As we emerge from the pandemic and look for a return to normal, it is understandable to question what that means given our new experiences and changed expectations. Can we go back to normal? Should we go back to normal? In fact, this is not a binary choice. The question is how we build the “new normal” of a stronger education system based on what we have learned is needed and possible.
Resilience must be at the top of that list.
Defining K–12 Resilience
First, let’s briefly define resilience. Simply put, resilience is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Going a step further, a resilient organization should not simply endure and return to its prior state. It must learn and evolve to anticipate and proactively mitigate future foreseeable misfortunes or changes (i.e., disturbances) such that their arrival doesn’t significantly disrupt the continuation of effective teaching and learning for all students.
Building that resilience requires a local K–12 school system to implement new and evolving practices to become more agile and flexible (i.e., more resilient).
- systems establish and support multiple delivery options, such as through partnerships or technologies, that can be leveraged to supplement, modify, or shift education location (e.g., alternative buildings, online, and outdoor sites) or source (e.g., community colleges, tutoring and mentoring networks); and
- system leadership recognize disruption as a constant expected and as an opportunity, and has a regular cadence to monitor disruptions and reset strategic priorities and mitigation.
The Importance of Resilience
We understandably saw many school systems struggle to respond to the pandemic, whether in shifting students to virtual learning, providing student services and wellness programs, or communicating with families. Despite great efforts by our educators, even previously high-performing systems were challenged to provide effective instruction, especially to disadvantaged student populations.
While the pandemic is an extreme example, in fact, we already have faced and will continue to face many ongoing disturbances, ranging from natural disasters to significant political or budgetary changes and ongoing demographic or technological changes.
For example, just recently, two disturbances dramatically disrupted the U.S. energy supply, due to the Texas electric grid not being sufficiently weatherproofed and the East Coast gas pipeline not being prepared for hackers, with both problems exposing a lack of redundant delivery systems.
School systems that had previously implemented principles and practices of resilience were best able to minimize the disruption of teaching and learning through the pandemic. All local K–12 school systems now have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to enhance those practices, from hybrid schooling to community partnerships and from mastery-based learning to data and process integration standards.
- Recognize Ongoing Disruptions: While the pandemic is the most extreme example, we face an accelerating rate of change and incidence of disturbances—abrupt and gradual, internal and external. These range from teacher shortages to student population shifts and from extreme weather events to technological disruption. Resilience is increasingly important to mitigate these foreseeable occurrences.
- Don’t Waste a Crisis: Fatigue and the pull to normal are real, but so too is the appetite for reform. The pandemic has accelerated innovation across society, adjusted expectations, and opened minds to new ways. While we have moved toward education digitization and some administrative optimization, our fundamental schooling model remains little changed from its assembly-line, agrarian schedule. Our push to resilience can positively accelerate increasingly effective school models and instructional practices.
- Sustain Effectiveness and Equity: All schools, and especially many already vulnerable student populations, struggled with instructional access and rigorous learning through the pandemic. Infrastructure, training, and supports were understandably not ready. Resilience is therefore necessary for, and as important as, effectiveness and equity in building a high-performing school system.
- Create a Pathway to Personalization and Flexibility: The goal of increased personalization of learning is widely recognized, but progress has been slow. Many practices of resilience enable flexibility, extendibility, and customization that are consistent with personalization. In fact, student (and family) voice and agency were extended during the pandemic, as was exposure to flexibility in the time and place of learning. These and further possibilities have been introduced at scale, providing a pathway to more durable options and differentiation.
Failure to build resilience and further future-proof a local system poses further risk to student learning given the likelihood of future, foreseeable disturbances, big and small, abrupt and gradual. Given the extensive impact of the pandemic, we have a responsibility to act to mitigate potential future lost learning opportunities.
Resilience is not a one-time reform but rather must be an ongoing strategic priority. While the importance of resilience is fresh in our minds, and we are more open to change, now is the time to accelerate that effort and to build back better with resilience.