportunity to determine why they exist. With more than 27 years of experience, I have seen that most public education systems have a narrow focus — a reactive mode, rather than a proactive preventative approach. Failure in the reactive mode leads to excuses: This is new, we were not prepared. We didn’t know it would be this bad. Our unions are creating barriers and stalling progress.
I can imagine a superintendent asking me, “What should I do? Can you help us manage the lack of computer and Internet access for our students and provide training for teachers and parents around distance learning?”
I would answer, “Sure; however, that is not your biggest problem. These are symptoms of a much larger issue.” It would be easy to react to these gaps by implementing the work through the current system. But the current system is dysfunctional and unhealthy — we need to get at the root cause of the inequities we see.
Let’s look at the bright spots that do exist. Across the country, some districts are knocking it out of the park and seamlessly providing for their students. For example, one district first delivered hard-copy packets of grade-level content, then transitioned to distance learning.
Why can some districts seamlessly transition to alternative implementation, while others tragically falter? It is not because faltering districts don’t have enough computers, or their teachers are not trained to provide distance learning. And it absolutely is not because teachers or their bargaining units create barriers to distance learning. The root cause of the dysfunction exists at the system level. The organization as a whole is unhealthy.
Unhealthy organizations are not transitioning well during the pandemic because they do not function as holistic systems. With inconsistent structures, siloed and misaligned implementation and broken bridges, they do not have the essential relationships with internal and external stakeholders. Any shared values, beliefs and practices address what is happening inside the classroom. There is no holistic approach to create a culture where adults feel empowered and honored, and have ownership around the education of our children. So, a pandemic leads to finger-pointing and blame, further widening the divide and damaging relationships. And learning stops.
So, when a superintendent asks, “How can I create a holistic culture without disrupting the system?” Answer: You can’t. You must build relationships where you collaboratively envision and create the culture needed for new and different outcomes.
Relationships matter! The culture matters. The structure matters. Healthy organizations change practices effectively, efficiently and cohesively because they work from the holistic systems approach putting kids first and providing adults the resources to put kids first.
Cummings and Associates Consulting, Inc (CAAC) defines a holistic systems approach as "an educational approach that looks at all aspects of the entire system as a collaborative unit, as opposed to siloed schools and departments, when working toward implementing work and achieving goals." As such, the approach nurtures students and adults in the system and reflects the interconnection between the physical, mental, emotional and social well-being of both students and adults. It works whether it is moving from traditional in-person instruction to distance learning or from No Child Left Behind to Every Student Succeeds Act.
As a superintendent, you have a tremendous opportunity to change from a reactive lens to a proactive lens. You can frantically purchase computers, work with providers to ensure families have free Internet access, and provide sub-par distance learning training for your educators.
Or you can do those and commit to diagnosing how your system functions. What parts are working collaboratively and cohesively? And what parts are functioning in silos? Then work tirelessly to de-silo your district, by taking a holistic systems approach to education.
A holistic systems approach to education is critical, especially now. The impact of COVID-19 will exist far beyond the lifting of shelter in place. Now is the time to be proactive and de-silo and heal fractured public education systems. We must look to what is needed to ensure districts function through a holistic systems approach.
In the current reactive mode, it won’t matter the next catastrophe or cure-all: a virus, a new hopeful leader, updated standards or different accountability models. The “this too shall pass" mantras will continue and any gains will miss the mark of true systemic change. It’s like buying a million-dollar comforter and placing it on a 50-year-old mattress, then asking why we have a back ache. Our back aches and our mattress is broken. We don’t need another cure-all — we need another mattress.