The Future of Learning In the Susquehanna Valley
Written By: Christy S. Renjilian
The entire education world, and beyond, was rocked in 2020. It was forced to evolve and change at lightning speed. While shedding decades of tradition, it tried to adapt to the demands of a global health crisis.
And yes, it was a struggle. And added to those educational challenges were the personal challenges of living through a pandemic. There was trauma, loss of loved ones, isolation, fear, and the emotional impact on the professionals working day in and day out. Those deemed essential employees.
But even amid the crisis, the struggle, there were glimpses of light. In education, that looked like options. Along with a deeper appreciation for the industry, overall, and its professionals – from school nurses to administrators, from teaching assistants to bus drivers. And teachers, those teaching babies, preschoolers, K-12, and beyond. Definitely the teachers. Deservedly so.
In the midst of unrest, tension, and a public health crisis the likes of which none of us had ever seen, the education community stepped up. And leaned in. Virtually. And in-person. Through a combination of approaches. Many family home-based child care providers never stopped providing care. Not for a single day. And centers applied for waivers and re-opened as quickly as they could. As always, child care provided a strong foundation for our economy, our families, our children.
And wow, there was a learning curve. For everyone. But there was grace. Our educators, those positioned to teach and guide and lecture, were in a storm.. But they adjusted. And pivoted. And learned a thing or two this past year. About their resilience, their profession, the impact they have on their students, their families, the community, and the greater economy.
So let’s take a look at where education is, where it’s going, and the long-term trends and innovations that are on the horizon.
Where is Education Going in 2021?
We are all so proud of our education partners, leaders, parents, and our students. They have adjusted their day-to-day and continue to do their best amidst global, rapid change.
And as we look to the 2021-22 school year, one of the things we found most positive for our students is going to stick around.
In a recent conversation with Randi B. Payne, Ed.D., Assistant Superintendent at Northeastern School District, she shared, “As we look toward next year and beyond, I think we are realizing a new arena of K-12 public education. Students and families have a great deal of choice within our public schools right now. For instance, students can attend fully in-person, fully online – synchronously, fully online – asynchronously, or a blended option of some in-person and some online. We have found that there’s a population of consumers for each of these models. To meet our families’ needs, we’ll need to maintain the options that they’ve come to appreciate.”
She continued on to say, “for teachers, some prefer teaching in person and some prefer online. Moving forward, teachers will be able to focus on their instructional strengths by teaching in the model that best matches their skills.”
An innovative approach to meet the needs of our students and teachers in the most effective way possible.
The Impact on the Teaching Profession
Early childhood teachers all the way through to post-secondary, teachers have been through it this year.
This past week and month, teachers across our region received their vaccine. And tears were shed. Tears of hope, tears of courage, tears for what they’ve walked through. For what was, and for what’s to come.
In this new age, their demands continue to grow. And grow.
As we move forward, our teachers need support to address the new and changing demands of the children and families they serve. They are going to need time and patience to address the gaps and challenges left in the wake of the pandemic. Along with additional training and peer groups to foster support for children with socio-emotional and behavioral issues.
Along with a rework of the current performance standards, so they can meet each student where they are and to adapt to the realities of the past year’s impact on children’s development.
In chatting with Ruby Martin, M.Ed., Chief Child and Youth Program Officer at YWCA York, she expressed her hopes, “that next school year will mean less stress and less exhaustion for our teachers.”
A sentiment we can all get behind.
Because the impact on our teachers has been staggering. In fact, a nationwide poll of educators conducted by the National Education Association found that 28 percent of teachers surveyed said the pandemic has made them more likely to retire early or leave the profession. That number includes a significant number of new or young teachers – one in five teachers with less than 10 years experience. It also includes 40 percent of teachers with 21 to 30 years experience, and 55 percent of those with more than 30 years.1
A challenge that could heighten the already desperate need for qualified teachers, leading to an even bigger shortage here in the U.S. In the early education sector, this issue is exacerbated by extremely low pay, long hours, and little support for the vital role they play in supporting children’s development.
We need to work to retain our educators, those who give so much to their students and their profession, and at the same time attract new educators.
Knowing what this next school year will bring is a start. As a community, we can use that knowledge to be proactive in creating policies and services that address the current challenges. We can craft a nurturing, more inclusive, more equitable approach to meet the needs of our students, our teachers, our support staff, and our economy.
Six Trends in Education in 2021 and Beyond
To craft that approach, we’ll need to set our collective sights on these six, high-priority trends and focus areas. A holistic view on the future of education.
- The Mental Health of Students
Look, our children are struggling, struggling, with socio-emotional and mental health issues as a result of the stressors of this past year. And so are parents, guardians, and our educators, too.
And it’s up to us, the helping professions – the non-profit agencies, the education system, and the medical profession – to pay close attention to the overall wellness of children. And to proactively implement prevention and intervention programs to help the children and their families.
If you’re a caregiver, you can have an even greater impact for your children. Increase your awareness of the signs of mental health struggles in children, and seek help, if needed. Reach out to the support systems in place, be it your pediatrician, teacher, your school counselor or administrator, or a telehealth professional through your workplace health program.
From a school leader’s perspective, Randi B. Payne, Ed.D., said, “I think we all recognize the importance of mental health services, especially for our young people. The time with limited social interaction, athletics, and the arts has definitely taken its toll. We’ll need to focus our efforts on the social-emotional side of learning for some time as we move forward.”
Focusing on mental health is an absolute must.
- Equity to Access and Learning
As you know, there is a big gap that exists in our region, in our country, and it’s the economic disparities between school districts. At the core of it is an archaic funding formula that reinforces the differences between communities with wealth and resources – and those without.
There’s an even bigger chasm between early childhood education and K-12 schools. The amount of public funding for early childhood education and child care is woefully short of the needs. And for middle class families, there is no support to help them with the cost of child care. This has been a problem for decades, and it’s time to solve the child care crisis.
It’s essential that we address it. And work together on viable and effective solutions.
And it’s linked to the diversity, equity, inclusion, and racism issues challenging our country, region, and school districts. Some school districts need more support, additional resources to ensure that each and every child has access to high-quality education.
And this additional support needs to start at the earliest of ages.
In Pennsylvania, there are over 475,000 low-income children aged 0-8. That’s 39% of all children in the State as reported by The National Center for Children in Poverty. In diving into their data, there are major percentile differences for children of color. The percentages for low-income children in the same age group are: 70% Non-Hispanic Black; 65% Hispanic/Latino; 30% Asian-American; and 27% Non-Hispanic White. 2
Differences Ruby Martin, M.Ed., is all too familiar with. “In York City, students really struggled with being connected at the end of 2019-20. And then staying engaged this school year. The disparity between our urban center and the surrounding districts has grown significantly this past year, and we may spend the next five years trying to recover from the additional disparities caused by Covid-19.”
Equity to access and learning is a top priority in our region.
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Improving access is key. And so is changing the diversity, equity, and inclusion landscape of education and curriculum. The curriculum must include more content regarding underrepresented communities and be a reflection of all stories, not just some stories.
The curriculum changes should be accompanied by culture change. They work together. And it starts by fostering a more welcoming culture within our buildings, our hallways, our classrooms, and all virtual spaces in the education arena. For children of all ages. To provide opportunities for them to see and be seen.
Things like assigning and reading literature from a broad range of authors and sharing the history of all cultures will help. Encouraging and attracting a more diverse workforce in and around the education system will make for a more inclusive environment. This environment will provide a place for safe, productive conversations about pressing current events at all levels of education and within leadership.
And will give our students space to innovate, leading the culture shift.
And encourage our leaders, administrators, and board members to take best practices from the decades of inclusivity work corporations have been doing within their workplaces. And work on implementing them in a school setting.
- Experiential, Individualized Learning
Another trend to embrace is a more individualized learning experience for students. We’ll start to see more student-led design groups, small-scale innovations, and peer-to-peer conversations focused on a common goal.
And as we do, we need to redefine what “mastery” means and the expectations we have for students. And how we measure success and adequate learning.
In ten or twenty years, education at all levels will occur both in-person and remotely. And if your school, your district doesn’t have a teacher certified in a particular specialty or enough students to make a class, then you can connect with another school or district.
In that same conversation with Ruby Martin, she shared her beliefs. “We will see elements of cyber and homeschool learning in public education. With a shift of curriculum, from large group instruction to a more focused, individualized instruction. A response to meet children where they are. This will allow students to feel more empowered to share their own goals for learning, to be assessed authentically, and be more active, valued participants in their own experiences.”
This past year has shined a light on what works really well for each student, for each family. And the education community has a real opportunity to take the best of each facet and adapt it in their own way to enhance the learning experience.
- Innovative Classroom Design
Another area for improvement is classroom design. The traditional classroom, be it in public school, private school, in-home, has been relatively unchanged for decades.
In early childhood education programs, home and center based, there is much more emphasis on individualized, child centered learning through active engagement and play. Following the child’s interests and lead. The K-12 system has much to learn from the child care system.
Recently, we’ve seen a shift to a more open, flexible learning space where a teacher guides the experience, instead of teaching to the collective whole of the class about a specific subject or topic.
The pandemic has had a silver lining of further requiring schools to reconsider classroom design and the “when,” “where” and “how” of learning. To what extent and how quickly these lessons drive the formation of K-12’s next iteration is uncertain, but the table is set with significant opportunities for forward-thinking districts this year.3
As education evolves, classrooms will, too. Teachers will continue to use more and more technology in the classroom, resulting in more individualized instruction for each child. And the trend towards experiential learning – learning through play and active engagement and exploration of the world – will increase.
- Change for Early Childhood Educators
Early childhood educators are the forgotten heroes of this past year. Working with far less pay, even when they have the same teaching certificate as their K-12 colleagues.
Government officials, business owners, and the public expected them to work during the height of the pandemic. And of course, they did. Very early on we rediscovered what the industry has known all along – early childhood educators are essential. Essential for the economy, yes. And essential for the mental health and well-being of children and their family unit, ensuring a safe, high-quality environment for play, growth, and development.
It is my hope that within five years early childhood education teachers are paid at the same rate as the K-12 system they feed into, and there is financial support for all families to help with child care costs. In the same way that all families are supported by the public K-12 system regardless of their income.
Creating a seamless opportunity for each whole child, each student, from birth to graduation. To ensure that all children are successful in school and life.
How Parents, Community Leaders, and Educators Can Work Together
We talked about where education is right now, and where it’s going. We covered choice, and how it’s here to stay. And we reviewed six trends in education: the mental health of students, equity to access and learning, diversity, equity, and inclusion, experiential/ individualized learning, innovative classroom design, and change for early childhood educators.
And that’s a lot. A lot.
But it may have left you wondering, how can I, as a parent, a guardian, a community leader, or an educator work to make this progress, these changes happen?
First of all, good for you for recognizing your role. Because you do have an active role.
You can continue to evolve your own holistic view of child development and rethink what “mastery” means. An example? A kindergartner. Let’s just say this particular kindergartner, as so many are, is “behind” what kindergarteners of years ago were doing. Instead of thinking, ‘wow, he’s behind’, adapt your thinking to meet him where he is, as a whole student. Accept and welcome her into this next year, slowly. Take time to celebrate what she knows and can do, what she accomplished over the last year.
Because there is harm in pushing children to acquire and retain certain knowledge and skills, especially this year. So be gentle. With your expectations, with your understanding, with your mental health and theirs.
And as you look at the whole student, look at the whole population, too. Acknowledge the disparities, work to understand the public and community’s role in creating them. And in the systems we created. Commit to not just studying them and talking about them, but to do the hard work of ensuring that every child has the opportunity to be successful in a quality early childhood education program and school, so they can be successful in life.
Because all students matter. Each and every life.
“What we know matters but who we are matters more.”
– Brené Brown
Community Connections for Children, Inc. (CCC) is a nonprofit centered in the heart of Pennsylvania. They are the backbone of the economy, serving childcare providers and low-income families ‒ the ones that have been impacted the most by the pandemic.
For you and your business, CCC helps keep childcare options open for your employees ‒ saving missed work hours and lowering on-the-job stress levels. They work with early childhood education programs and home-based providers to improve the quality of care, ensuring that all children enter school ready to be successful.
Christy Renjilian serves as its Executive Director.
To learn more and to donate, visit childcareconsultants.org.
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