It’s been almost 14 months since everyone in my hometown of Brooklyn, NY was ordered to “shelter in place” due to the virality of COVID-19. And in those last 14 months, there has been unprecedented tragedy, hardship, pain, suffering, and loss.

At the same time, many of us have used this past year to shape new habits and decide what should stay and what should go as we start to envision post-pandemic life. And just as we do this work in our personal lives, those of us in education are having similar conversations professionally. Specifically, what should stay and what should go for teaching and learning after the pandemic ends?

Though our country is still mired in debates about when and how schools should fully re-open, it feels critical to shift the conversation to what worked during COVID and how we can ensure those ideas and practices stay after schools return to in-person learning.

Here are three elements that have shown promise during the pandemic—and that can play a key role in improved outcomes for students in the future.

As we look to the new normal, let’s not forget the lessons of the last year and the resiliency, adaptability, and innovation our sector showed.

High expectations and use of grade-level content

The concept of high expectations for all students in K-12 education has been a cornerstone of the national effort to strengthen public education since the publication of A Nation at Risk and other school reform manifestos in the early 1980s. Research shows that when students feel and see that the adults around them believe in them and have confidence in their abilities, they experience higher self-esteem and improved academic performance.

But we know that not all students have those experiences. A 2018 Overdeck Family Foundation-funded TNTP study, The Opportunity Myth, revealed that students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them – the equivalent of six months of lost class time in each core subject.

With students experiencing unprecedented unfinished learning, providing access to grade-level content upon the return to the classroom is crucial. Zearn, an online math curriculum funded by our foundation, accomplishes this through grade-level digital math lessons that include intervention support for concepts from prior grades if needed. Every lesson includes on-ramps and personalized scaffolding that address unfinished learning in the context of new learning.

A study of over 150,000 Louisiana students using Zearn Math in 2018-19 suggests the efficacy of this approach: students in grades 3 to 5 who consistently completed grade-level Zearn math lessons showed 1.5x to 2.5x higher rates of mastery than students in non-Zearn schools. Gains were highest for previously struggling students and those in lower-income schools

A teacher participates in an online staff meeting in her classroom at Middletown High School in Connecticut.

High-quality instructional materials inside and outside of school

Even before the pandemic, we were entering a new era of learning across workforce, higher education, and the K-12 system that provided access to an incredible amount of high-quality content online. This trend only accelerated over the past year.

High-quality materials are easier to find and more available now than ever before, with digital libraries like Open Education Resources and Open Up Resources making it possible for anyone to access top-rated K-12 curricula. Organizations like EdReports have made it their mission to increase the effectiveness of teachers, administrators, and leaders by identifying high-quality instructional materials for students at all levels.

In their recently released report, State of the Market 2020: The Use of Aligned Materials, EdReports, which is funded by our foundation, found that only 41% and 52% of known K-12 mathematics and ELA materials reviewed met standards-aligned expectations in mathematics and ELA, respectively. Yet on the positive side, many of the materials that met the “green-lit” criteria feature open-source or digital content, making access possible for teachers, families, and students who are not satisfied with what’s available in school. It would be a loss for schools and educators not to leverage the increased availability of online resources to empower and challenge their students, especially since innovation was not limited to K-12.

At the higher ed level, Ivy League schools have experimented with making extension courses available and accessible to students of all demographic backgrounds. In the initial pilot, run by a New York-based nonprofit, the National Education Equity Lab, more than 300 11th and 12th grade students enrolled in Harvard University courses online. 92% were students of color and 84% qualified for free lunch. Over 89% of the enrolled students passed, meeting the same bar as other Harvard students and earning college credit. This type of access was largely non-existent a decade ago. Now, it’s easy to imagine how this could be a common experience for many more students in the years ahead, opening up more equitable opportunities for K-12, college and beyond.

Rather than return to the way things were, it should be our prerogative to use what we’ve learned to leap-frog the education system, creating something that truly serves all children.  

Flexibility and choice

We know from research that families and students have not been equally impacted by the pandemic and will not have the same social-emotional or academic needs coming out of it. To help all students effectively across the spectrum of needs, solutions going forward cannot be one-size-fits-all. Choice, flexibility, and personalization, which have been critical throughout the last year, will continue to be so upon our return.

The pandemic forced schools, nonprofits and service providers to create multiple programmatic and delivery options for families and children who had different needs and resource requirements. The diversity of models provided the opportunity to vary dosage and cost, allowing student needs to be met in a variety of ways.

That innovation should remain when school doors re-open and post-pandemic life arrives. Organizations we fund, including Springboard Collaborative, a nonprofit that aims to close the pre-K through third-grade literacy gap through parent engagement, and Saga Education, a high-dosage math tutoring model for high school students, both used the last year to experiment with adding tech-enabled and virtual elements to their traditional programs. From online parent coaching to virtual tutoring, these organizations realized the potential benefits of incorporating technology, including lower costs and easier access for students and families, while still maintaining impact. Choice and flexibility should remain in a post-pandemic education system, empowering families to select what works best for them.

What’s up next

The months ahead will continue to be challenging, and schools, systems, and programs will continue to do the best they can to serve and support students as summer approaches. But as we look to the new normal, let’s not forget the lessons of the last year and the resiliency, adaptability, and innovation our sector showed. Rather than return to the way things were, it should be our prerogative to use what we’ve learned to leap-frog the education system, creating something that truly serves all children.