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Contributor: Janet Tran

“Which of these options is the right answer?” This is a common refrain in the modern classroom. Students are often asked to select the “right answer” from a list of options – a less-than-rigorous challenge meant to test their academic skills. But life, of course, is not a multiple-choice test. In the real world, we’re asked to examine elements from different options and piece them together to form the best decision possible. Amidst a global pandemic, perhaps it’s finally clear: there is no clear right answer.

COVID-19 has uprooted millions of lives and changed the fabric of our society, but it’s also ignited progressive change in America’s education system. In March, all states were exempted from their standardized testing requirements, and with most students upended from their schools – this makes sense. There’s a place for rigor and accountability. It just may look different now.

In March, school districts across the country transitioned suddenly to “distance learning.” Now, many students are required to continue classes from home via video conferencing software or alternative online platforms. In some ways, this transition and these modes of distance learning present challenges that teach students much more than a multiple choice test could. After all, when adapting a semester’s worth of work to learning from home, there isn’t one correct answer. Before the pandemic, much of traditional schooling did not reflect these real-world practices, and it has negatively affected American students for decades.

The 1983 report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Education Reform, claimed American achievement and innovation had been “eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.” The Commission argued that the nation had forgotten the basic purposes of schooling and had fallen short of expectations and disciplined efforts.

Today, in an environment that requires our education system, our workforce, our parents and our students to adapt to a new normal, we cannot afford for our nation’s standards to fall further. According to Education Week, as of April 5th, COVID-19 has affected 124,000 public and private U.S. schools and at least 55 million students. It is crucial for these millions of students that our national response to this disruption is successful.

Educators must become students once again as they navigate the concept of online lesson plans. Students must adjust to learning from home on a computer with reduced social interaction, and many parents must juggle telework and the monitoring of their children’s schooling all at once. A survey of 350 high school parents has shown that more than half of students may not receive homework assignments during school closures. Although they have received access to virtual learning materials, tangible homework assignments are missing from the new curriculum. But these deviations from the norm do not mean that quality of education will falter, too.

Educators are presented with an excellent opportunity to teach their students the importance of critical thinking. Distance learning necessitates flexibility, demands out-of-the-box thinking and pushes students to take responsibility for their progress. This agility is vital to help students conquer real-life challenges.

Distance learning in any form requires some degree of self-regulation. Now, instead of reacting to a ringing homeroom bell, students must take responsibility for their own attendance and, to some extent, their own learning. Parents try to ensure their children are staying focused and on task, but when they are preoccupied, students must manage themselves. Self-management skills like impulse control, self-motivation, and self-discipline are competencies that help individuals adjust to daily tasks and challenges. These are indispensable skills that will carry students far in life, beyond the pandemic, and far beyond the classroom years.

These social-emotional competencies can’t be assessed by a multiple-choice test. But this kind of learning, through trial and error, is much more rigorous than antiquated classroom experiences. And as A Nation at Risk points out, maintaining high standards and academic rigor should remain a primary goal even in challenging times. This is how we will defeat the “rising tide of mediocrity.” This is how we will stand out in the global village.

Even when the pandemic is behind us, Americans cannot go back to school as usual. We will not get through this mess by multiple choice. Let’s set an example for millions of students across the country, by being agile, responsible, and disciplined even in uncertain times. To propel higher academic standards to the forefront, let’s ensure distance learning equips students with the real-word skills they need to face challenges tomorrow and far into the future. After all, history has not been kind to idlers.

Janet Tran serves as the Director of Learning and Leadership for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.