Speak Up 2021 Congressional Briefing: Lessons Learned from a Year of Virtual School

Speak Up 2021 Congressional Briefing: Release of the National Research Findings edLeader Panel recording link


Blog post by Stacey Pusey based on this edLeader Panel

Throughout the pandemic, we were all part of a live virtual experiment on how to make it work, said Dr. Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow. During the Speak Up 2021 Congressional Briefing: Release of the National Research Findings, Dr. Evans, along with a panel of K-12 student voices, discussed findings from this year’s Speak Up Research Project. Focusing on student engagement, student empowerment, and equity in education, they shared key lessons educators learned during the lockdown.

Since 2003, Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up has collected data on the important issues facing schools. Participating schools and districts receive free summary reports, including locally collected data plus state and national data for benchmarks.

Overall, the latest results reveal important changes in the education conversation. While some of these were tangible—like the need to equip all students with tech tools and WiFi access—it’s the more systemic changes that are catching educators’ attention.

  • Redefining effective learning: now that schools were forced to start offering online options, educators and students understand more about learning preferences, how to engage students, and what methods actually contribute to student success.
  • Putting education equity front and center: Beyond technology access, the pandemic school year highlighted the need for all students to receive the support they need to reach their learning potential.
  • Recognizing the need for SEL for all: It’s not just students who had mental health challenges last year—teachers and staff are reporting their own struggles, even as students make their way back to school.

Student Engagement

An overwhelming majority of students (81%) say doing well in school is important, but a persistent engagement gap pre- and post-lockdown shows that schools aren’t providing the experiences that students find compelling. Key asks from students include:

  • Real-world experiences—they want to know how the skills apply outside the classroom.
  • Tech that works beyond the school—they want to be able to do self-directed learning.
  • Choice—students want to have choices in their education from deciding what articles to read to investigating their own year-long projects. This makes them more invested in the work.

Student Empowerment

While most students say they work best in person, they do see the value in virtual learning. Learning at their own pace, less school drama, and developing new tech skills are just a few areas they noted. As schools move out of forced virtual learning, educators should examine what aspects can enhance the classroom experience and not just fall back on the old methods. In addition, the student presenters emphasized the need for schools to show them career options early on and explain to them what skills are needed for the jobs. Then, the students will be more willing to take charge of their education to reach their objectives.

Equity in Education

As part of the conversation around defining an effective education, schools should be working with students and families to understand their needs and goals. But one of the key factors emerging is equitable access to quality teachers. Students need consistent access to effective teachers in safe and supportive learning environments, and they need teachers who will empower them and let them take the lead in their own education.

Overall, the most important lesson is that educators shouldn’t make assumptions that the previous approaches were connecting with students and that the pandemic has caused these issues to appear. Instead, educators should recognize that these issues and student needs were always there, and the lockdown amplified their impact on education.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by Project Tomorrow.

Watch the Recording Listen to the Podcast

About the Presenters

Dr. Julie A. Evans is the CEO of Project Tomorrow and the founder of the heralded Speak Up Research Project. She serves as the chief researcher on the Speak Up Project as well as leading research efforts on the impact of innovative learning models and interventions in both K-12 and higher education. As a national thought leader and influencer, Dr. Evans leverages her career experiences as a tech entrepreneur and nonprofit leader to stimulate new discussions within the education ecosystem. She is a graduate of Brown University and earned her doctorate in educational leadership from the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Evans serves on several boards and advisory councils and is a frequent speaker and writer on digital learning. She was named in 2020 as the winner of EdTech Digest’s National Leader award. Dr. Evans is the longest-serving woman executive in the education technology nonprofit sector.

Christina Fleming is the Chief Marketing Officer at Blackboard. In her role as CMO, Christina is focused on communicating and representing Blackboard’s mission to advance learning. Her team oversees all aspects of product marketing, brand, communications, and go-to-market strategies on behalf of Blackboard.

Prior to becoming CMO, Christina was responsible for the management of Blackboard’s education technology portfolio designed for K-12. In this role, she was responsible for managing the product roadmap, the overall K-12 P&L, as well as the K-12 marketing strategy and client communications. Prior to joining the K-12 team, Christina was responsible for building and leading the Marketing and Enrollment Services division within Blackboard Success Services. In this capacity, Christina led consulting initiatives offering strategic marketing and enrollment planning services to Higher Education clients. She also previously served as the Sr. Director of Brand Strategy and Creative at Blackboard.

Prior to Blackboard, Christina spent 12 years in various marketing roles working in telecommunications. Christina has a bachelor’s in business with a concentration in marketing from The University of Notre Dame. She lives in Maryland.

Dr. Daniel A. Domenech has served as Executive Director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association since July 2008. Dr. Domenech has more than 36 years of experience in public education, 27 of those years served as a school superintendent.

Prior to joining AASA, Dr. Domenech served as Senior Vice President for National Urban Markets with McGraw-Hill Education. In this role, he was responsible for building strong relationships with large school districts nationwide.

Prior to his position at McGraw-Hill, Dr. Domenech served for seven years as Superintendent of the Fairfax County Public Schools (VA), the 12th largest school system in the nation with 168,000 students.

Dr. Domenech, an AASA member since 1979, served as President of AASA from July 1998 to June 1999. He is also a past president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, the Suffolk County Superintendents Association, and the Suffolk County Organization for Promotion of Education. He was the first president and co-founder of the New York State Association for Bilingual Education.

In addition, Dr. Domenech has served on the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment Governing Board, the advisory board for the Department of Defense Schools, the board of directors of the Association for the Advancement of International Education, the Board of Overseers for the Baldrige Award and the boards of the Institute for Educational Leadership, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Sea Research Foundation, and Education Policy Institute. Currently, he serves on the boards of the Learning First Alliance, National Student Clearinghouse, Center for Naval Analyses, Horace Mann Educators Corporation, ACT, and USAC, and as Board Chair for Communities in Schools of Virginia.

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Project Tomorrow
Project Tomorrow is a national nonprofit organization with a mission to ensure that today’s students are well-prepared to become tomorrow’s leaders, innovators and engaged citizens of the world. We support that mission with programs and research that focus on innovation and new learning models in the K-12 classroom, including through the effective use of technology.

Project Tomorrow