If education predicts the future, then every American should be worried. The coronavirus has now disrupted nearly an entire year of learning. Tens of millions of students are falling behind. But the crisis in education wasn’t caused by COVID. The pandemic has exposed deep-seated issues that have been holding students back for decades. It’s time to ask: How can we help students come through this crisis with a quality education and, in doing so, transform our entire system of education for the better?
The most recent proof of the damage done: A new McKinsey study shows that virtually all students have missed multiple months’ worth of learning in the pandemic, with students of color missing the most. The learning losses are also getting worse, not better.
Uneven education pre-pandemic
Pre-pandemic education was already deeply uneven. Across the country there are pockets of excellence and broad swaths of need. The results are humbling. In 5th grade, 74% of students report being engaged, but only 34% are by 12th grade. Only a quarter of students are proficient at math and just over a third at reading. About 25% of college freshmen need remedial education. Large numbers don’t even make it that far: 12% of high school students still drop out. And the dropout rates for Black and Hispanic students are 50% and nearly 100% higher, respectively, than they are for white students.
When education isn’t tailored to the student, we miss a critical opportunity to help children discover, develop and apply their gifts, which is, after all, the purpose of education. In public and private schools alike, students with wildly different talents and learning habits are being pushed into the same standardized, one-size-fits-all-model.
What would it take to enable every student the opportunity for an education tailored to them — individualized education at a mass scale? Interestingly, the disruption caused by the pandemic has made this goal easier to achieve across the entire educational ecosystem. The past year has upended three assumptions about education that prevented such a transformation.
First: Individualized education doesn’t have to cost a fortune or unduly burden teachers.
The past year has seen an explosion of programs that help families who otherwise couldn’t afford a tailored education. We’ve been impressed by OpenStax, which offers free textbooks and modular coursework that can be adapted on a student-by-student basis. SchoolHouse.world is a new project to complement Khan Academy, connecting students with high-quality, free tutors, while Stand Together is partnering with the Walton Family Foundation to offer grants to low-income families who have formed pods and are looking for tailored learning opportunities.
It’s challenging for even the most dedicated teacher to meet the diverse needs of 25 or 30 students in a class, whether online or in person. Personalizing learning can be time consuming and intensely manual. That’s why Khan Academy offers tools that help teachers do the hard work of individualizing education. Programs like Curriki offer a wide-range of free resources for teachers who want to tailor their lesson plans to students’ learning styles. At scale, such efforts could quickly bring individualized education within reach of every student in every learning environment — public or private, charter or micro school.
Second: Education can happen anywhere, anytime.
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An in-person education led by an engaged, well-supported educator is often the best way for a student to learn. Yet the pandemic has shown that we can empower parents and teachers to work together so students can thrive outside the traditional boundaries of school. Once we accept that education can happen anywhere, we can start designing education that can take place everywhere. Consider Uncommon Construction — a program out of New Orleans that teaches students math, teamwork and critical thinking skills on a construction site. It’s not right for everyone, but it’s the perfect fit for some students — no classroom required. Other organizations, like Cadence Learning, are rethinking the traditional calendar.Cadence connects students to top educators from around the country through its yearlong program available direct to families and through partners like school districts and community-based organizations.
Education is not just for kids
Finally, the pandemic has made clear that education is not just for kids.
With permanent layoffs affecting 2.5 million Americans and counting this year alone, it’s increasingly clear that people need help keeping up with a fast-changing economy. From Microsoft to the American Rental Association, groups across America have launched initiatives to help laid-off workers find better jobs.
One inspiring example is SkillUp, an online platform that helps people identify their aptitudes, quickly build new skills that fit them and connect with employers who value those skills. This individualized approach is already helping more than 2,000 people a day. A broader emphasis on individualized education could foster the lifelong learning needed to stay ahead in the post-pandemic economy.
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Now is the time to build a better education system, one that empowers and uplifts every student at every stage of life. Achieving this goal requires the collaboration of educators, parents, philanthropists, businesses and policymakers alike who will focus on helping students receive a quality, individualized education no matter the setting. The pandemic has not only shown what we need to do in American education. It has illuminated how to do it.
Sal Khan is the founder and CEO of Khan Academy and SchoolHouse.world. Brian Hooks is the CEO of Stand Together, and with Charles Koch, the author of “Believe In People: Bottom-Up Solutions For A Top-Down World.”