Building a Brighter Future: Overcoming Educational Challenges Post-Pandemic

Oct 9, 2023 4:18:53 PM


The masks are off. Social distancing is no more. We're vaccinated, and the national nightmare is over.

Or is it?

In the wake of the COVID-19 worldwide shutdown, we find ourselves with a problem equally as severe as the pandemic.

Our children — our country's future — desperately need remediation, mental health support, and an urgent rethinking of how we nurse them collectively to educational health.

We're at a critical juncture after a few tumultuous years, with learning loss and disrupted routines shaking the very foundation of our education system. Maybe it's just me, but I don't see the hair-on-fire leadership that's more than appropriate for the moment we're in. The president has pumped the system with money and well wishes. Congress is more concerned with the battle between Trumpism and wokeism. Our state chiefs of education are heads down, buried in their states' political and educational particulars. Mayors are obsessed with adding more condos and coffee shops to their cities rather than advancing the youth in their jurisdictions. And educators are suffering as much as young people. They are on the front lines of a leaderless system that takes them for granted, pays them too little, and all but ridicules them as deficient in every way.

However, amid this chaos, I'm desperate for a silver lining. In times of adversity, the mother of invention demands we iterate, innovate, and improve. The pathway to recovery becomes the goal, and we become less tied to convention and more open to reimagining and rebuilding a more robust, resilient education system.

If we love our children as much as we say we do, we'll be honest about their jeopardy and urgently demand a large-scale response on their behalf — from our leaders and ourselves.

If ever there was a moment to ignore the noise of politics and commit to pragmatism, it's now. It's time to transform these challenges into catalysts for growth and enhancement in our education system.

Supporting Mental Health and Well-Being

A study conducted last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed concerning trends in mental health and well-being experienced by youth during the pandemic. The findings indicate that 37% of students reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic, with 44% persistently feeling sad or hopeless over the previous year, up from 37% in 2019. More than half of the surveyed students reported emotional abuse within their homes, including insults and swearing. Furthermore, 11% of students disclosed experiencing physical abuse, and a staggering 24% revealed that they had gone hungry due to food scarcity at home. These results highlight a mental health crisis among young people, with even more alarming disparities for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students and female adolescents. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students were over twice as likely to report poor mental health, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers. Similarly, female students exhibited higher rates of poor mental health, emotional abuse, and suicide attempts than males, underlining the urgent need for targeted support and intervention for these vulnerable groups.

There is a role for us all to play in addressing these issues. Wringing our hands is not enough. We need resources and action.

The Tools for Teaching

We need innovative teaching tools to help students acquire future-ready skills to achieve these goals. Earlier this year, researchers, students, and industry leaders met to consider generative AI's good and bad possibilities. Their thoughtful discussion should be a national one.

One of the most compelling possibilities they found lies in the potential to enhance personalized support for teachers on a large scale. AI can simulate students, providing practice scenarios for educators to refine their skills. Real-time feedback and post-teaching reports are other AI applications that can transform teaching quality. And AI can help teachers stay updated with the latest field developments, ensuring students receive the most current knowledge.

AI transforms the learning landscape, elevating student engagement and critical thinking. While it won't replace fundamental skills, it assists with tasks like computation and writing. Students no longer need to perform all tasks from scratch but must edit and curate, becoming adept architects of their knowledge. Perhaps AI can foster a judgment-free learning environment, encouraging active engagement and risk-taking, which is especially valuable for developing soft skills like communication and problem-solving.

AI can potentially improve learning quality and assessment by facilitating personalized conversations between teachers and students. It can also address workforce challenges by assessing learners' skills and recommending relevant solutions and roles that match their abilities.

I'm bullish on the possibilities of AI as a tool for leap-frogging education from a tired, beleaguered place to a modernized, efficient, and effective future. But that isn't without caution.

Not everything new is great. AI is powerful when it's accurate — which often it is not. It can produce coherent but incorrect responses, and its rapid progress may create a motivation crisis for students who fear their skills may become obsolete.

Also, we've learned from other technological advancements to be mindful of how algorithms mimic the biases of their creators. AI-generated content often lacks cultural diversity and may not optimize for student learning. Do we need to temper our AI enthusiasm with a stern focus on techquity?

Prioritizing Literacy and Math

For the love of God, can we agree that reading and math are the foundational building blocks of a child's education? Students struggle to keep up without a strong foundation, perpetuating a cycle of academic challenges.

We need concrete, evidence-based interventions to ensure every child has a solid grasp of these essential subjects.

While the "science of reading" has ascended into the national discussion, the concordant science of math lags in attention.

For most Americans, math is scarier than The Exorcist. Math anxiety affects us throughout our lives, making math proficiency out of reach and more stressful. We need more research to understand how it starts in childhood and worsens over time and how it interacts with factors like how much you enjoy math. Using a consistent way to measure math anxiety would also help. Ultimately, we want to find personalized ways to help us get over math anxiety.

A recent AP article has this blockbuster line: "Decades of research shows math anxiety is a common problem for adults, and surveys show it particularly affects women, who make up nearly 90% of elementary teachers in the United States."

Damn. We have work to do.

Career-Focused Opportunities

Our education system must also prepare students for the future. It's not enough to impart knowledge; we must equip them with skills that will be relevant in the ever-evolving job market. Career-focused opportunities should be an integral part of the curriculum, ensuring that our youth are ready to face the challenges of tomorrow.

Moving forward, we need a much larger focus on building robust systems to expand career-oriented education and how it can be effectively interwoven into our curriculum. Twelve years of schooling should not lead to a dead end.

Knowing that a K-12 education has never promised to put most people in college (especially marginalized people), what alternatives can we create so everyone has a way to succeed?

Projects like SkillSPAN, the state action arm of the National Skills Coalition, may be an example of what good looks like. That project seeks to shape an inclusive economy by bringing workforce experts and skills advocates across states to establish and promote skills policies that benefit workers and address the disproportionate impact of economic shifts faced by workers of color, immigrants, and those with a high school diploma or less. It is based on coordinating existing resources and systems at a level high enough to scale up solutions and get the most people on productive pathways possible.

You may know of other, better examples. I'm here for them. Any of them. The goal is to move systems toward success using everything we have.

Listening to the Future Generations

Old people, listen up. We must engage with the voices of the future. There is a panicky and/or over-the-top deluge of research and think pieces about the coming generations, so I'll resist channeling Alvin Toffler here. But, Gen Z and Gen Alpha have unique perspectives that we better hear because they bring something challenging and invigorating to our conceptions of work, career, and education. They will be the most diverse, educated, and technologically logged-in group in history. Understanding how they consume information, learn, and envision their future needs shapes our educational strategies.

We find ourselves at a pivotal moment in education. The pandemic exposed the fault lines in our aged education and training systems that had existed for decades, but it has also created demand and an opportunity for transformation.

It's time for a paradigm shift in education, prioritizing literacy, math, mental health, and career-focused opportunities. We need urgent and focused leadership at all levels.

That should include an explosion of research and development, community engagement, coalition building, and a commitment to listening to the voices of the future.

We risk a national crisis if we don't figure out how to help our children catch up and get ahead. It's time to act, and the government and philanthropy should lead the charge by allocating resources to building systems that work equally well for everyone.

Chris Stewart

An award-winning writer, speaker, and blogger, Chris Stewart is a relentless advocate for children and families. Based in outstate Minnesota, Chris is CEO of brightbeam, a nonprofit media group that runs campaigns to highlight policies and practices that support thriving kids. He was the founding Director of the African American Leadership Forum, was an elected member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, and founded and served as the CEO of Wayfinder Foundation. Above all, Chris is a serial parent, a Minecraft enthusiast, and an epic firestarter on Twitter where he has antagonized the best of them on the political left and right. You’ll often see Chris blogging at and “tweeting” under the name “Citizen Stewart.”

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