Center for American Progress

5 Ways Government Can Reimagine K-12 School Design in the Wake of COVID-19

5 Ways Government Can Reimagine K-12 School Design in the Wake of COVID-19

State and federal governments must empower schools to redesign teaching and learning for the generations to come.

Empty school hallway
An empty hallway is seen at an elementary school in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 11, 2022. (Getty/Jon Cherry)

Nearly four years since the COVID-19 pandemic first plunged America’s education system into turmoil, schools across the country are still fighting to recover from widespread disruptions to student learning and mental health. Many hope to focus their efforts not only on academic recovery and acceleration but also on comprehensive and transformative school redesign.

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The term “school redesign” typically refers to restructuring at the system level meant to address longstanding inequities and facilitate stronger teaching and learning. Redesign is a community-based process that involves transforming not only the physical environment of schools but also the policies and procedures that drive classroom instruction and organize the school day.

School redesign is challenging—and given constraints around time, finances, staff capacity, school schedules, credit systems, and a lack of data about what works, it is often also not easily scalable across districts and states. Consequently, a central question remains as state and federal governments look to reimagine education in the wake of the pandemic: How can policymakers promote and scale innovation in school design? The recommendations in this article outline actions that state and federal policymakers can take to foster thoughtful, transformative school redesign and pave the way for community-driven innovation.

Recommendations for state governments

Explore mastery- and competency-based educational programs

Credit systems based solely on hours of instruction, such as the Carnegie unit, do little to address students’ individual needs. This traditional model holds seat time constant while making learning the variable. However, several states are leading the way in implementing innovative competency-based models that center content mastery as the basis for high school graduation. In Iowa, Kentucky, and Oregon, school districts have the option to offer proficiency-based credit to students who have successfully completed course requirements or otherwise demonstrated mastery of standards. Maine and New Hampshire require all their districts to base credit systems on mastery of course content or state standards. Research has shown that these systems are associated with increased intrinsic motivation and self-management skills among students, particularly in math courses.

Allow for ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning—and provide credit for it

Schools must recognize that learning can and does take place outside the classroom. Work-based learning opportunities, internships, apprenticeships, part-time jobs, after-school programs, service learning, at-home learning, and community-based projects all provide valuable opportunities for building knowledge and skills. Rhode Island and New Hampshire have embraced a “credit for learning” approach to personalize students’ individual graduation pathways and award credit for out-of-school experiences. Policies such as these improve student engagement and better prepare students for college and careers by recognizing and validating multiple forms of experience and community-based “funds of knowledge.” 

Modernize and strengthen data systems

The drawback of offering more flexibility in learning programs, however, is that some students, particularly those who are already marginalized, may fall through the cracks. Robust data collection and transparency are therefore essential to ensure that all students’ needs are being met in school. Statewide longitudinal data systems that collect students’ information from their entry into early childhood education to their entry into and participation in the workforce—often referred to as “P-20W” systems—are key for monitoring school redesign initiatives and making evidence-based decisions that meet student needs. Texas provides the Texas Public Education Information Resource website, which combines multiple sources of data on all the state’s public school students with reports on teacher certification and school district staffing. Similarly, California recently established its Cradle-to-Career Data System to gather a variety of data points, including students’ socioeconomic circumstances, in a centralized hub that families, educators, and policymakers can access in their pursuit of equitable educational outcomes. Strategies and systems such as these will help ensure that all students are seen and supported throughout their educational journeys.

Recommendations for the federal government 

Improve the CGSA program and the IADA

To ensure that federal funding is available for states seeking to redesign their assessment systems, Congress should maintain and expand investments in the Competitive Grants for State Assessments (CGSA) program and the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA). Both can play a key role in promoting innovation in response to COVID-19. Funding should be prioritized toward states implementing personalized and competency-based learning approaches. Additionally, Congress should permanently eliminate the original seven-state cap on IADA participation to enable more states to take advantage of redesign opportunities in the future, as well as expand flexibility for states to establish their own timelines for innovative pilot programs. Most importantly, Congress should authorize the IADA to provide federal funding opportunities to support the startup costs associated with state pilot projects in order to incentivize equitable participation. These changes will help address the variety of challenges that participating states have experienced in implementing the authority.

Invest in state learning networks and professional development

The U.S. Department of Education should assemble and support peer-to-peer interstate learning networks to examine the effectiveness of innovative assessment models in improving student learning outcomes, as well as scale best practices from pilot programs and ongoing redesign efforts. The National Equity Project’s District Redesign Network provides an excellent example of a local-level learning network in which participants come together for the purpose of transforming schools. Congress should consider appropriating the funds necessary to revive the Department of Education’s State Support Network, a four-year initiative that, before ceasing operations in 2020, brought states together and offered technical assistance for school improvement efforts. As public schools continue to grapple with transforming schools while addressing the effects of the pandemic, state collaboration and federal support are more important than ever to taking advantage of this pivotal moment for the national education system. Finally, Congress should continue to invest in targeted professional development for educators and school leaders in order to expand educators’ capacity to implement school redesign initiatives from the ground up.


Top-down mandates alone cannot drive the reimagining of public education. Equally necessary is locally driven transformation from the inside out—transformation based on the unique strengths and needs of individual communities. However, state governments still hold an important role in school transformation, including expanding flexibility in scheduling and graduation requirements while holding schools accountable for student outcomes. Further, both state and federal governments can and should fund equitable pilot and seed projects targeted toward schools that have the least capacity and greatest need to restructure their learning environments. This will empower schools to redesign teaching and learning for the generations to come.

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Allie Pearce

Former Policy Analyst


K-12 Education Policy

The K-12 Education Policy team is committed to developing policies for a new education agenda rooted in principles of opportunity for all and equity in access.

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