The COVID-19 pandemic has altered multiple aspects of everyday life, especially those requiring personal interactions and daily routines. As a result, the core practices of things like schooling and student learning have had to be fundamentally revised. Schools across the world have thus adopted policies and practices to facilitate virtual learning, which have forced educators to quickly learn how to design and enact online lessons with limited resources (United Nations, 2020). Schools have invented and established these routines as the “new normal,” all while navigating a persistent level of uncertainty. Although COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated the digital divide as well as social inequalities like economic and racial injustice (United Nations, 2020), scholars and educators have argued that this disruption also presents an opportunity for the equitable redesign of school systems (Zhao, 2020). With massive vaccination efforts, schools are now preparing to go back to “normalcy” for post-COVID-19 education (see Durston et al., 2021; Meckler & George,2021). In reflecting on the many innovations schools have made during COVID-19 (e.g., online and blended learning, individualized support), it is important to consider Zhao and Watterston’s (2021) argument that the educational changes imposed by the pandemic may be unsustainable for the long-term.
While superficial changes in schooling made during the pandemic may not be sustainable, this essay offers a counter-narrative from the Korean context, in which educators re-constructed policies and teaching practices to fill the educational vacuum caused by COVID-19. The lessons we address here build on 23 Zoom interviews (including 17 individual interviews and six focus groups) conducted throughout the 2020 school year with Korean teachers, school and district leaders, and parents across the country. As education researchers residing in the US during the pandemic who previously worked as Korean school teachers, we wanted to present stories of how Korean schools implemented online and hybrid classes without largescale school closures and how educators made meaning of the changes forced by COVID-19.
“While superficial changes in schooling made during the pandemic may not be sustainable, this essay offers a counter-narrative from the Korean context, in which educators re-constructed policies and teaching practices to fill the educational vacuum caused by COVID-19”
What was most striking to us was the ownership of educational change reflected in the educators’ narratives. This sense of ownership can be understood as a “mental or psychological state of feeling owner of an innovation” that enables educators to understand how changes are applied and their specific roles in initiating these changes (Ketelaar et al., 2012, p. 5). In navigating and reflecting on the pandemic’s unexpected challenges, they placed themselves at the center of efforts to realize “future education.” Teachers and leaders thereby perceived educational innovations as both a short-term reaction to the pandemic and as sustainable transformations to lead in the long run. This sentiment was apparent in their responses to the sudden onset of COVID-19, as well as in their approach to schooling a year into the pandemic. For the Korean educators we interviewed, “back to school” does not mean back to pre-pandemic schooling of the past. Although we do not generalize their responses as “the Korean case,” our surveys of news articles, books, and online teacher communities in Korea indicate strong aspiration for changes stemming from critiques of pre-pandemic education.
Behind the ownership of sustainable changes: Three driving forces
Throughout the research process, we consistently asked what led the Korean educator participants to take ownership of school changes. As an irresistible force (Stone- Johnson, 2021), COVID-19 has imbued education communities with a sense of urgency and purpose to collectively revise school systems…Echoing the argument that COVID-19 catalyzed the realization of school reforms (Kim et al., in press), we identified three macro-level driving forces in participants’ stories that enabled transformations in Korean schools:
Policy discourse about “future education”
Professional teaching cultures
Using bureaucratic administration creatively
Lessons learned: Suggestions for back to school with COVID‑19
Offer a shared space for diverse policy actors
Adopt hybrid governance to coordinate resources
Balance commitments to others and self‑care
The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the structure and practices of education systems around the world. It forced schools to change their core activities from the bottom up and create new ideas and systems to support student learning. Schooling during the pandemic has thus necessarily revealed challenges that must be addressed (e.g., widening achievement gaps), but it also surfaced opportunities for challenging the “old grammar of schooling” in how Korean educators took ownership of educational changes to collectively envision better ways of schooling during and after COVID-19.
“Schooling during the pandemic has thus necessarily revealed challenges that must be addressed (e.g., widening achievement gaps), but it also surfaced opportunities for challenging the “old grammar of schooling” in how Korean educators took ownership of educational changes to collectively envision better ways of schooling during and after COVID-19.”
“What if this is a moment when we can re-imagine education?” But “What if it isn’t? What if, despite the changes wrought by the pandemic, the conditions that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?” These are the questions that IEN Editor Thomas Hatch asks in the 2nd commentary in a series launched by Corrie Stone-Johnson and the Journal of Educational Change. These questions build on the first commentary in that series by Yong Zhao and Jim Watterston – “The changes we need post-Covid” and follows up on last week’s IEN post from Larry Cuban – “Downsizing school reform.” Future posts on IEN will track both what changes in schools and what does not in order to reveal the conditions and constraints that have to be addressed to transform education over the long term. These IEN posts are part of a long-term project exploring school improvement efforts and educational innovations in both developing and developed contexts and follow-up on issues Thomas Hatch, Jordan Corson and Sarah Van den Berg raised in The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021).
“We will now resume our regular programming…”
Excerpt of a commentary from Thomas Hatch originally published in the Journal of Educational Change, August 2021 (Full commentary available at the Journal of Educational Change website)
The times are always changing. The question this year is whether we can build on some of the changes schools made in the face of the coronavirus and reimagine education altogether. Like many, I am hopeful that we can take advantage of the current moment to make at least a few meaningful steps in some of these directions.
Nonetheless, my work over the past thirty years on school improvement and school reform efforts in the US and in “higher” and “lower-performing” countries also makes me deeply skeptical. Time and again, I have seen how ambitious plans and visions fall short of their aspirations. As a consequence, although I believe this may be a crucial time to ask: “What if this is a moment when we can re-imagine education?”, I also know that we need to ask a second question: “What if it isn’t?” What if, despite the changes wrought by the pandemic, the existing institutional structures, practices, incentives, and beliefs that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?
Is there a real opportunity to re-imagine education post-pandemic? Or will the existing institutional structures, practices, incentives, and beliefs that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?
I don’t see this as a pessimistic take. It’s imagining the future and understanding the past that enables us to take off on journeys where the exact destination is unknown. When getting ready to climb a mountain, adventurers don’t just hope that the path they envision does not lead to an impassible ledge; they don’t rely on the hope that the weather will hold. They try to imagine what might happen when they turn a corner or reach a new level, and they get prepared. When the unexpected happens, when the conditions predictably change in unpredictable ways, we need to be ready to respond and rise above.
As my colleagues Jordan Corson and Sarah Van den Berg and I argue in our new book, The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict, education systems all around the world find themselves in this situation today. Now more than ever, it’s clear that we do not know exactly what lies around the corner, and we cannot determine, with certainty, what today’s students will need as adults or what roadblocks or supports societies will put in place for helping them to get there. But we can build on what we know about why it’s so hard to improve schools, and we can imagine what it will really take to create more powerful and equitable educational opportunities in the future.
We can build on what we know about why it’s so hard to improve schools, and we can imagine what it will really take to create more powerful and equitable educational opportunities in the future.
In my commentary in the Journal of Educational Change, I explore what it will take to support real changes in schools post-pandemic by exploring three questions:
Part 1: Why don’t schools change?
Part 2: How (and why) did schools change during the pandemic?
Part 3: How can schools change post-pandemic?
My responses to those questions build on several key principles derived from my work in and studies of a variety of efforts to create more powerful learning experiences in both developed and developing contexts:
First, new possibilities for schooling are most likely to take off when their goals, capacity demands, and values fit the common needs, existing capabilities, and prevailing conditions in the schools and communities where they’re supposed to work.
Second, this first principle leads to a corollary that seems particularly problematic for those who want to reimagine schooling altogether: the more radical our visions are for education and the more they diverge from conventional practice, the less likely they are to take hold on a large scale. However, that does not mean that it is impossible to pursue the new visions for education that Zhao and Waterston and others imagine. It means that the demands and pressures of conventional schooling make it easier to bring those visions to life in particular circumstances and contexts – ecological “niches” in a sense – rather than across entire school systems.
Third, this tension between the nature and extent of reform efforts, however, yields a further principle that opens up another avenue for change: There are places – “niches of possibility” – where the conditions are more amenable for transforming education. That does not mean that we have to accept every aspect of the conditions or ignore those that are deeply problematic. But we have to figure out how to challenge and work with and around the conditions in order to change them.
Schools will be transformed, over time, with changes in the conditions and the construction of the infrastructure for more powerful learning.
From this perspective, the specific vision for learning remains important, but that vision has to be accompanied by the recognition that it is not the vision itself that will change schools; schools will be transformed, over time, with changes in the conditions and the construction of the infrastructure for more powerful learning. Rather than aiming to develop a program and scale it across contexts, the focus shifts to the student level and to making sure that all students, particularly those left out and systematically disadvantaged by conventional schooling, encounter more and more opportunities inside and outside schools to engage in powerful learning experiences. Those experiences create new emergent possibilities for education that build directly on the specific conditions in which students live and learn every day.
Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions. For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities.
Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?
Isobel Stevenson: My day job, so to speak, is in an organization that has equity in education as its mission, so this is an issue that I spend a lot of time working on and thinking about. My contact with school and district leaders (including coaches, department heads, and so on) tells me that they have already got the message that the system generates and perpetuates inequities. They are looking for ways to do something about it. But a lot of what is available to them is still at the problem-identification level. And for sure, having good data, completing an equity audit (Skrla, Scheurich, & Garcia, 2004), identifying the inequities that exist and seeing them for what they are–all those are essential. But even when you know the problem, the “now what?” can remain elusive.
Much of the attention being paid to equity at the moment is in the form of books that discuss why race is hard to talk about, how our personal biases show up in our work, etc. See, for example, White Fragility (DiAngelo, 2018), Unconscious Bias in Schools (Benson & Fiarman, 2020), How to be an Anti-Racist (Kendi, 2019). These are all great books, and you have to start somewhere, but many educational leaders seem to have gotten the impression that engaging in this kind of work is what it means to “do equity work”. I think there are other aspects of “doing equity” that, if not red herrings, are overstated in their importance. By which I mean, it’s not that they are not important, it is that they are not, by themselves, long enough levers to bring about meaningful change. I would include in this category: “relationships”, “SEL” (currently the single most overused and under-specified construct in education), and “trauma-informed instruction.”
If I have one big complaint, it is that programs in educational change are not paying enough attention to instruction–or they do so in a lopsided way. We use terms like culturally-responsive or culturally-relevant, but these are only one part of the picture. A culturally relevant curriculum that does not expose students to grade-level tasks is missing the mark, but “rigor” has become a tainted concept, and we don’t seem to talk about teacher expectations any more. How can we re-introduce the idea that in addition cultural relevance, intellectual challenge and academic press are also crucial?
“How can we re-introduce the idea that in addition to cultural relevance, intellectual challenge and academic press are also crucial?”
The irony here is that we have research going back a long way that shows that teachers cannot think their way out of their biases–not because they are bad people, but because they are human, and the whole point of implicit bias is that it is implicit. The question then becomes how can we construct policies and practices, for instruction and other aspects of education, that are not dependent on educators overcoming their biases in order to improve opportunities, experiences and outcomes for all students? Specifically, in my experience, organizing for equity means consciousness-raising for educators (by reading books like Unconscious Bias in Schools (Benson & Fiarman, 2020), for example) SO THAT they understand, and agree with, the need for them to alter their teaching practices to increase BOTH the challenge AND the support that traditionally marginalized students receive. Paul Gorski, Zaretta Hammond, and Matthew Kay all provide guidance on how to do that.
LtC: Given your focus on strategic planning to enhance school performance and equity opportunities and outcomes, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?
IS: A lack of strategic thinking can lead educators to make choices based on un-tested thinking, including but not limited to:
Believing that because another district appears to have had success with a program, it should be adopted in our district.
Proposing solutions without thinking through what the problem is (this tendency is compounded by the temptation to talk about solutions as if they were problems, as in “the problem is we don’t have enough counselors.”)
Adopting a program/approach/ initiative without a tough conversation about the capacity needed to implement it.
Thinking that the answer is professional learning for teachers; the answer is never just professional learning for teachers.
Believing that writing something in a plan means that it will happen.
Believing that having a vision or adopting ambitious goals has power other than inspiration; it is, at best, the starting point for coherence.
Thinking that filling out a template for a school improvement plan or a district strategic plan is the same thing as being strategic.
Making assumptions that everyone in the organization is clear about what the organization’s strategy is (in fact, most teachers in most districts don’t know what the district is focused on).
Making assumptions that everyone in the organization is clear on their role (coaches, for example, are often decidedly unclear on what they are supposed to be coaching towards).
Leaders need a strong conceptual framework for strategic planning, so that they don’t fall into these traps. They also need tools for strategic planning, but, above all, they should deploy these tools thoughtfully, not replace one set of compliance activities for another. Obviously, I think the antidote is, at least in part, that educational leaders should read my new book with Dr. Jennie Weiner, The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices;but Being Strategic : Plan for Success; Out-Think Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change by Erika Anderson is also really great.
“Leaders should deploy these tools thoughtfully, not replace one set of compliance activities for another.”
Both books emphasize process over product. They provide a big-picture methodology involving building a bridge from what is to what is desired. Obviously, that sounds simple and straightforward, but implementing the process well is actually quite challenging, and so they contain a lot of guidance for how to go about it.
LtC: In your recent work, you make the case that strategic planning can be an important tool for continuous improvement but requires a principled framework of equity, logic, capacity, and coherence to facilitate such change. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice in response to this argument?
IS: There are many areas where I see policy under-utilized, and many where it is wielded clumsily. For example, many districts have created policies around the creation of strategic plans that are more about compliance to external mandates and/or the format of the plan than about the substance of the plan relative to the needs of the district. I understand the desire for accountability around the practice of planning, but putting so much emphasis on a product–and, more than that, a product in a specified format–makes the creation of the product a rather onerous task. For example, we have seen templates that require the inclusion of a root cause analysis, or pages of data. I don’t see that as helpful, and simply reinforces a couple of things: the message that planning is a compliance activity; district and schools’ priorities are only loosely coupled; schools get to choose how and when to pursue equity.
At the same time, districts choose not to wield their power when it comes to policy that perpetuates inequity. I don’t understand why districts don’t have stronger equity-related policies around, for example, placement in advanced courses, discipline, grading, and high-quality instruction.
Capacity building is neglected at a policy level. Sometimes it seems to me that a realistic conversation about capacity becomes impossible, because it can be construed as a lack of faith in the mission. Educators who ask difficult questions about capacity fear that they will be labeled as “negative”, “resistant”, or “nay-sayers.” There is a lot of work to be done on psychological safety in education.
To change these patterns, you have to think of policy as part of strategy, rather than separate from it, which is how it’s often treated. School boards are often involved in the creation of the strategic plan, but they seem to see themselves as separate from it, as though it is a mechanism for them to delegate the work rather than direct the work.
LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?
IS: In addition to my training and experience in educational leadership and change management, I also have training and experience in coaching, and that has been completely invaluable. So, I’m going to answer this question by highlighting how my coaching background shines a light on the question of supporting educators facing difficult challenges, in the hope that I can inspire others to investigate how interpersonal, as well as organizational, theory and practice can be helpful:
Collaboration and support in transformation requires psychological safety. Without it, leaders will simply not be granted access to information they need in order to improve their strategy, and subordinates will carry the impression that their leaders are more interested in hearing good news than in providing support. Psychological safety means seeing failure as data and not lack of commitment; it means not judging the quality of decisions by their results; it means not reacting to good news as much as not reacting to bad. Amy Edmondson’s (2018) TheFearless Organization is essential reading, as is Meghan Tschannen-Moran’s (2014) Trust Matters.
I often work with educational leaders who know what they ought to do, but don’t do it. When pressed, they tend to use explanations that indicate that they don’t think that the required action (let’s say, a challenging conversation) will actually make a difference; but I suspect that even though they are expressing their doubts as what Bandura (1977) would call an outcome expectation, they actually don’t have confidence in their ability to perform the action. Leaders of educational change need skills, and developing them requires guidance, coaching, and practice.
A universal complaint of educators is that they don’t get enough feedback; this is particularly true of leaders in challenging situations. There are two parts to this. First, educational leaders need conceptual frameworks to formulate feedback (see, for example, Hattie & Timperley, 2007), and practice in developing the skill of engaging in feedback conversations. Let’s say that’s the formal version of feedback. But second, they need to understand how to harvest feedback from the environment, because it is actually all around them, and how to solicit feedback that is useful to them. Let’s call that the informal type of feedback. And educators need practice in receiving feedback, which they almost never get.
“Collaboration and support in transformation requires psychological safety.”
There’s a line in Execution (Bossidy, Charan & Burck, 2011) about how the conversation is the smallest unit of change, and I think there is an essential truth in that. Educational leaders tend to think of coaching as a soft skill separate from the hard skills of developing strategy and decision making, but I think that’s a mistake. A lot of the methodology of strategic planning is exactly parallel to the scaffolding of strategic thinking that is the essence of coaching. I think that educational leaders would benefit enormously from formal training in coaching; it would improve their support for individuals and groups, help them benefit from coaching and supervision, as well as giving them the skills to have strategic conversations.
It’s not just about coaching, of course. In our book, The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders, we talk about principals and superintendents being clear on their role in putting equity first while supporting teachers, and about building capacity, which is also a form of support. We also talk about coherence–which is all about clarity and shared understanding–which is a much-underestimated form of support; there are so many educators who would feel much less stressed and much more supported if they only felt that they were on the same page as senior leaders regarding what the focus was and who was supposed to be doing what. That’s a big part of our book.
LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?
IS: This is a watershed moment. The pandemic has been a disaster for millions of children, but it has also shone a light on inequity in a way that nothing else has come close to doing since Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (1991) was published. My unscientific reading of social media tells me that there is a deep divide between educators who want nothing so badly as going back to what they had before the schools shut down in March, and those who want to reinvent schools based on what the pandemic has made apparent: that schools are not meeting the needs of all students. My greatest hope is that this conversation does not become a head-to-head competition, but rather a strategic conversation: a process for agreeing on a shared vision based on equity for all students and generating a strategic plan to reach that vision that isn’t a performative exercise, but makes sense, is realistic, and devotes adequate resources to the mission. I am optimistic.
Andersen, E. (2009). Being Strategic: Plan for Success; Out-think Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change. St. Martin’s Press.
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191.
Benson, T. A., & Fiarman, S. E. (2020). Unconscious bias in schools: A developmental approach to exploring race and racism. Harvard Education Press.
Bossidy, L., Charan, R., & Burck, C. (2011). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. Random House.
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press
.Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons.
Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. One world.
Kozol, J. (1991) Savage inequalities. Crown.
Tschannen-Moran, M. (2014). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools. John Wiley & Sons.
Skrla, L., Scheurich, K.J., Garcia, J., & Nolly, G. (2004). Equity audits: A practical leadership tool for developing equitable and excellent schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40 (1), 133-161.
Stevenson, I., & Weiner, J. M. (2020). The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes. Routledge.
ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung Kim, Graduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.
The Journal of Educational Change publishes important ideas and evidence of educational change. Contributions represent a range of disciplines, including history, psychology, political science, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and administrative and organizational theory. The journal also draws attention to a broad spectrum of methodologies, including quantitative and qualitative approaches, documentary study, action research, and conceptual development.
As the journal’s editor-in-chief, Dennis Shirley, explains in his introduction to the August issue, the five articles published this month point us in “promising directions for improving our schools and enhancing the legitimacy of our public educational systems.”
Shirely argues, “The quest for legitimacy has driven many governments to turn to data and a more scientific approach to educational change. On the one hand this is a felicitous development, especially for researchers. On the other hand, the pursuit of certainty through the quantification of education has itself proved nettlesome. It seems that the mathematization of teaching and learning can conceal a number of blind spots that can create new problems for teachers and students. How this occurs and can be overcome is represented vividly in this new issue of The Journal of Educational Change.”
Minister Kristin Halvorsen get much praise even from opposition parties, the message of reform in secondary school. The image is from the University of Bergen, where she presented the research report last week Photo: Marit Hommedal / NTB Scanpix
On March 15th, the government of Norway released a white paper report proposing that education be made more practical and relevant. The report, titled “On the Right Path: Quality and Diversity in Public Schools,” calls for students to have greater freedom to move subjects between grade levels, and between academic and workplace settings. Vocational education is under review for ways in which it can produce students who are better prepared for professional work, thereby yielding a greater impact on the labor market. In order to ensure that the curriculum meets the needs of the students, the government will appoint a committee to assess the extent to which today’s school subjects cover competencies and skills the students require.
In addition to vocational training, the government aims to focus on issues related to multicultural diversity of the population, such as bilingualism, by teaching democratic principles such as tolerance and inclusion, and introducing early intervention for children in kindergarten programs tailored to their needs. In particular, nursery staff will need to have expertise in multilingual education, and teachers will need to be prepared to introduce Norwegian as a second language and adapt instruction in all subjects. Newly arrived students of all ages will be assessed for language skills and receive customized training programs on the primary and secondary level. In addition, newly arrived adults who do not speak the language will be eligible for prolonged second language training.
The latest calls for improving the educational system in Norway follow a series of reforms over the past ten years that included the development of national tests and other means of monitoring the performance of the educational system. While that emphasis reflects rising demands for accountability around the world, in an article in the latest issue of the Journal of Educational Change and a previous blog post, IEN editor Thomas Hatch argues that the Norwegian reforms demonstrate a different approach. Rather than relying primarily on rewards and consequences, Hatch shows how the Norwegian reforms attempt to balance the need for individual accountability with efforts to foster individual and collective responsibility.
While recent attention often focuses on the regulations of the Right to Education Act in India (including recent reports and debates about the progress of this initiative), Tricia Niesz and Ramchandar Krishnamurthy suggested that the wide-scale adoption of Activity-Based Learning (ABL) in Tamil Nadu India was accomplished through a more participatory, grass-roots approach. They argue that state-level administrators “engaged strategies for change that combined both movement-building tactics and the conventional tools of administrative power.” These administrators themselves became experts in the ABL method in a way that built good will and moral authority even when administrators used top-down mandates to institutionalize the reform.