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The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many existing societal problems, and issues in Pennsylvania’s K-12 education systems were far from immune, a new report (PDF) from Pitt’s Institute of Politics has found.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics (IOP) investigated the types of public policy, operational policy and practices that enabled or impeded schools to respond to the coronavirus crisis. Among other findings, the report noted that inequities in the delivery of education across and within districts were exacerbated by inflexible policies at the state and local levels.
Stanley Thompson, chair of IOP’s Education Policy Committee, member of its Board of Fellows and senior program director of learning at The Heinz Endowments, said the challenges are an opportunity to learn from how districts and students respond and provide recommendations for positive change for statewide K-12 education.
“In the face of such a monumental challenge that a pandemic presents, inherent interruptions, barriers and opportunities present themselves in unique ways,” Thompson said. “If we thoroughly examine the effects this pandemic has on our schools and our youth, we can create positive, resilient pathways for education.”
IOP’s Education Policy Committee was reconstituted for the project and was composed of a balanced group of elected officials, including four state representatives who all currently serve or have previously served as members of the Pennsylvania House Education Committee, foundation and community leaders, and experts in education policy and practice. The committee observed and documented school district responses to the pandemic across the commonwealth, along with how students engaged with education during the pandemic. They developed policy recommendations spanning five categories: technology, flexibility, meeting whole-child needs, competency-based learning and individualized/personalized learning.
Members of the 19-person committee felt it was important to address both short- and long-term recommendations, as well as indicate whether policy changes should be enacted at the local, state or federal level, or a combination.
Improving access to broadband, technology and customized learning environments were some of the top recommendations noted. Standardized testing was also not immune from recommendation, with the report suggesting that the state department “encourage, support and facilitate the use of other formative assessments that school districts often use to measure student growth and competency at multiple points throughout the year. Formative assessments often are more useful to educators than statewide standardized assessments in informing the development of personalized learning plans and will be critical in understanding potential learning losses resulting from the pandemic.”
Broadly and most importantly, the committee determined that advancing personalized and individualized learning will also address many of the other challenges identified.
“When we place students at the center of teaching and learning — at the center of their own education — and support their learning with caring educators and high-quality, engaging curricula, then we ensure that students have opportunities to become college, career, community and world ready,” said committee member Valerie Kinloch, the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of Pitt’s School of Education.
K-12 education before COVID-19 featured many vestiges of an industrial model, including attendance requirements tied to seat time and standardized assessments designed to measure classroom rather than individual progress. The report authors note that other states are already focusing on a shift to individualized learning, and the recommendations from this study align with and build upon work from regional partners such as the Southwestern Pennsylvania Personalized Learning Network and Remake Learning, who are trying to modernize educational systems.
“One thing that that pandemic has taught us is that schools need to operate differently in the future, and the time to start making public policy changes that support innovative solutions like personalized learning is now,” said Samantha Balbier, director of IOP. “We spoke to many leaders in the state legislature who heard from their constituents that more must be done to develop policies that advance equitable, learner-centered education. School districts, advocates and parents need to provide the leadership to drive these policy changes throughout Pennsylvania for the benefit of all our children.”