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Research You Can Use
COVID, Chromebooks & Drucker: The fall and rise of California public schools
June 27, 2022
Sam Humphrey, Ed.D., wrote the dissertation “Virtual Learning Programs in Post-Pandemic Education: California K–12 Public School Superintendents’ Design of Virtual Learning Programs, Identified Barriers & Recommendations for Effective Implementation” for his Doctorate of Education degree from National University in 2022; the first doctoral cohort in the history of the university. The following is a summary of that dissertation. He is currently the principal of Taylor Elementary School in Santa Maria, Calif. You can find Humphrey online @SamRHumphrey.
Beginning in spring of 2020, school closures impacted at least 90 percent of the world’s population of students (Cavanaugh & Deweese, 2020). In the United States, the delivery of knowledge in a traditional classroom setting changed to exclusively online teaching overnight (Quezada et al., 2020). Traditional school systems were forced to adapt with almost no training or experience from which to draw upon through Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT), exposing decades long inequities within the education system — primarily in marginalized communities that were already impacted the most by the global pandemic. Education partners responded at all levels; from site and district leadership coordinating devices and online access, state policymakers developing legislation, as well as families and teachers navigating support for children in an online setting.
As evidenced by prior research, the challenges of developing virtual learning programs were not born out of the pandemic. Rather, as similar to many other societal inequities, these barriers were magnified in the global crisis.
Previous research surfaced the following:
  • Successful distance learning environments require individuals and administrators involved in the implementation to be grounded in the basic principles, philosophy, and methodology of virtual learning (Wood, 2005).
  • Most administrators surveyed did not indicate a comfort level with online learning programs and doubted any potential success of it as a learning venue (George et al., 2006).
  • Johnson & Strange (2007) reflected concerns from rural school administrators regarding internet access and connectivity.
  • Picciano & Seaman (2007) identified four barriers: concerns about course quality, course development and/or purchasing costs, concerns about receiving funding based on student attendance for online and/or blended/hybrid education courses, and the need for teacher training.
Findings such as these were largely unresolved up to the very moment school systems were completely dependent upon virtual learning as the primary means of teaching and learning.
The timely research presented by this study surfaces at the crossroads of increased parent interest and evolving state legislation entering an era of post-pandemic education, representing an important opportunity to inform superintendents on how to proceed in the potential development of a virtual learning option. “Superintendents innovate. Innovation is the specific instrument of leadership. It is the act that endows educators with a new capacity to create learning.” — Peter Drucker

Including superintendents in this contention from the godfather of management, Peter Drucker, and his 1985 book, “Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” his words ring just as true from the time of his writing as they do over 35 years later in the face of a global pandemic. The elements of entrepreneurship and innovation have not always found a home within job descriptions for superintendents, but were invaluable traits for those seeking the opportunity within the challenges of this unprecedented pandemic. When district superintendents across California were surveyed on their innovations, including virtual learning programs, as well as the challenges faced and recommendations for their colleagues, responses were coded to the conceptual framework of Drucker’s seven sources of innovative opportunity — illuminating trends in leadership approaches and key learnings for those seeking to innovate their way to a better school system.
Two of the seven sources of innovative opportunity with the highest response rate included, The Unexpected (the event of a global pandemic, in this case) as well as New Knowledge. These sources also represent the most and least reliable, respectively, of the sources of innovative opportunity; mirroring the equally vast spectrum of responses and actions across school districts.
“Successful entrepreneurs do not wait,” Drucker said, and neither did the superintendents most likely to have developed a sustainable virtual learning program.
Those surveyed that surfaced a higher response rate aligned with the source of innovative opportunity Process Need, highlighted the following as keys to leveraging the potential of virtual learning in meeting evolving student and family needs resulting from the pandemic:
Build it and they will come: Responding to increased parent interest, some superintendents made dedicated plans early on in the pandemic school year of 2020-21 with an eye toward sustainability, resulting in higher enrollment rates into their virtual learning program and confidence in the program’s continuance after students returned to in-person learning.
Intentional staffing: As Drucker notes, “It demands to be staffed with the ablest people available, rather than with whoever we can spare.” Superintendents that staffed their virtual learning programs with individuals bringing proven qualifications and interest specific to virtual learning, reported higher response rates indicating effective and sustainable virtual learning programs.
To be an entrepreneur on the side rarely works: The entrepreneurial nature of developing a virtual learning program necessitated those leading this effort significant autonomy. Superintendents charged with the development of a virtual learning program, while also overseeing operations such as health and safety protocols and deciphering confusing language from state legislation, reported challenges prohibiting the advancement of a potential virtual learning program even with increased family interest.
Who will be the entrepreneurial superintendent Drucker has presented, exploiting this crisis as an opportunity to reimagine the school experience ...?
“And defending yesterday — that is, not innovating — is far more risky than making tomorrow.” — Peter Drucker
Across all surveyed regions and demographics, coupled with the extensive research done throughout this study, the consensus identified is that the existing unit of our K-12 public school system was ineptly prepared for such a crisis, exposing an urgent need to deviate from the traditional efforts of maximizing our public-service institution towards instead optimizing through innovations such as virtual learning.
A call to action has been made from education partners for internet access and equitable connectivity for all families, and for updating independent study guidelines, attendance and grading protocols. State policy leaders will need to play a significant role in advocacy for innovation and entrepreneurism, over compliance and regulations, in supporting options such as virtual learning programs to serve students and families entering an era of post-pandemic education. Conclusions from this research indicate the future of education does not simply lie within a school districts’ ability to develop a virtual learning program; rather, it is the school districts’ ability to leverage technology such as a virtual learning program, to best serve local students and families with the options they are advocating for. Options developed through the tenets of entrepreneurship and innovation — intentional, well-planned, and analyzed — will ensure the type of school experience offered is responsive to the ever-evolving needs of a diverse set of communities throughout our state.
While innovation is needed now more than ever, there is an inherent tension with these approaches and our traditional education structure. As Drucker contends, the very definition of an entrepreneurial society is “to challenge the habits and assumptions of schooling and learning.” The work of the innovative superintendent is equal parts ambitious and daunting heading into post-pandemic education, seeking out the opportunity within our current challenges.
Drucker portrays the seven sources of opportunity as seven windows, each on a different side of the same building. Each window shows some features that can also be seen from the window on either side of it, but the view from the center of each is distinct and different.
As superintendents and education policy leaders assess their respective views through the windows of innovative opportunity, the question that remains is: Who will be the entrepreneurial superintendent Drucker has presented, exploiting this crisis as an opportunity to reimagine the school experience through innovation that this generation of students needs now more than ever?
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Research You Can Use is a periodic feature of EdCal that provides an opportunity for ACSA members to share their dissertation research. Publication of these summaries does not represent endorsement by ACSA of any specific program, policy or strategy. Dissertation summaries written by ACSA members in the past five years are welcome, along with a photograph and present job title/location. If you have recent research to share, prepare a 1,000-word summary, including vital statistics and conclusions, and e-mail to Michelle Carl, EdCal editor.