Listening to Other Voices in a Post-Covid19 World

The policy scholars that I hang out with have been consistently advocating for the inclusion of new voices. For the most part we have written about distributed leadership and teacher leadership, acknowledging that the professionals on the front line know more about what is emerging in classrooms and among students than do people in a district office. Others have noted that the U.S. pays less attention to student voice than many other countries, and that when they are authentically included in the conversations about improving their schools, they have stunning critiques and powerful ideas. Still others advocate for an increased role for community members, particularly those whose voices have been muffled by the loudly proffered preferences of highly educated and wealthier families. We are increasingly comfortable with these proposals for a bigger venue for policy consultation

However, educational policy scholars (like most educational professionals) typically draw a firm boundary around the involvement of business, whether they are local policy advocates/funders or founders of private charter school chains. We are suspicious of business because we don’t trust their motives, their understanding, or the frequent espousal of “solutions” to the “problem of education” that reflect pundit’s wisdom from 30 or more years ago, or New Public Management theories that prioritize a narrow scoreboard of test outcomes and competition.

So, what does a consulting firm Have to Say to Post-Covid19 Educational Policy? I subscribe to the Boston Consulting Group’s online newsletter in part because it is an easy way to keep up with what for-profit gurus are saying — and in part because the BCG has taken a serious interest in the government and non-profit sectors.  This is not because they want to impose New Public Management type models, but because they think that they can learn from us. Like pointing out that public and non-profit sector organizations know that their most valuable asset is the people who work for them (often their only real asset….). Or, that having a sense of purpose that engages people’s sense of being involved in meaningful and socially important work is a terrific way of creating bottom-up innovation.

I was struck by their recent missive, which started with the obvious fear (corporations, like individuals, are genuinely at risk of illness and death, even with massive federal bailouts…). Here are their own words:

“Our biggest problems—sustainably flattening the curve and rebuilding trust in the short term; global warming, growing inequality, and preparing for future pandemics in the longer term—are all communal problems, which cannot be solved by competing harder within the current framework for markets, corporate governance, and regulation”

My take on the relatively soft language (they don’t want to scare their readers any more than they already are….) is that every assumption that businesses are making about their environment needs to be thrown away. The current framework will not be sustained. New social movements with make new demands. Speed and efficiency will not be the priorities — instead, they will be assessed by adaptivity and “social embeddedness” (responsiveness to place and location). The implication (again soft): Competition will not be the way to succeed in the Post-Covid19 world. Instead, success will accrue to those who understand how to collaborate (with other groups, not just other corporations), who can read the emerging social movements, and who embrace collective responsibility

Does this sound like a generic prescription for educators and educational policy makers? Not looking to “get back to normal” but to move forward, hand-in-hand with all stakeholders, finally to break the cycle of narrow expectations and measures of accountability? To embrace not just technology (goodness knows the two-week switch to “virtual classrooms” has had some glitches and revealed new layers of inequity….), but also real adaptation and innovation? To think about communally valued outcomes that incorporate what we really want for our children, grandchildren and the seventh generation beyond?

Policy makers and business leaders take note: Which sector pivoted, often in a matter of two weeks, to carry out their work in a completely different way? Is there an equivalently complex corporation that moved as quickly as the nation’s administrators, teachers and students, who had to innovate on a dime? And, every district had to adapt to its particular situation (computers for all students in some districts, and erratic or non-existent high-speed internet connections in others). Are the results perfect — of course not — nor is it a preview of what schools will look like when students return to their brick-and-mortar places of work. But, if businesses wants to study adaptiveness and social embeddedness, they have the best possible example in education. And policy makers — don’t mess this up by trying to extrapolate uniform solutions.

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