Truly 2020 was a difficult year for so many reasons. As the executive director of the Association of Latino Administrators & Superintendents, I am acutely aware of the pandemic’s impact on our most marginalized and students of color—and of the mammoth efforts of school leaders to support them and continue providing them with an education in what seemed to be an impossible situation. This year has drawn more attention to equity issues and forced our nation to deal with them head-on. It has also forced school leaders to become more creative, outspoken and innovative in their advocacy and leadership—lessons they will take with them to help drive change in 2021. Here are some of my thoughts on what 2020 has taught us, and about what lies ahead.
One of the most important lessons superintendents learned in 2020—although many knew it intrinsically before—is their leadership must extend beyond their school district. Their position as a district leader requires them to expand their views and actions beyond the physical (or even the virtual) walls of their buildings. Because of the pandemic, they have become more proactive about talking to community leaders and organizations—the governor, the health department, the nonprofits, communications sectors and other local organizations—in order to work together on goals to help their students and staff, as well as the broader community. The virtual nature of our education system today has allowed many to extend their reach even further, beyond the confines of their state. This type of outreach is so important. When school leaders have the opportunity to engage with other leaders to learn about the different ways in which they address issues, better ideas come about.
District leaders have also learned to be more proactive. They aren’t waiting for a conference or for instructions from their state or nation’s leaders. With the advent of Zoom, school leaders are able to proactively engage with other leaders in their communities and their states. They’ve strengthened their resolve as leaders and set the example for other decision-makers in their communities.
Moving forward in 2021, I believe that district leaders will use this resolve to address the equity issues that have become so apparent to privileged counterparts during the pandemic. They’ve coordinated equitable access to everything from lunches to laptops and curriculum to classrooms, and this year unlike any other in recent history, they’ll take the lessons they’ve learned with them as they continue to work to address equity gaps in their school districts and communities. Our leaders have stayed the course, out in front and sometimes with little to no support. I am humbled by their genuine leadership and unselfish commitment.
A Tough Year Ahead
While there is no doubt that 2020 has helped school superintendents build their capacity to lead and to serve their school districts, they will face some significant challenges heading into 2021. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to account for the students who have fallen through the cracks in the system during these times of remote learning. We are going to need to focus in 2021 on finding them and to accelerate their learning. For example, latchkey kids, homeless students or those who are worried they could be deported if they log in, and our migrant students who didn’t return to school because they were helping their families in the fields. Then there is also teacher fatigue. Many teachers are doing their level best, however without the appropriate support they need to pivot from traditional learning environments to that of online makes the transition more difficult.
There are definitely some initiatives from 2020 we need to continue to move forward. We must keep pushing for systemic changes to support equity. In parallel fashion we should begin by self-assessing the environments and communities in which we work. After all, we are a part of the system. What are the short-term goals and what are the goals that we must set for continuity of an evolving system where equity is not a catchall word, but a word with actionable steps and outcomes, demonstrated in variable measures?
We also must continue assessing students. Standardized testing was largely canceled during the pandemic and some people may want to do away with it entirely. I believe we need to continue to assess students. But I also believe we need to get better at doing it. We should be assessing students more purposefully and from a different angle—focusing on what they know and their strengths, rather than a deficit model of testing to figure out what students don’t know. Assessments should be a tool to help students succeed. If we can get better at assessments, it will have an incredible impact, especially for our children of color.
Despite this challenging year, there have many been bright spots, and hope. People are resilient. They are equipped to ask for what they need and to demand better which helps to move us forward. I use as an example my experience from when I worked at the Puerto Rico Department of Education. Many households there didn’t have running water, food, cell phones or even lights following the devastating hurricanes. Yet their focus was on helping others. They had the attitude “a curve ball was thrown our way, but we’re still going to do the best we can to move forward and make it better.” I’ve seen that here in 2020—that tenacity and generosity and drive. We need to harness and grow that attitude in the education sector, just like our business sector has. So many businesses have risen to the challenge and found new ways to do business in order to sustain and continue to serve their communities. Our education system can do this too. We become our strongest selves through challenge and adversity, and I can’t wait to see how far we can go and how bright we can shine in 2021.