April 12, 2020

Covid-19 and K-12: What Are the Problems We’re Trying to Solve?

By Transcend

The Crisis

For the last decade, some of us have been saying that the world is changing at an ever-increasing rate.  Many educators dismissed that notion as technology-driven angst common to every generation. In the last few weeks, the reality of rapid change hit home. COVID-19 changed our lives overnight, and education is smack in the crosshairs. 

Educators have been connecting in ways we did not, even two weeks ago. Formal and informal video chats are now part of our daily routines. I recently participated in a Zoom chat (organized by Transcend, Education Reimagined, Open Way Learning, Fielding International, HundrEd, and probably others) with 100 teachers, administrators, policy-makers, and consultants from around the country, serving both public and private schools. In one hour, using virtual breakout rooms, we collected 27 pages of ideas and comments around three probing questions prompted by the current crisis. In this article, I summarize the responses from the first of those questions: In this new reality, what are the problems we are trying to solve?

We found seven, but first there was one top-level takeaway that probably best reflects what many of us are feeling:

We have both an immediate need to provide learning for our students right now, and we have a longer-term challenge to take the lessons we are learning during this crisis and apply them for the future.

As you are gathering with your teams to tackle the shut-down challenge, remember the first two stages of problem solving: 

  • Stage 1  Find a problem.  ✔✔✔ This problem found us!
  • Stage 2  Identify the right problem to solve before charging off in search of solutions.  

We hope our winnowing helps you define your path forward. Here are the seven problem areas this diverse group of 100 thoughtful educators identified, ranked in order of the number of comments from the group.

Identifying the Right Problems

1.Making Long-Term Changes

The most common theme in the brainstorm thread was that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste”. Many warned that, after the immediate problems of distance learning are solved as well as possible in the short term, we will default back to a comfort zone of traditional learning, thankful that the crisis is over, having learned little in the process.

As crisis-mode distance learning takes root, we find that much of it aligns with the goals of future-focused, deeper learning: student-centrism, loosening the rigid boundaries of time and space, real-world interdisciplinary learning, equity across the divides of economics and learning style, social/emotional wellness of our students and staff, and more.

After the crisis, this group fervently hopes, we will not return to “normal” but will use lessons learned, both to improve K-12 education, and because this is not going to be the last crisis in our lifetimes that significantly disrupts the daily routine of our schools (just ask those who are increasingly displaced by major hurricanes, wildfires, or floods).

2. Learning Lessons About Our System

We hope to not lose granular, real-time lessons about how our schools can improve. Our traditional operating system has flaws that are being radically exposed in new ways: teacher-centric lesson plans; outdated assessment practices; teacher skills outside of a narrow comfort zone; social and emotional wellness when a new stress is packed on top of high “normal” stress; support for students with learning differences; equitable access to food and health services.

As we “triage” the short-term situation, we should be capturing “vital signs” that will inform planning for the next crisis and for longer-range, systemic transformation.

3. Serving the People

Schools are people-centric systems, and the people right now are not comfortable.  Teachers don’t know what is expected or how to create learning using tools with which they are not familiar. Leaders have not led their organizations through this kind of crisis. Students are adrift. Parents are trying to figure out how to work from home and become lead teachers for their kids, all at the same time. The fact that all of this is new and untested is another testament to just how comfortable (head in the sand?) we have all become. We have assumed that what worked in the past will always serve us well, which was never a good assumption.

Both in the short term (“what do I do tomorrow”) and in the long term (“how must I re-tool to succeed in my role in the future”), we have a lot of room to build both capacity and comfort for predictable disruptions across our rich human capital.

4. Equity

The thread of equity, or more specifically the lack of equity, runs deeply through all of the comments I collated. Like the crisis itself, there are both short and long-term equity issues: students who do not have internet access or laptops; students with special learning needs; and much broader issues of social, economic, and cultural equity across an educational system in which we see little evidence of narrowing those divides despite decades of money and attention.

Small, well-financed schools and districts have already pivoted to school-wide distance learning; with the exception of those who have already planned for smaller-scale disruptions like inclement weather days, many large, diverse districts may have a difficult time making these changes in the next few weeks, exacerbating already gaping divides in access to good learning and student learning outcomes.  

5. Technology

After almost two decades of viewing technology as an end in itself, we understand that it is merely a means. But when schools are closed, technology is a lynch pin without which learning simply cannot take place.  Some schools have effective learning management systems, and teachers and students know how to use them. Other schools and districts do not, which is a serious indictment of K-12 education at the end of the first quintile of the 21st century. Like a national health care system that is clearly not prepared to deal with a pandemic, we have an education system in which some schools and districts have simply never planned for a day when facility with even a simple LMS would be a fundamental job requirement for both teachers and students.

6. Managing Disruption

Educators have used the word “disruption” a great deal since Clayton Christensen first talked about disruptive innovation 20 years ago.  Arguably, this crisis is the first true disruption in education during that time; it is the first time that the existing system can’t be “tweaked” to meet a new set of challenges.

Most educators are good at what they do, but they have never been challenged with, or trained in, managing change in a disrupted environment.

Again, with the crisis on us, we can look back and ask why we never saw this coming; but if we let go of 20-20 hindsight, we need to now build capacity into the system to both anticipate really big disruptions and then to manage them when they inevitably arrive.

7. Connection of Community

Education, from the classroom to the site to the local community, and then to national and global communities, has always thrived on connectivity (Thrive: How Schools Will Win the Education Revolution).

Some educators and school systems have ignored these connections, or they have not allocated the resources needed to participate in the increasingly thriving system of connected edu-learners. Others have become integral parts of this dense web. The latter will weather the current crisis much better than the former. Connection with community is not about just technology or taking time in busy days to get our heads out of textbooks and committee meetings. It is part of a community mindset that understands the importance of silo-busting, growth-oriented, communication and collaboration. If we don’t nurture these connections during “normal” times, we and our students suffer. If we don’t have them during crisis times, when the stress and fear and uncertainty will overwhelm even the strongest in the herd, then we all suffer a whole lot more.

Solutioning Towards a Different Future

The big problems raised by this crisis remind us of the “21st century skills” we have promised to embed in our students’ learning: the crisis has exposed system-wide weaknesses in communication, collaboration, empathy, systems thinking, and growth mindset. These are not theoretical constructs; they are not skills to navigate in a classroom isolated from the real world. Today, in a very profound, urgent, and somewhat scary way, we understand that they are the tools we need to solve some big hairy problems that just poked their heads out from under the bed.

Having identified the problems we need to solve, our collective attention will turn to designing solutions. I urge us to not default back to comfortable norms.

This is a remarkable opportunity in the history of education and our social constructs.

As I wrote in #EdJourney in 2014, most of our traditional education framework was designed by 19th century social engineers who, steeped in an industrial mindset,  wanted uniform, predictable, repeatable outcomes. We know that those design parameters will not serve future needs, and that the solutions we seek will look more like a natural ecosystem than an engineering blueprint.

We will build this learning ecosystem by engaging in solution-building that is inclusive and transparent; engages diverse groups of users, including students; recognizes the non-uniformity of school stakeholders and communities; breaks outdated comfort zones; and finally addresses the enormous built-in inequities in our current system. If we can finally problem-solve K-12 education with guiding principles like these, perhaps even this profound crisis will have had some positive outcomes.

Drawing on two decades as a senior administrator, teacher, and trustee in K-12 education, Grant Lichtman has worked with more than 225 schools and districts. He speaks, writes, and works with school and community teams to build capacity and comfort with innovation in response to a rapidly changing world.


Transcend supports communities to create and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.

Stay Connected

Transcend is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit that operates nationally.