Over the last two years, the Western Governors University faculty, staff and leaders have worked with educators around the country who have been consumed with change and challenges. To be sure, pandemic-driven logistical lurching, budgetary ups and downs and painfully divisive politics consumed much of the time we might have had for strategic conversations about how we can improve our schools, communities and students.
The education challenges at hand are real and mounting. For example, we are facing a staggering teacher shortage. Pre-pandemic Texas was already experiencing a teacher shortage, as the number of certified teachers in the state has decreased 27% since 2014. Unless we act soon, the teaching shortage will cripple any work on new or improved education policy or practice aimed at improving student access and success.
“Given these challenges and the rising importance of education as a pathway to economic and social possibility, we have made the case in recent months that this is a crucial moment in our national education journey – one where we can’t afford to simply pine for a return to normal.”
Given these challenges and the rising importance of education as a pathway to economic and social possibility, this is a crucial moment in our national education journey. We can’t afford to simply pine for a return to normal. Instead, we must reflect and begin to come together around a “New Possible.”
What we offer here, as we enter a new year, is a handful of resolutions to consider for educators, policymakers and community leaders wanting to engage in the work of a new possible. Let’s commit together to the following:
Catalyze conversations on digital learning infrastructure
The first resolution is to ignite a conversation about digital learning infrastructure, advancing practice and shaping policy about technology, with technology, and beyond technology in education. In the urgent shift to remote learning during the pandemic, it became clear that we live in an education technology landscape of “haves and have nots.”
We launched the Online Access Scholarship, committing $1 million to provide computers and cover the ongoing costs of internet connectivity for recipients during their enrollment here. And we’ve partnered with the National Governors Association to convene government, nonprofit and internet service providers to define and address state-level drivers of digital inequity.
Educational institutions should work with partner associations and government entities to take bold action. A digital learning infrastructure is no longer a luxury — it is a core necessity to level the playing field for all students, particularly in rural and inner-city settings.
Reimagine our learning models
The Christensen Institute found that when it comes to reimagining education, we have no shortage of options. We need to help students embrace and grow their skills and knowledge so that when they successfully complete their public or private education, they are prepared for college or their careers.
As the largest competency-based university in the world, one idea worth exploring is whether grades should remain the dominant mode of assessment and progression. In our experience, mastery learning allows educators to build a system of learning based on grace and challenge, where students are rewarded for not giving up. Indeed, they are challenged to try and try again as they master content. In this model, students can learn well without the shame and gaming of the system that is all-too-often associated with high-stakes grading models. Check out the Mastery Transcript Consortium for a detailed explanation of this idea.
Strike a thoughtful balance of educator self-care and professional development
A recent RAND Corp. survey found that while 40% of adults reported significant job-related stress during the pandemic, this figure was almost double for K-12 teachers (78%). Teachers are on edge. Many pandemic-era teaching issues — such as frightened and confused students, technology problems and having to learn entirely new systems — are linked to significant job-related stress, depressive symptoms and increasingly, to burnout.
There can be real value in providing professional development that helps with self-care strategies and with real skill-building aimed at helping teachers make the most of new technical systems. We’ll have to be thoughtful and careful, however, and not assume that pandemic-funded professional development will address the real trauma many teachers and leaders in education have been through.
Champion healthy learning
It’s time for education leaders to champion healthy learning. Our conception of a healthy learning environment for schools, colleges and universities braids together often single-stranded and isolated initiatives involving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); social and emotional learning (SEL); mental health; basic needs; and character education, civility and thriving. By combining our research, reflection, policy and practice around these initiatives, we can help create a healthier environment for learning.
Healthy does not mean easy. It means creating a situation where a student can rise and thrive, a place where their academic, physical, psychological and social selves can be better formed and effectively developed. This conversation should extend into larger governance and community engagement, particularly in our current politically charged environment.
Embrace regional education ecosystems
The more we unpack what constitutes effective learning systems for students, the more we come to understand that all parts of a regional education ecosystem — early learning, K12, community colleges, colleges and universities — are interconnected. Each of these interconnected elements either effectively partners or painfully disrupts and disconnects education journeys.
At WGU Teachers College, we partner with more than 2,600 school districts across the country. We help prepare their rising teachers and continue the professional journeys of existing educators. Moreover, WGU has formal transfer agreements with more than 500 community colleges around the country — often the most important pathway for first-generation, low-income and working students to rise into education professions. These regional partnerships reflect our mission of “opening pathways to possibility.” In Texas, WGU is partnered with all 50 community colleges, including Austin Community College, Collin College and South Texas College, to develop pathways and scholarships that make the goal of becoming a licensed teacher a reality.
We need to get over “better than” arguments and embrace the “better with” reality that we’re all in this together. Education is a game changer, door opener and playing-field leveler. Let’s commit to diving together into substantive conversations and good work on each of these resolutions. Making progress on these five resolutions will help us take vital steps on a journey toward new possibilities in 2022!