Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

By Mike Zavada | April 15, 2020

Whether it was Winston Churchill, Rahm Emanuel, or M.L. Weiner in a 1976 edition of the Journal of Medical Economics who actually coined the phrase about the opportunities found in times of peril, it is certainly a great mindset for leaders to have.  In some ways, it really is the only productive mindset one can have leading schools in times of crisis. After all, when you work with young people, you cannot help but be future-focused.  A future-focused mindset consistently asks “what is next?” and “what does the future hold in light of the situation we currently endure?” 

A crisis like the one we are currently experiencing also presents an opportunity for rapidly changing perspectives.  The classroom that one twenty-year veteran teacher territorially held as sacrosanct no longer has value in the virtual learning era.  The notion of refusing to share a spring sports athlete between track and soccer has been made moot when neither coach will have the opportunity to work with the student.  And the urgency and tension created by high stakes state testing in the spring of most school systems pales in comparison to the health and safety of millions of American’s who need to be COVID-19 tested before true normalcy can take place.

On a practical level, the most bearish in education who hold on tight to the seemingly most inconsequential territory and sabotage progress at a school are now moveable.  Now they have only the crisis and the delivery of distance learning on their mind. In such a situation, the zone of proximate agreement (the zone where two sides of differing perspectives converge) becomes much bigger, allowing for consensus and change to come much more quickly.  Picture multi-trillion dollar stimulus packages passed in Congress with bipartisan support during an election year. Picture that board of trustees at your school dragging their feet for several months in opposition to the one piece of the long-term strategic plan that is truly innovative and strategic.  Now they are willing. Picture a faculty body that formerly was unwilling to go to digital textbooks, a learning management system, or a student-friendly rotating schedule.  Now they will take any time they can get with students in a synchronous environment. Change is not only possible, but it now can be streamlined. We deliver significant decisions now in a matter of forty-hour periods that before would have required a two-year planning cycle.  

"Change is not only possible, but it can now be streamlined."

Wise school leaders will use this time to develop and execute that big hairy goal for which they neither had the support or the inclination to risk institutional capital.  I talked to one school leader last week who was absolutely bullish about the possibilities inherent in the crisis for his school. He shared his excitement that the strategic planning he and his school had done would now likely allow for the bigger dreams he formerly was uncertain his board would back.  Now everything in post COVID-19 was possible. Green lights now appeared where stop signs dominated. 

With this new mindset front and center, let us unpack 5 strategy sets school leaders are anticipating as we hopefully head out of the pandemic:

  1. Testing processes at all schools will likely change.  High stakes, one day or one-week testing will fall by the wayside. We have seen several universities eliminate mandatory standardized testing for admissions during the crisis after universities like Wake Forest had done it a couple of years back.  At the K-12 level, you will see many more systems going to artificial intelligence-based programs that test for mastery of key concepts student by student. You will see teachers developing mini-lessons based around common misconceptions pointed out in the mastery data.  Teaching will evolve from plowing through content toward a more relevant, data-informed, small group environment with students essentially pacing themselves. This crisis also may be the impetus for novel endeavors like the Mastery Transcript Consortium to gain wide acceptance by universities.
  2. Schools will become more open, but students will be physically present inside less.  While the impetus to derive revenue outside of tuition was always great, the pandemic and the global financial shutdown will by necessity force schools to look for revenue streams outside of its regular student bodies.  While summer programs have traditionally been this avenue, this summer season is most likely not an option. This situation will force school leaders to be more creative and open up more segments of the school community to the public throughout the school year.  If a school had successful distance learning delivery during the pandemic, it will likely attempt to scale that to a larger audience.
  3. Medical sciences, engineering, history, and rhetoric classes will potentially rev up in prominence and in unison. This is a likely outflow of teachers, parents, and students daily watching the successes and foibles of medical experts, business leaders, and government entities grapple with supply chain issues and disease prevention in recent weeks.  Like the advancement of the sciences in the late 1950s because of the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the pandemic will encourage schooling in local production like maker spaces and dedicated problem-solving in medical sciences.  Classical, liberal arts schools will take the pandemic as a key piece of global history and unpack it from several perspectives hoping to get to the truth and make notes for the future. Decision making and negotiation skills, especially now that they demand places of prominence when lives are on the line, will engender wider support as skill sets in the regular curricula. 
  4. In a possible effort to cut costs and in response to some of the freedoms students and families enjoyed staying at home to learn, schools will modify their annual schedules.  For instance, I think you will see many schools going to some kind of early release on Fridays and potentially late starts on Monday’s as time set apart for either family time or individual thinking.  You likely will see some systems push for some schooling in the summer (like the industrial model, the agrarian dominated school calendar is in some danger of obsolesce). The reduction in the school week may be necessitated by less revenue collected by private schools and as a somewhat happy medium between the home school model and the industrial driven 8-3:30 model.  Schools that supplement new flexible models with supervision and care for workers that cannot leave their children home will be able to meet the needs of both the dual working parent and the families of means that do not want to be encumbered with a strict schedule. It may also mean that “specials,” the courses in the arts and in the physical education environments revert back to the end of the school days and/or as optional components to a school day.  While I would hate this for our schools, and my friends in these disciplines would fight very hard to stay inside the regular curricula, there are already many entities in our communities that already do this better than our schools. These entities do so with more individual choice for students and without the off-putting nature of roster cuts or other exclusions. They also operate based on calendars that make sense for the student, not for some overarching state athletic association structure.  I see educators in this space working very hard for relevance in our school closure world and this will mean that they will become nimble and even more creative. 
  5. Much of what we knew before in the industrial model of education can go away.  With the previous 4 factors in mind, everything is on the table.  Of necessity, we have had to ditch the seven-period sequential daily schedule, paper and pencil tests, lunch in the cafeteria at a set time, and even in-person and local board meetings. Because of these changes to our respective systems, we can do a lot of things that we would not have done in the past.  A local private school could now have board members from another state or even another country with the access that Zoom, Go to Meeting, Google Hangouts, and other frameworks offer. Teachers have learned that it is not necessary to meet with each of their five or six classes five times per week. Flipped learning in the new environment is no longer a bad word, but a necessity.  Even the definition of a school employee can change. It is conceivable that high demand, low supply master teachers in areas like Chemistry, Physics, and Calculus might rotate via zoom like Arts teachers who travel to different schools. School consultants on retainer in specific areas like instructional coaching, curriculum and assessment, technology integration, and other areas will potentially take the place of twelve-month school employees. Again, schools facing limited budgets will likely try to pool resources with other schools to deliver, albeit on a limited basis some things that they previously took for granted. Time and space are now on a new continuum. 

As a former history teacher, one of my favorite eras to study was the Great Depression.  While I hate the burdens and the trials endured by those who lived through that era, my studies consistently remind me that the Great Depression forged the Greatest Generation.  Of this generation, author Tom Brokaw wrote:

“They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs.  They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world...They gave the world new science, literature, art, industry, and economic strength unparalleled in the long curve of history” (The Greatest Generation).

School leader’s lives have indelibly changed.  They have been tempered by the fire of the Corona Crisis.  Our schools will come out on the other side much different, but also much stronger.  Here’s to the opportunity to take this time to make a lifetime impact in our student’s lives carrying them on to be the next “greatest generation.”

Michael Zavada (@MikeZavada) has spent the last 20 years in schools, the better part of that in school leadership roles.  He is also a writer and the Founder and Chief Strategist at Roundtable Educational Consulting. Mike resides in San Antonio, TX with his wife and three kids, where he enjoys biking, fishing, reading, and coaching hoops.


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