The future of education in the United States has never been as uncertain as it is in the COVID-19 era.
Schools across the nation are closed and reopening dates are still unknown. Millions of students are learning to learn online, while educators innovate to find the most effective ways to teach.
To understand the challenges facing schools, educators, parents and students, and elevate what's working in this unprecedented moment, the Walton Family Foundation recently joined with Heartland Forward and Axios to host a virtual series tackling the major educational issues we face today.
One of the most pressing challenges: Determining how best to prepare students for jobs and careers at a moment of deep economic instability and labor market transformation.
Axios spoke to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Teach for America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard and Steve Case, AOL Co-Founder and Revolution CEO, about their visions for education – and how to help students transition from school to meaningful careers at this time.
Gov. Bush: We Need to Make It a Priority to Ensure Equity, Access to Great Education
Axios: You published an op-ed in The Washington Post where you write, “It’s time to plan for a future in which public education can continue without access to classrooms not just because of a pandemic, but because that’s the future of learning.” You mention that it’s essential for better preparing the workforce, but you also mention that the money is there and is not necessarily the problem. What’s missing is the will to make it happen. Tell me a little about what you mean by that.
Gov. Bush: Well, we spend more per student than any other country, other than the Benelux countries [Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg]. The 13,000-plus school districts have huge technology budgets, but we don’t have a national strategy. What’s become pretty clear with the COVID-19 pandemic is that the access to education when you can’t get to the classroom is limited or non-existent for some and works for others. It seems to me we should have a national strategy using infrastructure monies that may come through Congress, the E-rate monies which are in the billions of dollars, local and state technology budgets – all of this put together to create a national strategy is necessary to make sure that every child has access to learning during these times, because the virus will come back during this next school year. It’s likely that many schools will adapt a strategy that will have not all students come every day because of social distancing, and we should be far better, far ahead than where we are today.
Axios: What kind of advice do you give to governors dealing with decisions to keep their economies open and schools going during this very uncertain time?
Gov. Bush: You can’t open the economy until its safe, obviously, but you can’t open the economy if children are at home. Most families have to have kids in school if they are going to be able to go to work. It’s important for the school districts to create clear transparent strategies about how they’re going to open up and then we need to deal with the subject of remediation. How do you deal with the students that have lagged behind? There needs to be a focus on using the money from the federal government to deal with the losses of learning that have taken place. That could be through summer school or through a more targeted, accelerated approach when school starts in the fall. But it is impossible to imagine we could come close to fully recovering without having our schools open. They need to open in a safe way. Higher education is struggling with this as well. Both are really important for the long-term success of our country.
Axios: What impact will this crisis have on job-specific education that is outside of the four-year university?
Gov. Bush: This was a big issue prior to the outbreak of the pandemic and it’s even more important now. First I think we ought to have as a national aspiration that every child graduates high school college-ready or career-ready, with some credential that they are capable of taking an entry-level job or income that is higher than the median of their community. That should be our moonshot. That requires a totally different approach in high school so that young people have access to the kind of learning to make this a reality. The second thing I’d say is workforce programs in the country need to be much more reality-based. They have to be based on the fact that we’re training people for jobs that are unfilled and create higher wages so people can live a life of purpose and meaning.
My hope would be that, as is the case with great disruptions in the past, a series of innovations take place where people think fresh and new in terms of doing things, and aren’t tied to conventionality.
Axios: Do we need to redesign the current structural paradigm of education? Does the grammar school/high school structure meet the requirements of the 21st century, and to your point, align with the skills that students need to get those high-earning jobs?
Gov. Bush: My hope would be that, as is the case with great disruptions in the past, a series of innovations take place where people think fresh and new in terms of doing things, and aren’t tied to conventionality. That children could chronologically move up in the learning experience, but if they can accelerate their learning and if they were lagging, we would remediate so gaps wouldn’t grow. You could imagine that many high school seniors could be taking college-level work, but very few do. We have the tragedy of high school grad rates going up, but we have a ton of 8th-grade level readers who won’t be able to go to college, or will have to take remedial reading and math to start. This is the time to think differently and flip the system on its head, where you move to customized learning approach where teachers are the coach of the learning experience, where technology is harnessed to enhance that new focus on the home as much as the classroom.
Elisa Villanueva Beard: We Have an Opportunity to Imagine and Build a More Responsive Education System
Axios: You started your teaching career as a TFA corps member in Phoenix. You saw first and foremost the inequities that challenge students and schools every day. Basic unmet needs like food insecurity and housing. As you think about this crisis, what do you think school districts and specifically teachers need to help get students through this response right now, but also through the recovery into the fall to make sure they don’t fall completely behind?
Elisa Villanueva Beard: I want to give a standing ovation to all the teachers out there. Everyone’s gotten a taste, or many people have proximity to what it’s like to be a teacher. I am, for example, homeschooling four children, and folks are seeing how hard and inspiring it can be to be a teacher. To watch our educators take on this transition with such energy and creativity has been really inspiring. In this work, one thing that’s been on my mind is talking with teachers at Teach For America.
I’ve been wanting to hear about their challenges and the opportunities they are seeing. The big thing on my mind is, we don’t want to go back to normal because there were lots of children being left behind in that education system. This is a moment where we can imagine something different for kids.
Our kids have passions. Let’s tap into their creativity to help us solve the problem to fundamentally reimagine the education system.
We have to meet the needs of the moment, but there are three big things in my mind as I think about that: The first is we need a national plan with all hands on deck to figure out what interventions are needed starting now, in the summer and the fall. In order to do this in a smart way, we need good diagnostics, good assessments to know where our children are. As we think about the interventions needed, I want us to push to have an inspiring vision for this.
A lot of folks are talking about learning gaps, remediation. This is a moment where we can actually be asset-based. Our kids have passions. Let’s tap into their creativity to help us solve the problem to fundamentally reimagine the education system. It’s all going to start with a commitment to a transformative vision for opening schools.
The second thing we need is significant investment and funds in order to meet the needs of the moment. Our most precious natural resource is our students, and this is the time to invest so we can intervene given the size of the problem we are facing.
The final thing I’ll say is that we have to wrap our arms around our students with deep love and support. Our children are going to need social and mental support. There is a lot of loss happening around them. There is a lot of stress as parents lose jobs, etc. The same is true for our teachers. We have to provide the tools for teachers and students to be able to thrive and get on a good path as we reopen schools and look into the future.
People are seeing deep inequities that existed far before this pandemic, where kids have so many unmet needs.
Axios: Are you concerned at all about how this might impact the pipeline of teachers and people wanting to go into teaching given the challenges that we’re seeing now?
Elisa Villanueva Beard: We’ve been in strong contact with our incoming teachers – we call them corps members – who will start teaching this Fall with us and preparing for a virtual summer training that we are going to do with them and all the supports we require. As we’ve been in contact with them, we’ve been hearing a deeper commitment to want to get in the classroom.
People are seeing deep inequities that existed far before this pandemic, where kids have so many unmet needs. This is a moment to lean in to provide our children, all children, and those children that have disproportionately impacted—which is our children in rural and urban America—to ensure that they are getting what they require. Our corps members are evermore committed to being a part of this. I actually think this can be a moment where we inspire a new generation of folks to want to put their energy and leadership into this effort, because this is shaping the country. And we need the greatest talent coming into schools and taking on the greatest leadership opportunity, which is teaching.
Steve Case: Heartland Universities Can Lead in Distance-Learning, Post-Secondary Innovation
Axios: You have been a prominent voice calling for more investment in places between the coasts, between the hubs that get the majority and the lion’s share of venture capital investment, to make sure that places that generally are overlooked get a chance to shine and keep talent in their hometowns and build locally grown businesses. Tell me a little bit about your theory of the case there.
Steve Case: Obviously there are a lot of big companies and small businesses that are struggling. Of course we have to focus on them, but we can’t lose sight of what has always been the job-creating sector of our economy: startups. There is not enough focus on that.
Axios: There are many who are predicting that as a result of this crisis we are going to see something of an exodus from the major cities as people look for less densely populated areas to live. What kind of opportunity do you think that presents to places like Tulsa or St. Louis or Kansas City that have often had a traditional problem just getting talent there in the first place?
Steve Case: I would frame it a little differently. I’d say those cities already had the talent, they just lost it. There has been a brain drain in many parts of the country. Some of the smartest people grew up in the middle of the country. Some of our best universities are in the middle of the country. But the opportunity was not there, so many felt that they had to go to the coasts, particularly if they want to work in the tech sector. As we move forward, the question becomes how can we keep some of that talent in place, slow the brain drain and actually get a little bit of a boomerang of people returning.
Last year, 75% of venture capital went to just three states – California, New York and Massachusetts. States like Michigan and Ohio, less than 1%. California alone, more than 50%. If we want to create jobs everywhere, if we want to level the playing field in terms of opportunity, give everybody a shot at the American Dream, we have to back entrepreneurs everywhere.
We have to make sure we are educating young people with the skills they need for the future, including creativity and entrepreneurial skills—skills that machines can’t replace.
Axios: You mentioned the presence of some of the best universities being in the middle of the country. What kind of responsibility or role do higher education institutions play in making sure that this crisis doesn’t completely disrupt that pipeline of talent from getting from the education institutions to the jobs that need to we need to be filled once we get back online?
Steve Case: We have a lot of great universities across the country and some of the best are located in the middle of the country. We are currently experiencing a massive move towards distance learning models. Some places like Arizona State University were already a real leader in this space and may be better positioned to capitalize on this trend. Other schools are trying to play catch up and figure out what is the role for distance learning in the short run and the long run.
In other words, when we start to move back to some semblance of normalcy, what is the right way to use distance learning tools? What is the right hybrid model? [Revolution has] backed a number of companies in the distance learning space.
It’s frankly been a struggle for a lot of professors and teachers to adopt distance learning platforms, but now they have an imperative—and an opportunity—to embrace those tools. We have to make sure we are educating young people with the skills they need for the future, including creativity and entrepreneurial skills—skills that machines can’t replace. Then we have to make sure the opportunities in their backyard are sufficient, so they don’t feel like they need to relocate to a select few coastal tech hubs. And that’s why the capital and talent pieces are so important. I think this crisis may be a bit of a wakeup call.
When I wrote the book The Third Wave a few years ago, I wrote that the next wave of innovation is going to be about better ways to teach, to source food, and to deliver health care. And the sector expertise needed to develop those innovations isn’t necessarily in San Francisco or New York City. For example, cities like St. Louis or Louisville, are likely better positioned to provide the tools and partnerships to disrupt agriculture. And the universities in those areas are terrific at teaching the skills to help build an ag-tech startup.
Remarks have been edited and abridged.