Does 2020 present a crucible moment for K–12 education? The answer may surprise you

Chelsea Waite, writing for the Christensen Institute, recently explored reasons why 2020 may — or may not — result in lasting change in the education sector. Excerpts from the piece appear below:

In moments that require radical adaptation, it’s tempting to see crisis as an inevitable harbinger of change. So far, 2020 has seemed like a cascade of these moments: from school building closures due to COVID-19 in March to public grappling with racism after George Floyd’s death in June, and to the multiplication of remote and hybrid learning models this fall. Change, it seems, is all around.

So should we expect that, post-2020, school will never be the same again? Taking cues from the history of K–12 education, it’s no guarantee. Consider two examples of events that shifted the ground dramatically underneath schools, but resulted in two vastly different legacies: 

— Public education’s Sputnik moment – One legacy of this ground-shift is the presence of school resources like science laboratories, as well as overhead projectors and other audiovisual equipment—early precursors to some of the educational technologies more common in schools today. The Advanced Placement (AP) program, which was initially piloted in elite high schools in the early 1950’s, also gained momentum in Sputnik’s wake, and AP remains one of the few examples of educational reforms that historians argue actually succeeded. 

— Chicago’s innovative polio epidemic response – Even with sweeping system-wide authorization of new tools and methods in education, delivery of instruction via radio and newspaper never caught on in schools once they reopened.

The Christensen Institute recently released new research that explains those chemical reactions. A new paper, “Will schools change forever? Predicting how two pandemics could catalyze lasting change in public schools,” illuminates the causal principles that determine why some innovations introduced in times of crisis persist, while others are cast aside when conditions normalize. 

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