By Charles Sosnik

t was 100 years ago when candidate Warren G. Harding entered the 1920 presidential campaign with his slogan, “Return to Normalcy.” It evoked visions of a simpler time, before World War One, the Red Scare and the Spanish Flu.


t was 100 years ago when candidate Warren G. Harding entered the 1920 presidential campaign with his slogan, “Return to Normalcy.” It evoked visions of a simpler time, before World War One, the Red Scare and the Spanish Flu.

Harding promised a return to the friendly, comfortable, and bland past:

“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

Now, 100 years later, many are calling for a new “Return to Normalcy,” a way to put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us and return to the good old days. In education, however, it may not be that simple to put the genie back in the bottle. America has been subject to work from home, along with remote learning, and both scenarios may be irreversible at this point.

Even prior to the pandemic, approximately 27 percent of school-aged children no longer attended traditional public schools. Current estimates have that figure somewhere between 33 percent and 39 percent. And with the burgeoning popularity of homeschooling, and the availability of consumer-grade courseware, four out of ten students may soon just say no to traditional public education.

But is that a bad thing?

Nontraditional education can still be public education. It includes magnet and charter schools, and hybrid programs, where students study from home and still take advantage of one or more school programs like school athletics, makerspace labs, or art classes.

Someone putting money in a jar, saving for education

Even homeschooling can now be a hybrid program; students use publicly provided curriculum in homeschooling. The question is not what is the best form of schooling, but what is the best fit for each individual student? The recent school closings have shown us that many students thrive on remote learning. Yet, many still need the support of a classroom and community setting. The good news issoon every scenario will be available, and more scenarios we have not imagined.

One thing that will not be a problem in the short term is funding, particularly for technology. The recent rounds of stimulus funding are pouring unprecedented amounts of money into K-12 education. The combination of the leftover CARES Act money ($13.5 billion for K-12), then CARES Act 2, with an additional $54 billion for K-12, and the most recent stimulus, with $130 billion earmarked for K-12 will provide the funding for a massive digital transition in public education.

To put it in perspective, 2020 represented the largest technology spend in history, with $35.4 billion spent on all technology combined, including hardware, networks, and Digital Curriculum Resources.

Perhaps the actual surprise is the amount of money spent on EdTech on the consumer side. Last year, schools spent a record $13.1 billion on Digital Curriculum, but Mom, Dad, and Grandmother, who spent $22.8 billion on Digital Curriculum dwarfed that figure. The consumer-grade software is nothing short of amazing, with mind-numbing graphics and sophisticated decision-tree logic to make decisions and keep the learning moving forward.

It is difficult for schools to compete with this level of sophistication and sex appeal, but the good news is they do not have to. Virtually anything that is available to consumers is also available to schools. If schools want to compete with the sophisticated graphics of consumer tech, all they have to do is buy it and provide it to their students. It is that simple.

One thing to come out of the pandemic is the idea that nothing is out of bounds and everything is on the table. When schools closed, minds opened, and suddenly everything was being discussed. One hundred and fifty years of TTWWADI (That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It) flew right out the window. New vendors were seen. New products were considered. Sales cycles shortened from 18 months to a matter of weeks. Product demos and sales and even installs were all done remotely. Everything was looked at through a new lens. Suddenly, everything was possible.

In 2021, expect to see several trends continue that were started in 2020. These include:

A new teacher shortage is creating a newfound appreciation for gig-economy teachers — across the country, and in particular, places like LAUSD are having an enormously hard time staffing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The shortage of quality teachers has been building for some time. Even before the pandemic, many states were losing a quarter of their new teachers after the first year, and our new teachers are Millennials with no expectation of long-term employment. Add in the fact that in the past eight years, the number of students enrolled in traditional schools of education in the U.S. has dropped from 609,106 to 337,690 and you have a problem. The fact that a large percentage of our teachers are over 60, and at high risk from complications to the Coronavirus, makes the teacher shortage a near-desperate situation. The best near-term solution is for schools to contract with a reputable agency. They take all the risks and incur the costs of finding the right candidates. Without outsourcing, your district’s HR department can quickly become overwhelmed.

EdTech spending in 2021 will eclipse that of 2020 and will set a new standard for technology funding — the two dominant reasons are available funding and need. Three sets of funding will come together in 2021 to push spending further than it has ever been. The 2021 technology spend could easily best the record 2020 technology spend of $35.8 billion by 20 percent.

Students’ emotional well-being becomes the number one challenge in public education — for the second year in a row, the social and emotional well-being of students has been identified as a top pressure point among American education leaders. The pandemic has put a fine point on this, causing additional stress on our learners (and their teachers). Teachers are asking, “What is social and emotional health, and how do we define the healthy child? What are some ways that schools can keep students healthy? What is the role of the teacher in keeping children safe and healthy?” The emotionally healthy individual is one that does not let his or her emotions override logical decision-making. Instead, their emotional and logical reasoning operate in harmony. Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage one’s relationship with others. Surprisingly, research has shown that skills in this area are bigger predictors of health, achievement, wealth, and quality of life than either IQ or socio-economic status. Schools will address this need in record numbers in 2021 and attempt to tamp down the burgeoning need now erupting in schools. 

A young student learning virtually

Teachers and administrators welcome an end to the era of high-stakes summative testing 2020 saw an interruption in the number of high-stakes testing given by schools. Expect this trend to continue in 2021, with summative testing being increasingly replaced by formative testing and software that shows student work in progress.

Homeschooling and the straight-to-consumer EdTech market will continue to grow at twice the pace of in-school technology purchases. 2020 let the genie out of the bottle, as parents and grandparents discovered a world of high-impact, consumer-grade learning software that blows the door off much of the teacher-created, PDF-driven lessons issued by schools. This new software, with an emphasis on excellent UI/UX, is driving the decision for parents to keep their kids at home in favor of a homeschool or PodSchool experience. With 20 percent growth last year, and an even larger jump in 2021, expect the straight-to-consumer market to go nowhere but up.

Distance and hybrid learning will continue unabated until the fall 2021 term, despite all the vaccines now available in the market. The speed of distribution of the vaccines is overhyped and underdelivered. Even with best intentions, distribution and implementation will not vaccinate most Americans until the summer. Expect widespread school openings in the fall of 2021, but with up to 30 percent of enrolled students (and their parents) requesting an online curriculum.

Large education conferences will continue to be virtual until 2022. Some smaller, local, and regional conferences are expected to re-emerge in the fall of 2021. Expect the larger conferences to begin to re-emerge in January 2022.

A female student attending school while wearing a mask

Even with virtual and hybrid classes, whole-group learning will continue to be the dominant model but will shrink from the current 62 percent to under 50 percent next fall as schools learn how to maximize the effectiveness of online learning. Expect in-person schooling to get the message, with more and more lessons being delivered in a small-group setting, as students return to classes next fall.

By the end of 2021, fewer than 67 percent of American, school-aged children will attend traditional public schooling. Expect this number to decrease by an additional 3-7 percentage points through the decade.

As we return to normal in 2021, normal will need to be redefined. What was normal last year may seem old-fashioned and out of date. We will literally redefine normal as we go, and a return to normalcy will have no meaning at all. Returning to normalcy will basically mean back to the future, and anything goes, provided we put the learner first.

It is an exciting scenario, and your hypothesis will be equal to my own (Your guess is as good as mine) when it comes to the future. Until then, dream big, eat your Wheaties, and love what you do.

About the author

Charles Sosnik is an education journalist and editor and serves as Editor in Chief at the Learning Counsel. An EP3 Education Fellow, he uses his deep roots in the education community to add context to the education narrative. Charles is a frequent writer and columnist for some of the most influential media in education, including the Learning Counsel, EdNews Daily, EdTech Digest and edCircuit. Unabashedly Southern, Charles likes to say he is an editor by trade and Southern by the Grace of God.