COVID’s Education Revolution
The COVID pandemic’s impact on education had one silver lining: hastening the arrival of the education revolution
It should come as no surprise that many of our nation’s students suffered substantial educational setbacks because of the pandemic’s disruption. Not only did math and reading scores decline, the gap between low- and high-poverty schools also grew. In fact, these learning losses were more substantial than what researchers have previously observed in other large-scale educational disruptions, such as the impact of Hurricane Katrina on flood refugee children.
Now we’re getting deeper insights into both how substantial these losses truly are—and how students won’t likely recover. A comprehensive study by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University and Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project revealed that the average U.S. public school student in grades 3-8 lost about half a year of learning in math and a quarter of a year in reading due to the pandemic. In the communities that experienced the most significant learning losses, students fell more than a year and a half behind in their math studies. Declines in test scores were observed across all student groups, regardless of income or race, but they were more pronounced in communities with higher COVID death rates, more significant restrictions on daily routines, and where adults reported higher levels of depression and anxiety.
Education is cumulative in nature, especially when it comes to foundational knowledge in math and reading. Missing key concepts can create deficits. When more complex material is presented, the scaffold for adding that advanced information just isn’t there. At that point, the learner must overcome any previous gaps in knowledge, plus those created during the pandemic. Catching up requires more individualized instructional time and additional resources such as tutoring and other supports that are too often scarce. Brookings Institution researchers estimate that these learning losses translate into real and permanent impacts on the learner’s future prospects, annual income and lifetime earnings.
The pandemic certainly wrought havoc on American education. However, there is one bright spot among the wreckage: It ushered in a more widespread embrace of educational freedom. When kids were unable to go to physical classrooms, alternative educational opportunities emerged to help fill the vacuum. And post-COVID, not only does this wider range of options seem here to stay, but it’s continuing to grow—to students’ benefit.
Unprepared for an Uncertain Future
In the midst of this education upheaval, the needs of the labor force are rapidly changing. Automation and artificial intelligence are reshaping the skills required for the 21st-century workforce. According to a recent Deloitte survey of business and technology leaders, almost 80% said that generative AI would transform their businesses within three years.
AI isn’t just affecting the world of business: All of us are seeing its impact on our daily lives. About a fifth of workers are already highly exposed to AI in their jobs—to the point where the technology could either replace or significantly assist them in performing their job functions. And at home, if you have Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant, chances are these AI-powered applications are helping you with daily tasks, such as researching entertainment options, ordering groceries and household supplies, and controlling smart home devices.
As more tasks become automated and rely on AI, there will be an increasing need for “soft skills” to make this new world run. Soft skills generally have to do with a person’s emotional intelligence—how a person identifies and manages their emotions and uses this emotional awareness to understand their own motivations, recognize the strengths and triggers in others, and convey empathy.
What does this look like in practice? Let’s go back to those AI personal assistants: Using Siri or Alexa requires us to provide clear instructions, ask specific questions and sometimes refine our requests. This demands finely honed communication skills—articulating and refining thoughts clearly and understanding and adapting to responses. Well-developed soft skills will be increasingly necessary in an AI-transformed world, whether at home or in the office.
But as traditional schools continue to struggle to meet basic student achievement benchmarks, they are unlikely to effectively pivot to teaching about soft skills. Traditional education focuses primarily on subjects such as math and reading, which are easily measurable and where decades-long educational training is already in place. Teaching in new areas that are more introspective and individually focused in nature and less quantifiable isn’t coming anytime soon to mainstream education.
Even prior to the pandemic, I was already concerned that my kids' schools might not be adequately preparing them for an uncertain and ever-changing future. When my son graduated from his Montessori school after completing 6th grade, he enrolled in public school and remained there until the end of his fall semester of 10th grade, in 2020. Most of his learning seemed to be passive, and several weeks every semester were spent preparing for twice-annual standardized tests—with negligible time devoted to passing along the skills he’ll need for the coming automation and AI issues that will affect the workforce he’ll join. I was fortunate to be able to move both of my children to an engaging, full-time online school that cultivates active learning and soft skills development.
COVID and Education Innovation
For all of its negative repercussions, the pandemic served as a catalyst for rapid educational innovation, especially when it came to customizing education to meet individual students’ academic needs, learning styles and personal interests. Though most children in the U.S. continue to attend public and private in-person schools, alternative educational options are skyrocketing. Kerry McDonald, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education and host of the LiberatED podcast, documents in a recent case study how home-schooling, educational pods and micro-schools are re-imagining the education system and delivering customized educational experiences.
Public, non-charter enrollment has dropped since the pandemic, and that trend is expected to continue over the next few years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Today, more parents are open to, desiring and seeking educational alternatives. Accelerated by the pandemic, 31 states are now offering taxpayer-supported education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, and tax deductions for families who prefer alternatives to public schools. Look for this list of states to grow in 2024.
Taking School Innovation Virtual
Education innovations have not just been confined to classrooms. In the thick of the COVID pandemic, when in-person classes were limited in many places across the country, online options—from Zoom classes to outside supplemental materials—particularly helped fill the gap. During the pandemic, I moved my two children to online private school programs that focused on Socratic teaching, purpose-driven learning and personal projects. (Full disclosure: My children’s positive experience with The Socratic Experience school inspired me to build and launch SkillMate, which provides accessible, engaging and real-world relevant lessons aimed at equipping students with the skills they’ll need for lifelong learning and success.)
During COVID, my kids also benefited from Outschool classes. Founded in 2015, Outschool began offering small, online group classes to expand students’ learning opportunities. They now provide a wide range of online programs, including social skills classes and one-on-one social skills sessions, classes in foreign language and specialized academic subjects, and hobbies and clubs. Other communal, web-based activities, such as online gaming and Zoom book clubs, provided important lifelines for children’s social and educational enrichment at the height of the pandemic.
Post-COVID, these online tools continue to expand—and get smarter. AI is now being integrated into a variety of educational platforms. Khan Academy, for example, was founded in 2006 and provides online lessons and tools for students across the globe and additional supports for educators. Now it offers a one-on-one AI tutor, Khanmigo—operating as a math tutor, writing coach and coding assistant—to help students and provide AI-guided lesson planning support for teachers.
Initially developed for SpaceX families and backed by Elon Musk, Synthesis offers elementary-age students a gamified approach, using a one-on-one AI tutor and experiential learning to teach problem-solving and collaboration, as well as an AI-enabled math tutor that provides one-on-one student support. This interactive platform focuses on developing problem-solving, teamwork and creativity skills.
There is no single model representing the future of education—and that’s a great thing. Any approach that offers flexibility, a wide range of subjects and skills, and the opportunity to learn at one's own pace while helping students develop crucial human skills accelerates the shift toward personalized, interest-driven learning. This type of education is increasingly seen as crucial for student engagement and long-term success.
We’re likely to see continued innovation by both education entrepreneurs and by parents and their kids who will be able to pick and choose from a wide array of growing options. And as an education innovator and a parent, I’m very excited and optimistic about what this new education world will mean for students’ futures.