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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

The Good Stuff

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

Sometime last fall, the reporting about the ways that schools were adapting programs and teaching to pandemic constraints turned from "look how gamely these educators are building strategies to keep school going" to "now, everything has changed, and we must never go back to the old normal." The faults of the old normal: desultory instruction driven by biased standardized testing; bullying and racism; the desperate, zero-sum game of "highly-rejective" (a term coined during the pandemic) college admissions; the rigidity of a school day centered on efficiency and adult convenience. And every one of these criticisms is true and made potentially truthier by the amplifying effects of social media and the availability heuristic (the easier something is to imagine or the closer it is to personal experience, the more pervasive it seems in our minds--for more on this topic, see this excellent blog post from Jill Goodman).

And yet. I offer here a reminder of what many schools did very well before the pandemic and why we should not abandon these strengths but expand them.

An intentional school community

Elementary school teachers recognize that they are ushering their students into the social contract, that in doing so they are pressing at their students' developmental thresholds. Good middle and high school teachers realize that this project is still underway. And so, they engage kids in the construction of classroom norms and provide them with explicit and implicit opportunities to practice. Further, good schools build shared norms for the entire community and provide students, teachers, administrators, staff and parents with opportunities to build relationships across siloed roles.

A human rhythm

Many school schedules have grown overburdened with new programs, but some schools have used creative scheduling and courage in sunsetting programs to protect the kind of breathing room that inspires creativity and community. These are schools where kids and adults have time and space for conversations deep and frivolous, for pop-up lunch concerts and pick up games, where kids on one team finish practice and head straight to the gym to catch the end of their schoolmates' game and return on Saturday night for the play. This kind of school life seems exhausting to adults who don't remember the deep, adolescent drive to connect, but it is evidence of a school culture in which students are so engaged they don't want to miss a thing.

Redefinition of assessment and rigor

Many schools were deep into a clear-eyed evaluation of what constituted academic rigor and meaningful assessment of student learning before the pandemic. With most American colleges reconsidering the value of standardized testing in their admission processes, schools have an auspicious opportunity to move toward authentic assessment of student learning and to redraw the maps for deep, intellectual exploration.

A focus on excellence and equity

One of the independent school trends that I have been happiest to see in my lifetime is the intense focus on institutional equity and excellence, an end to the equivocation that allowed pockets of programmatic mediocrity, or worse, systemic bias. There is no doubt we have a long way to go on many of these counts, and that some boards and heads are still struggling to hardwire this stance, but independent schools have made major commitments: from acknowledging and addressing institutional culpability in past abuses, to building accountability strategies and cultures that guide an institution-wide insistence on equity and excellence.

These aspects of pre-pandemic school will surely not register with everyone, or perhaps they will do so categorically or in a lesser degree, but I offer them as counterbalance to the sense that one might glean from the commentary surrounding the promises of a post-pandemic future based on a too-blithe accounting of the promises of remote learning and a too-dire accounting of schools as they were before.

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