>Over the last two years, the Western Governors University faculty, staff, and leaders have worked with educators around the country, particularly in our public schools, 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, as educators, better our schools, communities, and students.
We need to make time for this now. The education challenges at hand are real and mounting. For example, we are facing a staggering teacher shortage. According to data from the federal government, all states and the District of Columbia collectively report an unmet need of approximately 410,000 teachers for the 2021-22 school year. What is clear is that unless we act soon, the teaching shortage alone 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. Indeed, normal wasn’t working for a lot of students. And a new normal is likely not enough—it typically amounts to trendy technologies or pet policies bolted on to normal. We’re proposing that we slow down, reflect on the last twenty years of work and two years of upheaval, innovation, and experiments, 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. 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 glaringly clear that we live in an education technology landscape of “haves and have nots.”
At our university, we recognized this overwhelming challenge for our students and moved quickly to help. 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.
In a similar fashion, educational institutions should work continually with partner associations and government entities and take bold action. Finding and implementing solutions to remove barriers to digital access and affordability is paramount in keeping students engaged, motivated, and successful in learning. 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
According to a report by the Christensen Institute, when it comes to reimagining education, we have no shortage of options—new curricula, technologies, pedagogies, and programs abound. We need to help students embrace and grow their skills sets and knowledge—and even contribute new applications and ideas to the mix—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 reimagination we would argue is 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.
Many schools learned the value of this model during the pandemic. In this model, students can learn well without the shame, blame, and gaming of the system all-too-often associated with high-stakes grading models. Check out the Mastery Transcript Consortium—a consortium of public school districts, private schools, and leading universities—for a larger unpacking of this idea.
Strike a Thoughtful Balance on Educator Self-Care & Professional Development
A recent RAND Corporation survey found that while 40 percent of all employed adults reported experiencing significant job-related stress during the pandemic, this figure was almost double for K-12 teachers (78 percent). Put simply, teachers were and 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 burnout.
District leaders are working with teachers and principals to design and implement a variety of mental health and wellness support initiatives. They are hiring behavioral health counselors not only for students but also for teachers and paraprofessionals. Nonetheless, many teachers are exhausted by what sometimes feels like toxic positivity. Frustration with the “you can do it” and “you’re a hero” bromides are only surpassed by the “take time for yourself” admonitions. Make no mistake; there are no easy answers here.
We need to listen with empathy and address teachers’ concerns around pay, time, and support needs. However, there can be real value in providing professional development that helps with self-care strategies and with 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
Now more than ever, it’s time for education leaders to prioritize healthy learning. Our conception of a healthy learning environment for schools, colleges, and universities involves the braiding together of 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 doing the work of bringing our research, reflection, policy, and practice around these initiatives together, we can help create a healthier environment for learning.
And healthy does not mean easy. It means creating a situation where a student can do the work and thrive, a place where their academic, physical, psychological, and social selves can be better formed and effectively developed. In addition, a healthy learning environment is necessary for our leaders and board members. As such, this conversation should extend into governance and community engagement, particularly in our current politically charged environment.
Embrace Regional Education Ecosystems
The more that we unpack and examine what constitutes effective learning systems for striving 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’s 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 teachers and leaders. In addition, these districts are home to our clinical learning sites, where students have their curricula come to life. 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. It is in these regional partnerships that we see our mission of “opening pathways to possibility” truly come to life as we join a family of other colleges and universities the districts work with each year.
We put this resolution last because of a hard truth: these resolutions are almost all dependent on our ability and willingness to work together. We need to get over our “better than” arguments and embrace our “better with” reality that we’re all in this together.
Education is a game-changer, door opener, and playing-field leveler. We all desperately need it to work and work well. As such, let’s commit to taking a beat and 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 the New Year!