Publishers Meet the Moment: Creating Solutions for K-12 Education

by Kelly L. Denson

It is around this time of the year that the days seem shorter and the air slightly cooler, all signs that summer is drawing to an end and fall is inching closer. Typically, the Nation’s K-12 students would be trading their summer freedoms for the classroom setting, ready for new academic challenges and excited to reunite with teachers and peers.

But this fall is anything but typical. As schools remain adversely and profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and students are picking up where they left off last spring— uprooted from the familiarity of their classrooms, abruptly forced to abandon their daily routines, teaching styles, learning strategies and social interactions. With entire school communities now immersed in remote education, publishers have joined stakeholders from across the education ecosystem, including teachers, students and parents, to incorporate lessons learned as well as unique digital opportunities.

How will such changes come about, exactly? How do we apply lessons learned with the least disruption possible? Although many countries hard hit by COVID-19 have a national education system—making the question of when and how to reopen schools a top-down decision—it is important to remember that education in the United States is governed at state and local levels.  Response plans are therefore governed by community-specific factors, including local infection rates and diverging political perspectives, which make for a spectrum of decisions across the country.

New York and California, for example, home to our two largest school districts, have enacted very different laws and policies. Citing a record low infection rate, New York’s Governor granted permission for any school to conduct in-person instruction, with the caveat that local officials and superintendents must first submit their plans to the State’s education and health departments for approval. New York also mandates contingencies for every mode of instruction – in-person, remote, or hybrid — and insists that the school’s positivity rate must remain below five percent for in-person instruction to continue. By contrast, California is basing decisions on whether a school’s county appears on a list designed to track infection rates. If a school’s county remains off the list for two weeks, that school will be eligible to open for in-person learning provided the infection rate remains below five percent. Other urban school districts, including Washington, DC, will begin with remote instruction in the fall, with non-specific plans to eventually transition to a hybrid model later in the term. Meanwhile, Florida and Texas have actively encouraged schools to reopen for in-person learning.

Within this dynamic system, education publishers are uniquely positioned to meet the moment and invest in change. As an industry, publishers have spent decades shifting rich content and learning solutions to a variety of innovative formats that better enable students to learn and succeed from anywhere at any time. Always at the forefront of online education, publishers today offer a variety of digitally interactive content, assessment tools, and learning platforms, as well as customizable tools that help teachers connect with their students, monitor their progress and administer tests. And publishers continue to develop new eBooks, adaptive learning tools, apps, simulations, interactive labs, and other types of education software and instructional materials to drive personalized and self-directed learning.

Will change be immediate in K-12 education?  No, of course not, and nor will it be uniform or static. But as publishers pivot—and help their partners and customers to pivot—here are a few issues that should be top of mind for the foreseeable future:

Teacher Training and Instruction:  In the absence of a physical classroom, teachers are confronted with the challenge of providing intellectually challenging work in which students learn how to think critically by analyzing text, drawing conclusions, and performing complex math problems and task. This will require creativity and potentially a new skill set for many teachers, especially as they shift to new multimedia content, modalities, and platforms, made more challenging by a virtual classroom setting and varying levels of student ability. As conditions continue to shift and the demand for better virtual classrooms builds, schools will be tasked with identifying and securing both the appropriate content and the appropriate technology to ensure all students have a quality online learning experience.

Student Engagement:  While interaction with high-quality curricular resources contributes to a student’s academic success, so too does a student’s level of interpersonal engagement with their teachers and peers. In a virtual setting, teachers must build and maintain rapport with students they may never see in person, making the normally routine monitoring of a student’s academic, social and emotional wellbeing vastly challenging.  As teachers work to bridge this gap,  they will need not only great content but a wide variety of creative tools and technologies to foster all types of connections including one-to-one, peer-to-peer, small groups and full class interactions. Equally important is finding ways to reach students with disabilities and special needs whose learning is somewhat dependent on hands-on activity and face-to-face instruction. Such interactions  are a vital part of the learning process and critical to an individual’s academic success.

Equity and the Digital Divide: The inequity in learning that exists for those who do not have internet connectivity, a device, or both, has troubled the school community and policymakers for far too long.  In a pre-COVID context, educators could find temporary fixes through library resources, shared or borrowed laptops and wireless connections offered by local businesses.  There are current federal and state initiatives underway to expand broadband access in schools, libraries and at home; and to provide more WIFI hotspots and digital devices to the underserved communities. But in the interim, schools will need support from all parts of the education ecosystem if they are to reach students who simply aren’t connected to the Internet or are without devices.

Learning Loss and Assessment:  The gap in learning that began last spring might be the most pressing issue for teachers, students and parents. It will be a challenging fall for teachers as they work to identify students who are behind and devise solutions to get them back on track. School districts will need to support more tutoring, more tailored content, and more tools, such as  digital polling, hand-raising, chat rooms and chat boards. To educate a student, schools will not only need to spend more time on assessment, but also more time building individual student confidence so that grade-level competencies and other success stays within reach. And teachers will need better and more efficient diagnostic tools to address learning loss.

While the issues outlined above are challenging for all involved, they can be mitigated by the public-private partnerships that have served education so well for so long.  Less clear is the impact that diminishing state revenues will have on learning objectives, driven by a slow economy that has put an enormous strain on school budgets.  What we do know is that, depending on whether the annual budget was set before or after COVID, states may be forced to make up for the shortfall by funding cuts to education either now or in anticipation of shortages in future budget cycles, which could be a year or two from now. Moreover, while stimulus funding in some cases has been stabilizing, it does not address the expected multi-year shortfall predicted by experts. At any rate, funding is decreasing while the demand for health and safety equipment/services as well as investments to support remote learning is increasing.  All of the above has potential longterm effects on a student’s academic, emotional and physical well-being.

We are at a moment when traditional teaching and learning practices may be out of reach or inapplicable, requiring more creative approaches to augment the remote learning experience. It is imperative that we improve, enhance or fix parts of the system that aren’t working but it is also a moment, rather an opportunity, to embrace new teaching skills and new learning technologies that may serve to reinvent K12 education in the near future.  Publishers will pivot, and in doing so will help their partners in the education system do the same.

Kelly L. Denson is Vice President of Education Policy and Programs at the Association of American Publishers and a former teacher.