Why most schools won’t ‘reinvent’ themselves after the pandemic

SkepticalA number of folks have been eagerly encouraging schools to ‘reinvent’ themselves after the pandemic. Here is a smattering of such articles:

I’m guilty of this too. I even helped create an entirely new conversation series, Silver Lining for Learning, that was intended to ‘reimagine learning and teaching’ and examine the possibilities for ‘transformative improvements.’

The more I think about this idea, though, the more skeptical I am. One reason is the continued unwillingness of many (most?) school systems to reconsider even a small iota of what they do. Tragically, we continue to see traditional systems of education being shoehorned into virtual or blended delivery systems (tip: having kids complete electronic worksheets from home is not systemic ’transformation’). And we’ve seen a large number of administrators completely ignore the unrealistic demands that they’re placing on their own educators, particularly in hyflex environments where teachers are supposed to simultaneously serve students in their rooms and at home. 

Despite our wishes otherwise, even the savviest, most skillful, most trusted school leader is going to have difficulty transforming their educational system after the pandemic. As I noted in a recent article that I submitted:

“… reflection on organizational possibilities and institutional futures is common during the ‘reconstruction’ phase (Boin & Hart, 2003) of a crisis (see also Coombs, 2000; Heath, 2004; Boin, Hart, Stern, & Sundelius, 2005; Jaques, 2009; Smith & Riley, 2012). Time will tell if these ‘silver linings’ actually occur. Although many scholars have noted the revolutionary potential of major crises (see, e.g., Prewitt, Weil, and McClure, 2011; Harris, 2020), Boin and Hart (2003) stated that there are inherent tensions between crisis management and reform-oriented leadership. During a crisis, leaders often try to ‘minimize the damage, alleviate the pain, and restore order” (p. 549), which conflicts with attempts to disrupt the organization and move it in a new direction.” [emphasis added]

from McLeod, S., & Dulsky, S. (2021; under review). Resilience, reorientation, and reinvention: School leadership during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In other words, any school leader who is trying to sell the need for a post-pandemic systemic transformation to their educators, families, and school board members is trying to sell a SECOND enormous disruption to the community (“Now let’s change school as we know it!”) at a time when everyone is completely exhausted from – and ready to be done with – the FIRST enormous disruption to the community (the pandemic), and that is AFTER trying to minimize the disruption and ‘restore order’ during the past 12 to 18 months. I can just imagine the reactions now: “OMG, are you kidding? MORE disruption on top of what we’ve already experienced? No thanks!”

Accordingly, at best I think we will see small, marginal amounts of tinkering after the pandemic. Some school systems will use technology in some different ways after the pandemic. We will see some teachers incorporate some new practices and skill sets into their work. We may see a few more options provided for families who like blended or online learning. But for the most part, everyone is going to be eager to just return to what they perceive as the ‘good old days’ before the pandemic hit. And that means our collective appetite for ‘reinventing school’ is going to be pretty thin…

Anyone want to bet I’m wrong?



  • Boin, A., & Hart, P. T. (2003). Public leadership in times of crisis: Mission impossible? Public Administration Review, 63(5), 544-553.
  • Boin, A., Hart, P. T., Stern, E., & Sundelius, B. (2005). The politics of crisis management: Public leadership under pressure. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  • Coombs, W. T. (2000). Designing post-crisis messages: Lessons for crisis response strategies. Review of Business, 21(3/4), 37-41.
  • Harris, A. (2020). COVID-19 – school leadership in crisis? Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(3/4), 321-326.
  • Heath, R. L. (2004). After the dance is over: Post-crisis responses. In D. P. Millar & R. L. Heath (Eds.), Responding to crisis: A rhetorical approach to crisis communication, pp. 247-249. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Jaques, T. (2009). Issue management as a post-crisis discipline: Identifying and responding to issue impacts beyond the crisis. Journal of Public Affairs, 9(1), 35-44.
  • Prewitt, J. E., Weil, R., & McClure, A. Q. (2011). Crisis leadership: An organizational opportunity. Australian Journal of Business and Management Research, 1(6), 60-74.
  • Smith, L., & Riley, D. (2012). School leadership in times of crisis. School Leadership & Management, 32(1), 57-71.

Image credit: Skeptical face, fuzzyjay

16 Responses to “Why most schools won’t ‘reinvent’ themselves after the pandemic”

  1. That’s the conclusion that I’ve come to.

    I think there are two rhetorical themes that more ambitious reformers will be able to muster for some years ahead. First, the deep inequities in the system have been revealed and exacerbated in profound ways. Second, we now know that if we need to radically refigure educational systems, we can make huge changes in very little time.

    I typically bet on the conservatism of school systems, but even I’ve been take aback by the deep commitment to maintaining so much of our routine, practices, and priorities during the pandemic…

  2. I can’t let go of the idea that this experience has given us the opportunity to redefine “possible.” We’re not ready to change how education works. It’s possible (likely?) that the adoption of digital pedagogies and blended models will be SLOWED by the pandemic, because now there’s a lot of social/emotional baggage attached to them. Asynchronous and online learning were things that many teachers didn’t know much about, and didn’t spend any time considering prior to 2020. Now, they associate them with these dark times that we want to move past.

    But we know what’s possible now. Sure, we’re going to go back to traditional instruction, and it might be a lot more traditional than it was in 2019. But we know what we can do now, and I can’t help but hope that it’s going to inform how we approach teaching and learning in the years to come. Maybe it’s an intervention strategy. Maybe it’s a special case to meet the unique needs of a small group of students. But to entirely write off this experience without learning anything would be as tragic as the pandemic.

  3. 1) I observe administrators and teachers trying hard to ‘recreate’ the classroom in online environments–without asking themselves whether those features of the classroom were ever the best we could do. There are somethings you can do in classrooms that can’t be faked in online–but there are also fabulous things you can do online that are way better than the classroom. Changing what we do to exploit the advantages of online while not trying to ‘recreate’ the weak features or the impossible-to-do-online features of the classroom would be a better approach.
    2) Administrators often fail to acknowledge the unrealistic workloads on teachers in the pandemic–to take just one example, the administrator who told his instructors that he hoped that they had a great holiday over xmas and were back recharged for the adventure of the coming semester. But of course they had no holiday: they were all working 10 hour days trying to translate the coming semester courses to online or hybrid or socially distanced or whatever–seven new preps, essentially. I have seen boards post video tutorials about everything from Zoom to online assessment as if posting 200 hours of video was the same as proper, supportive inservice. Admin expects classroom teachers to become experts overnight across a broad sweep of new approaches and best practices while at the same time continuing to teach their usual workload. The math of that clearly does not add up. Nor do they seem to recognize that teachers are also parents, providing elder care, or dealing with laid off spouses. Now is maybe not the best time to suggest extensive reforms.
    3) Reformers believe that the purpose of schools is to teach kids content and skills, but 40 years ago Bowles and Gintis nailed that that is NOT the primary purpose of schools. Their book, “Schooling in America” explains why no one is truly interested in reform, but it’s not a book educators want to acknowledge or read because it’s kind of depressing. As for using a pandemic as the launchpad for reform–read the Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein which argues that the conservative right uses every disaster as an opportunity to ram through legislation and structural ‘reforms’ to move their anti-democratic /anti-minority/anti-environment etc agenda’s forward while everyone is distracted. Where I live in Alberta Canada, for example, the government cut 11,000 jobs in health care, unilaterally cut up the existing contract with physicians, and cut over 20,000 education jobs at the height of the initial wave of the pandemic. (In the second wave of the pandemic they declassified environmentally protected areas and closed provincial parks to allow strip mining, but that’s a bit off-topic here.) So…forget about reform–man the barracks to protect what little progress you’ve managed to secure in the past three decades…

  4. I agree with Justin’s take here. The pandemic has shed some more light on the cracks that are unseen or possibly ignored inequities. Justin’s second point is equally true in regards to reconfigure edu. I think the keyword his post is “need.” Education leaders have too often gone to the “Sense of Urgency” well to use it as a catalyst for a change. It rings hollow to teachers unless they truly feel the urgency, and we’ve all seen how they responded.

    The opportunity for sustained change comes in solving the challenges that have emerged from pandemic teaching. The goal was to generate as many solutions that also aligned with your beliefs about the transformation for school. In turn, teachers who learned a practice that met their immediate needs, and liked it, would ideally want to keep using it beyond these emergency circumstances. Any hope for transformation had to be built-in with an eye for sustainability.

  5. Two quick thoughts that will probably get me in trouble.

    First, while we may now know we can make huge changes in a short time, those changes we made were primarily cosmetic, or “technical” in Heifetz’s terms. Nothing much really changed in terms of shifting agency or rethinking practice to support students learning on their own terms. Our driving question in the last 12 months has been “How do we TEACH differently in this environment?” not, how do we LEARN differently. The delivery method was what changed.

    And second, I also disagree that pandemic fatigue is a reason we avoid the change conversation. We avoid real conversations about meaningful change anyway. The pandemic provides another excuse not to interrogate the many ways that our systems and practices are misaligned with how learning in the real world happens. (Much different from learning in the school world, btw.) We do so many things in schools that make no sense for LEARNING that it exhausts us to go there, pandemic or no.

    That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t continue to make the case that now is as good a time, if not even a more important time to “go there.” The inequities are very real. Our curriculum is getting dangerously irrelevant. Our students (and we ourselves) are increasingly digitally illiterate. Etc. I mean, what are we waiting for, exactly?

    Be gentle with me.

  6. The pandemic illuminated three “truths” that make reinvention both necessary…and a challenge. The digital inequities that have existed just “out of sight”, have been exposed to the general public through countless news coverage in ways that conversations about the “homework gap” did not accomplish as it was too often easily dismissed by some as “life’s never been fair”. The convergence of the pandemic and the increased awareness of racial inequities after a summer of protests offer hope that this issue has gained permanent visibility.

    The second truth confirms that “brick & mortar” buildings are not in danger….it is clear these facilities remain critical for the economy to function as a “parking lot” for America’s children. This experiment has demonstrated the vast majority of parents have little interest in filling the role of full time teacher. I can only hope that what happens within those facilities can become more relevant and engaging for the students.

    At least in my area, press coverage of local school boards – and their decisions that suddenly seem to directly impact families and communities – have planted seeds resulting in greater understanding (frustration) and engagement about their role. Since boards are elected – and the public wants a “return to normal” – that will be what many running for elected office will seek to deliver. For reinvention to have a chance, it has to be articulated beyond scholarly debates in a way that will resonate with the public and elected board members.

  7. “I’m not asking you to change, I’m asking you to learn.” -Missy Emler

    What school leaders could do, practically, and in a non-threatening manner, is answer a bunch of these questions with their constituents:

    1. What did the pandemic force us to change?
    2. Was it an effective change and why?
    3. How will this change influence our thinking moving forward?
    4. What did we learn that we can apply to our systems in post-pandemic times? And why should we bother?
    5. Did the shifts made during the pandemic create more meaningful learning experiences for any groups of our students? If so, how do we continue?
    6. Did the shifts made during the pandemic harm any groups of our students? If so, how do we undo this harm and proceed differently?
    7. What levels of support are necessary to help invested teachers continue to lead forward?
    8. What levels of support are needed for constituent groups to thrive in the spaces our community has designed for learning?
    9. Did our pandemic shifts bring about a certain level of clarity about learning that we didn’t before understand? And can we now articulate our beliefs about powerful learning in a way that can guide our decisions moving forward?

    10. PS. I miss blog post comments threads! Maybe I should blog more 😉

  8. At the beginning of the pandemic my principal changed the schedule (I’d like to think it was from my suggestion, but probably not). We start school later and reduce classroom time.

    He instituted a schedule where students are doing independent work from 8:30 to 10 everyday and only going to 4 periods one day and 3 periods the second. With a support class making up the 8th period.
    In the morning teachers are either in PD or have the time to prep and plan.
    We are also asked to call one class of students every two weeks. So we are touching base with sometimes 20 families a week.

    Now most of our students are not actually using the independent learning time as fully as they could, but some are. Some have been asked to come to school and work under supervision. I do have students who message me in the morning and ask questions. I sometimes video chat one on one and help students. I have more time to give quality feedback on student work, usually once a week.

    I would love to keep this schedule and allow students to choose a teacher or two to work with every morning. Maybe a stipulation that they visit each teacher at least once every two weeks.

  9. I loved a thought expressed by Fullan in reference to Kuhn (at end of most recent VanderArk podcast) that revolution takes both a disruption and an attractive alternative. Unfortunately, there is not consensus on that attractive alternative now but that doesn’t mean we can’t find it sometime soon. The timeline of change is what we might think more about. If the question is what will change in 2 years … probably not that much, I agree. If the question is what will change in 10 that was triggered during the pandemic, then I am not as sure. I think of that younger teacher that adapted to the tech tools and Zoom relatively easily who saw the exposed truths and was disgusted by them but also emboldened … those seeds will grow with the teacher and as power transfers from a generation that thought of this as a crisis to a generation who can see the opportunity to right wrongs they now can see clearly … then, maybe. I must choose to hope, and help, anyway.

    • School-based educators seem to be finding the attractive alternatives you refer to in your comment. For example, the school where I teach is piloting competency-based progress monitoring. This is helping us foreground what students can do and backgrounds seat time, participation, attendance. Another example is more process-oriented. We have begun to get very good at transferring students (and educators / staff) between online and face-to-face classes quickly AND safely. The better we get, the more responsive (rather than reactive) we become. It is exhausting, but some are finding their way.

  10. I think rather than asking how can we reinvent the system we should be asking what did we do during the pandemic that worked?

    This was a frustrating and difficult time for sure. But there were also a lot of positives. For every student who struggle with eLearning, I had another who would normally struggle in person but who flourished online. We deemphasized grades and were more flexible with our timelines. We allowed students and teachers more room to make mistakes and try new things.

    I’d like to think that we’ll try to look at the upsides and ask ourselves how we can implement or recreate them with in person learning but more than likely we’ll just go back to schedules and testing.

  11. I am not sure that dividing it into right or wrong is the way to do it. What has happened is two things: (a) no one can claim that it cannot be done in another way and (b) we have uncoupled, however momentarily, the concepts of childcare, education, and schools. For school leaders, this will become a framework that can have a lasting impact by looking at different systems, options, and grade levels, in different ways. In the lower grades where childcare issues are the highest, there are the lowest levels of interest in change. In the upper grades, where childcare issues are not as large of a concern, there is more opportunity. But I do not think that educators, school leaders, school boards, or the community are the greatest barriers. I think that barrier falls to educational funding systems that are tied to seat time and this will be what has to be addressed.

  12. I’m not optimistic that school will be “better” after the pandemic. There are more EdTech tools being used, but the teaching practices are little changed. They have been hastily grafted onto the new environment without much critical evaluation and modification. Human nature will also play a role. What chance does the past year stand in relation to a 5, 10, or 20-year teaching career?

  13. Change is not going to happen now for the same reasons change was not going to happen before, and those reasons are numerous. One, however, stands out. It’s what I call, the genetic disorder of school.

    Superintendents often evolve from principals who were born of teachers who enjoyed school so much as students that they chose to stay there, essentially, forever. While not all teachers and administrators feel the same, enough truly believe that there is no reason to change to make it difficult if not impossible to do so. Why on earth would they change what they love?

    What’s more, many teachers know very little of anything outside of school– they’ve just never been involved in anything else. So many teachers are simply following the age-old adage to a T: go with what you know.

    I don’t think change will ever happen quickly enough, but disruption likely will.

  14. Teachers are oppositional by nature. They are not only difficult employees but they are difficult customers. Ask anyone who provides loans to new home buyers…teachers are ALWAYS the most difficult.

    Try getting teachers to do anything that involves caring for the whole community and it’s impossible. It’s always about “me” and “my” kids, and “I”. The hoarding of materials… Go to a staff meeting..it’s infuriating!

    There is the scapegoating and the leadership complaints continuously. It’s simply juvenile. I just don’t see the professionalism that should be in a vocation that requires so many degrees!

    And then we can discuss how involved parents are in making sure that THEY feel safe with the education that their kids receive. Anything that looks different is a cause for complaint. Sociopaths raising kids to be what?

    This toxic cocktail means that it is always left unstirred…

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