Education after the Pandemic
Until March 2020, American schooling looked much like it had in 1920. Despite new technologies, ever-increasing outlays, and wave after wave of reform, the rhythms and routines of America's schools were little changed. Students set out from their homes to school in the early morning, sat in front of a teacher in primary school or a series of teachers in secondary school, sporadically used the latest technologies, and then headed home. Dress codes, popular pedagogies, the number of adults in the building, and the technology may have changed, but what students and teachers actually do had not.
Then came Covid-19. Schools shut down nationwide, forcing educators to think differently about educational delivery. The sudden shift to remote learning spurred new practices, leading teachers to discover new skills and strategies. It also created unparalleled transparency for parents regarding what happens in the classroom and upended how tens of millions of parents interacted with their children's schools.
The disruption born of this once-in-a-century pandemic could yield a once-in-a-century opportunity to reset K-12 schooling. Closures rattled public confidence in local schools. Familiar routines were shattered. Interest in home schooling and other alternatives has exploded. All of this loosened the status quo's grip on school norms, parental expectations, and the public imagination.
And yet, even as schools spend close to $200 billion in federal Covid-19 aid to tackle learning loss and "build back better," they've mostly doubled down on what's familiar. School systems are using these funds to add staff, buy tablets, and hand out bonuses. They're seeking more teacher training or better curricula, and they're pursuing the instructional enthusiasms of the moment — typically "anti-racist" materials and social- and emotional-learning supports.
Of course, none of these approaches is remotely new. School staffing grew at almost four times the rate of student enrollment from 1950 to 2015, with teaching staff growing twice as fast as enrollment and non-teaching staff seven times as fast. For decades, school reformers have eagerly adopted standards, designed intricate accountability systems, overhauled teacher evaluation, reduced class sizes, implemented new data systems, and more, all while spending plenty of money.
But decades of frantic reform have yielded little obvious benefit. A 2018 RAND evaluation of the Gates Foundation's $575 million Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching initiative, which punctuated a sweeping national push to overhaul teacher evaluation, found that it didn't improve student achievement, attract talented teachers, or change teacher practices or evaluations. Education scholar Tom Loveless's authoritative study of the Common Core found no impact on student achievement. The Obama Department of Education found that the billions spent on its signature School Improvement Grant program had no impact on student outcomes, either. Meanwhile, the Programme for International Student Assessment — which conducts the only major international assessment of students in both reading and math — reports that U.S. performance hasn't significantly budged since the test's first administration in 2000.
That so many high-profile school reforms haven't delivered the promised results should make us cautious about putting too much faith in simply doing more of the same. And yet, for a long time, "more is better" has been the organizing principle of educational improvement. Even as after-inflation, per-pupil spending almost tripled over the course of the past half-century, the belief that schools are underfunded remains an article of faith. Even as the growth of staff has outpaced that of student enrollment, we're told schools are understaffed. Even as one technology after another has disappointed, reformers have remained convinced that the next one will provide the answer.
Some readers may be thinking that this is precisely why we need to embrace school choice. I happen to agree: School choice can empower parents and educators, challenge inert bureaucracies, and create room for promising new models. During the pandemic, home schooling, learning pods, and private options proved themselves to be a lifeboat for millions of harried families. But for the most part, schools of choice have not taken advantage of the opportunity to rethink the rhythms of the schoolhouse. Most charter schools hire, pay, and use staff in a manner that looks a lot like the way local district schools do. Most private schools, whether parochial schools running on a shoestring budget or posh residential academies, take a certain pride in operating much as they did a half-century ago.
After all, while educational choice allows schools that better meet the varied needs of families to emerge, delivering on that promise is a task reserved for old-fashioned human ingenuity. And just what those solutions should look like is a question that deserves vastly more consideration than it has received during the pandemic.
It's time for would-be reformers to set aside the familiar stratagems and look more closely at two fundamental questions: How do schools use professional talent? And how do they use technology? The post-pandemic recovery offers a unique moment to tackle these queries and escape the gravitational pull of the "more is better" philosophy.
THE TALENT CHALLENGE
Staffing American schools today is no easy task. Public schools must hire 300,000 teachers per year just to replace those lost to attrition. That's more than the total number of graduates produced by all of America's selective colleges annually — with the term "selective" used to mean any institution that accepts fewer than half of its applicants. Even if every single graduate from the nation's flagship universities, the Ivy League, and prestigious liberal-arts colleges opted to teach, it wouldn't plug the gap left by departures each year. This makes it extraordinarily difficult for school systems to make prudent and strategic decisions about hiring, assigning staff, and developing training and preparation programs.
The emphasis on quantity over quality is nothing new in American education; it's an artifact of some of public education's earliest days. In the 1830s and 1840s, the leaders of the emerging common-school movement — most famously Massachusetts's Horace Mann — were intent on expanding the availability of basic instruction. Mann, who was wowed by the order and regimentation of the Prussian school system, embraced a vision of schools staffed by plentiful (and poorly paid) female educators managed from on high. To police quality, reformers initiated a system of bureaucratic licensure.
By the early 20th century, progressive reformers were working to supersize and systematize the common-school legacy, requiring increasing numbers of teachers who could be plugged into similar-looking classrooms. The public-school teaching force increased rapidly, tripling from 1 to 3 million between the 1950s and the early 2000s. Today, it numbers more than 3.5 million.
Amid that expansion, barriers that kept women out of other professional roles began to erode. As a result, K-12's near-monopoly on educated female workers started to unravel, draining much of the teacher talent pool.
Policymakers and educators were slow to respond to these shifts. It wasn't until the late 1980s that anyone really started to tinker with alternative licensure and mid-career recruitment. Meanwhile, efforts to reform pay have frequently had less to do with re-imagining the profession than with tacking a test-score bonus onto the familiar salary schedule.
Today, compensation for educators and staff constitutes the lion's share of school spending. Eighty percent of the more than $700 billion spent annually on K-12 public education goes to employee salaries and benefits, with about half of that going to classroom teachers (the rest is devoted to administrators and support staff). The sheer number of dollars involved makes it difficult for incremental increases in spending or pay to meaningfully alter the shape of the profession. Might there be a more promising route to finding, deploying, and compensating educators?
The medical field offers an instructive example. A little over a century ago, there was no such thing as a medical specialty, and it was hard to talk seriously about medical expertise. Today, the American Medical Association recognizes around 200 specialties, many of which are associated with a high degree of expertise.
This kind of specialization, with its requisite years of exquisite training, has been possible only because a small sliver (about 10%) of the nearly 10 million medical professionals in the United States are physicians. The rest are physician's assistants, nurse practitioners, emergency medical technicians, and the like. These professionals are appropriately trained, but much less intensively and expensively so than the physicians with whom they work.
In medicine, support staff aren't asked to tackle work that exceeds their expertise, and expensive experts aren't wasting time on rote tasks readily performed by colleagues. Physicians and other highly skilled specialists don't spend time taking blood-pressure readings, filling out patient charts, or negotiating with insurance companies; these responsibilities are left to nurses or staff. Conversely, no one expects physician's assistants or optometrists to step away from their roles every once in a while to perform cardiovascular surgery; such tasks are left to trained professionals.
While it's ludicrous to suggest that the medical field has it "right," there is still much that education can learn from the sector about how to deliberately deploy different kinds of professional talent. The goal ought not to be for education to import medicine's particular hierarchies or work routines (or its paper-chasing pathologies), but to ask how education might similarly order responsibilities and leverage talent, experience, and training.
First, it's essential for us to better understand what teachers actually do. Teachers perform many tasks throughout the course of a day: They lecture, facilitate discussions, grade quizzes, fill out forms, counsel distraught students, monitor the cafeteria, and struggle with balky technology. Even in the classroom, a stream of housekeeping chores, disruptions, and distractions means that the typical teacher spends less than two-thirds of the total class time on academic instruction — a massive opportunity cost.
No one believes all teacher activities are equally valuable. The problem is that supervisors and principals rarely devote much energy to examining how educators are spending their days, making it tough to know whether time is being used effectively. These leaders would do well to unpack what teachers do and prioritize the activities that matter most.
Second, schools should be organized so that individual educators can spend more time doing what they do well. Having a superbly skilled early literacy instructor teach addition or watch students eat lunch simply because he's a second-grade teacher is a bizarre way to leverage talent. The challenge is to more deliberately tap teacher skills and explore how technology or support staff can help off-load rote tasks. The pandemic experience is instructive: School leaders have observed that while some of their stronger teachers stumbled during remote learning, others were surprisingly effective, frequently due to changes in classroom management or presentation style. School districts should develop mechanisms for matching teachers with the environments that best suit their strengths, then provide them with the appropriate training and support.
Third, teachers need more opportunity to grow. Nearly every school district uses some version of the step-and-lane pay scale in which teachers, regardless of background or skill, enter the profession at roughly the same salary and with a similar job description. Things don't look much different in most charter or private schools, which do little to leverage the skills of accomplished, highly trained educators or help them grow within their roles.
Professions from architecture to accounting offer more promising approaches, in which staff are utilized with an eye to skill set, experience, function, and cost. The Opportunity Culture model, currently employed to varying degrees in about three dozen school systems, illustrates a nascent attempt to import one such approach to schools. The model permits an experienced teacher to mentor a team of novice teachers without having to leave the classroom to become an administrator or instructional coach. Lead teachers are responsible for the whole team's students, are paid commensurately, and enjoy new professional opportunities. In addition to offering a more sensible use of teaching talent, such options give exceptional teachers the recognition they deserve and may help prevent them from departing for new opportunities.
Fourth, there's a crying need to expand the pool of potential teachers. Exclusively recruiting new college graduates for teaching positions made sense half a century ago, when the average bachelor's degree recipient held just five jobs throughout an entire career. Today, new graduates may well have held that many jobs by the age of 30. Early career transience, routine mid-career transitions, and delayed retirements make it increasingly bizarre for education systems to focus on training and recruiting 22-year-olds in the expectation that they'll continue teaching into the 2050s.
Today, the changing nature of work means there's an excellent chance that a mid-career entrant may wind up teaching for two decades — a tenure likely longer than that of a traditional hire. And yet balky licensure systems, seniority-based pay, and factory-style pensions create major practical burdens and financial penalties for career changers, making the teaching profession onerous and unattractive for this promising source of new hires.
When one considers the skills, knowledge, and life experience that a 40-year-old engineer, journalist, or computer programmer might bring to the classroom, the value of such hires becomes even clearer. Accordingly, states should end bureaucratic teacher licensure and adopt more precisely targeted safeguards, such as ensuring that prospective teachers have relevant experience in or mastery of the subject they wish to teach. School leaders would then be free to hire as they see appropriate, adopt more customized training, place new teachers in apprenticeship roles, and use skilled veterans to provide rigorous, applied mentorship to new hires. Relieving the certification bottleneck would also equip schools to better meet the novel demands of innovative models like hybrid home schooling, learning pods, and distance learning.
Rather than continuing to engage in a constantly frustrated search for more than 3 million interchangeable round pegs, it's time for a new strategy.
HOW TECHNOLOGY HELPS
Successful schools are inevitably the product of the relationships between adults and students. When technology ignores that, it's bound to disappoint. But when it's designed to offer more coaching, free up time for meaningful teacher-student interaction, or offer students more personalized feedback, technology can make a significant, positive difference.
Unfortunately, education technology is too rarely designed with this kind of charge in mind. That's why education technology tends to be endlessly hyped — and just as endlessly disappointing. For the past century, reformers have promised that each new technological advance would transform schooling. In 1922, Thomas Edison proclaimed "the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system," adding that "in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks." Soon afterward, radio was the hot new thing. In 1931, U.S. Commissioner of Education William Cooper established a radio division in the U.S. Office of Education and, by 1932, nine states were broadcasting regular educational programs. Benjamin Darrow, author of the 1932 book Radio: The Assistant Teacher, touted radio as the "vibrant and challenging textbook of the air." Similar stories can be told about television, the desktop computer, laptops, tablets, and even whiteboards.
The problem is not the technology; it's the fact that the technology has been parachuted into schoolhouses without any real effort to think about how it changes what students and teachers do. There's no guarantee that placing new technology in the classroom means it will be used wisely or well — a television can serve as an excuse for a teacher to show movies, for example, and tablets can simply shift busywork from paper to pixels. The pandemic surfaced a spot-on illustration of this tendency. Through the practice not-so-affectionately termed "Zoom in a room," school districts would transport students to school so that they could stare at computer screens while sitting six feet apart and masked, supervised by a non-teacher, as a teacher taught virtually from home. The approach was simultaneously mindless, dehumanizing, and one-size-fits-all — a perfect encapsulation of educational technology gone wrong.
And yet, technology can make a profound difference in schooling. As the pandemic highlighted, it can promote transparency and communication, bridge home and the classroom, foster personal connections, offer students new resources and activities, accelerate assessment to give students real-time feedback, or expose students to new learning opportunities.
Consider history's most potent bit of education technology: the humble book. The introduction of the printed book following the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s gave students access to experts from around the world, enabling them to learn things even if their teachers didn't know them. No longer reliant on teachers to tell them everything, students could learn at home. This flipped the classroom, allowing teachers to spend less time lecturing and more time explaining, mentoring, and facilitating.
The book eventually made it possible to rethink what it meant to be a student. With books, students could master content and concepts outside of school, learning even when a teacher wasn't there to instruct them. Books allowed students to re-read passages when necessary, to move at their own pace, and to learn in the evening, when ill, or when assigned to a teacher who was unclear or uninteresting. Of course, books may well be inferior to a riveting demonstration delivered by a gifted instructor. But for most students, the availability of books was a vast improvement over having to depend solely on being physically present to hear a teacher's peroration.
In changing what students could do, the book also empowered teachers to work in new ways. Rather than having to spend class time delivering content, teachers could ask students to read at home and use class time for the kinds of dynamic inquiry that engage young minds and help students make sense of the content. The book was not simply an opportunity to do more of the same things or do them better; it made possible a fundamental rethinking of how teachers teach and how students learn.
Of course, the fact that teachers could do these things was no assurance that they would. Even today, five centuries on, it's not uncommon to see teachers providing tedious, low-quality lectures in which they spend class repeating to students the very things they asked them to read the night before. There are no guarantees that the tools that make it possible to re-engineer schooling will actually be used accordingly; there is always a question of what educators ultimately choose to do with the new tools at their disposal.
Additionally, despite its many benefits, the book has real limitations. For one, the content and language contained within its pages will inevitably be too difficult for some and too easy for others. For another, although students learn best when the eye and the ear work in tandem, books are a silent medium. Books also have fixed content, with the same words appearing in the same order every time they're read. They can't offer a live demonstration or an alternative explanation to a confused reader.
Modern technologies permit us to improve on some of these fronts. Online materials can be rapidly updated and customized to a student's interests and reading level. They may feature embedded exercises that allow students to apply new concepts and receive immediate feedback. They can offer short videos and supplementary materials that address particular points of interest or confusion. They can also provide picture-heavy explanations for students who are struggling with a word or concept.
Technology's promise of re-imagining what students and educators do lies in its ability to do four things.
First, it can make learning solutions more affordable. Take the case of tutoring. While tutoring is a powerful instructional tool, it is typically expensive and tough to provide at scale. Several years ago, the Houston school district launched Apollo 20, an ambitious tutoring experiment at a select number of middle and high schools backed by millions in dedicated funding and led by researchers from Harvard University. The district had the resources to make the program a success, yet the practical challenges of recruiting, training, and retaining enough part-time tutors to make the program work on even a limited basis proved daunting. The idea was a good one, but it was just too difficult and too costly to execute at the requisite scale. Today's technology, on the other hand, makes it possible for schools and families to access low-cost tutoring online 24/7 in any key subject.
Second, technology can help make learning solutions more available. New technology gives teachers more tools in their toolbox, allowing them to deliver remote lessons, provide students with interactive assignments, or arrange for targeted, supplemental instruction. On a similar note, it's difficult for many schools to offer high-caliber classes in more esoteric subjects like Mandarin or more advanced topics like physics, and it can be tough to find experienced world-language or science teachers in many rural communities — challenges exacerbated by the credentialing bottlenecks noted above. Virtual delivery can allow schools to extend the reach of the very best teachers and offer high-quality curated resources, even in fields where quality instruction is hard to come by.
Third, technology is customizable. Schools have often overlooked this feature, leaving too many parents with the impression that the point of giving every student a Chromebook is to ensure they are effectively monitored and marched in high-tech lockstep — watching videos, building PowerPoints, and taking tests in unison. That's a profound misuse of these tools, whose true power lies in their ability to explode the one-size-fits-all assumptions of the 30-student classroom. Today's technology gives students and teachers access to a dazzling array of explanations, illustrations, activities, exercises, and assessments. Teachers can tap a rich trove of cartoons, games, and tutorials that are increasingly aided by the insights of learning science. This marks a profound change from a world where the textbook offers one standard explanation and teachers are charged with explaining every concept in a way that registers with each student. It makes possible a more personal world of learning, with teachers potentially free to spend more time mentoring students and less time batch-processing them.
Fourth, technology can help make schooling more respectful of student and teacher time. During the pandemic, countless parents were bewildered with how little students actually learned each day. But it makes sense: When schools are in session, time is consumed by such non-instructional tasks and events as attendance-taking, paper-passing, announcements, classroom disruptions, lunch breaks, assemblies, preparation for dismissal, and the rest. Researchers have estimated that classrooms can experience hundreds of disruptions in the course of a single week and, more generally, that only two-thirds of scheduled instructional time is actually used for teaching. This means that many teachers grow exasperated, while students spend hundreds of hours a year functionally twiddling their thumbs.
New tools can help remake those routines. The New Classrooms model, born of a pilot program launched under Chancellor Joel Klein in New York City, offers an intriguing illustration. New Classrooms tackles middle-school math instruction by abandoning the traditional self-enclosed classroom so that students can work their way through scores of specific learning objectives at the pace that suits them. Meanwhile, teachers work together to curate and provide varied kinds of instruction, including live teacher-led lessons, software-based lessons, collaborative activities, virtual tutors, and individual practice. A computer algorithm helps sequence each student's learning objectives and suggests the learning methods with which each student should tackle the unit, taking into account the student's needs and learning styles as well as the logistical challenges of the whole class. Students who need more time on a unit aren't herded along, while those ready to move on are able to do so. Teachers divvy up work so that they can devote more time to the areas where they excel while drawing on online instruction and computer-assisted exercises as needed. Absent students aren't left behind, and an absent teacher doesn't bring learning to a halt.
As a general rule, technology disappoints when simply affixed to what's familiar. That's the technology of late-night infomercials — while it may look neat, adding a flashlight to the handle of a kitchen knife does little to make life easier or the knife more useful. Ultimately, the promise of any educational technology, no matter how impressive, is its ability to better engage young minds or amplify the reach of talented educators. Schools need to be prioritizing these considerations when bringing technology into their classrooms.
In practice, the web of rules and regulations, cultures and contracts, and policies and practices that entangle American schooling makes any kind of re-invention extraordinarily difficult. When one considers the constraints imposed by collective-bargaining agreements, federal mandates, state assessments, parental expectations, and more, any talk of transformation can start to sound naïve at best.
While many of schooling's familiar routines are the product of statute and regulation, others are the product of inertia. Given that fact, it's helpful to look at some practical ways in which policymakers, philanthropists, or tough-minded system leaders can start to move the needle. There are eight sensible places to start.
First, we should target the latticework of anachronistic routines that make it difficult for even far-sighted educational leaders to fundamentally alter outlays, overhaul staffing, or thoughtfully replace bodies with technology. Because of these routines, the understanding of what's possible is constrained by notions of what federal-funding streams, contracts, and state law allow. Yet there are teachers and leaders who have found ways to shed outdated routines and the rules that protect them. While the innovations that result are touted, the ins and outs of escaping the strictures rarely receive much consideration, explication, or celebration. Journalists, scholars, advocates, and educational organizations need to do much more on that score, and funders would do well to generously support such efforts.
Second, we must encourage, research, and invest in models that explore new staffing configurations. Intriguing new ideas like the aforementioned Opportunity Culture and New Classrooms are being pioneered and evaluated. But when we consider the number of classrooms and schools in the nation, the concerted efforts to re-imagine what teachers do and how they work together make up a vanishingly small share of innovative activity. Meanwhile, billions are invested in new programs, interventions, professional training, and whole-school models that don't fundamentally change how we think about who teachers are or what they do. That dynamic needs to be flipped.
A third place to start would be to support and promote schools of choice that emphasize innovation. While private and charter schools enjoy a degree of autonomy that equips them to lead on rethinking talent and technology, most have adopted job descriptions, divisions of labor, and work routines that mimic those of their traditional public-school peers, leaving their potential untapped. Meanwhile, to date, philanthropic support has favored charters that may be performing just a bit better than, but are not organized very differently from, the district school down the street. Philanthropists would do well to ramp up support for schools that are focused on re-engineering the schoolhouse instead.
Fourth, reformers need to stop asking local school systems to re-invent the wheel. One of the odder sights of the pandemic was watching so many of the nation's 14,000 public-school districts each try to stitch together a homegrown remote-learning system. This proved exhausting for district staff, overwhelming for many teachers, and a boon for consultants and online purveyors of education technology. It never made much sense for local public monopolies — which boast few technology savants and may be struggling to execute their core functions as it is — to independently attempt to offer a virtual service untethered to place. Instead, state governments should develop agreements with a variety of specialized providers to create virtual options that families can access or with which school systems can partner.
Fifth, we need to start gauging education technology based on whether it makes it easier for teachers to teach well. There are plenty of education technologies and plenty of vendors busy pitching their wares. It's easy for all of this to seem beneficial to observers and administrators who are safely removed from a teacher's day-to-day activities, especially when the pitch is accompanied by PowerPoints and brightly colored charts demonstrating the technology's effectiveness. In practice, though, much of this impressive technology winds up complicating the lives of educators by creating new headaches, distractions, and data-entering requirements. Given the human interactions at the heart of learning and the plethora of demands on teachers' time, the best measure of most K-12 technology may be whether it makes it easier for teachers to do their job well. In keeping with this sentiment, the guiding question for adopting any new technology should be: Will it help teachers spend more time coaching, mentoring, and supporting students, and less time on repetitive tasks or presenting content in suboptimal ways?
Sixth, lawmakers, philanthropists, and educators should embrace learning science. Better use of education technology starts with a better understanding of teaching and learning. This requires more philanthropic and public investment in studying the particulars of learning science — how best to combine audio and visual learning, for example, or how many iterations of a given exercise are useful — and how to most effectively translate them into practice. One organization, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), spends a little over $300 million a year on education research, or about 1% of what the National Institutes of Health spends each year. Shifting just 1% of what Washington invests in primary and secondary schooling each year to IES would permit policymakers to triple IES's annual spending. It's also essential for funding language to make clear that funds are to be expressly directed to gold-standard learning science, not the mediocre ideological research that's all too common in the field.
Seventh, schools must insist on redesigned teacher roles as part of any deal to raise teachers' wages. In recent years, teacher strikes have helped spark widespread efforts to boost teacher pay. Meanwhile, much of the massive infusion of federal Covid-19 aid is being used to underwrite new hiring, teacher bonuses, or pay boosts. It would be better to use this influx of funds as an opportunity to kick-start the process of re-imagining the profession. New job descriptions, responsibilities, and professional opportunities will require alterations to traditional pay scales — with big increases for some educators and the creation of some new, lower-paying support roles that can be filled by those with an associate's degree or a year of specialized training. Such transitions will entail costs, of course, and can be disruptive, which makes them impractical in the normal course of events. But pandemic-related aid represents a chance to minimize the pain and maximize the allure of redesign.
Finally, we need to build ecosystems to tackle the chicken-and-egg dilemma of new roles. Schools can't start redefining roles until people are trained for them, but it makes no sense to train people for positions that don't yet exist. The best way to escape this impasse lies in building partnerships between training programs and a select few school systems. This kind of collaboration will require state policymakers to create autonomy zones; grant waivers from teacher-licensure requirements, state-level job descriptions, and salary schedules; and develop memoranda of understanding with local unions to revisit those same topics at a local level. Such efforts will be easier if pursued in concert with charter-school networks or a collective of private schools, all of which start with substantially more flexibility than public schools. Any venture of this sort will also require philanthropic or state support to underwrite the development costs and help convince teachers and other staff to take the plunge.
The pandemic has upended American life in ways we never could have imagined just two years ago. It led over a million families to flee public schools, transformed relationships between parents and educators, and illuminated just how ossified American schooling really is. But it also pointed the way forward. Re-invention must start not with what weary school administrators are used to doing, but with parents and schools working together to build upon the truths the pandemic laid bare — that parents want more transparency, that families need more flexible and more diverse schooling arrangements, and that students need more wonder and less warehousing in their schools.
The great disruption wrought by Covid-19 has created a profound need for something new. It has also created a remarkable chance to start building it. Here's hoping we seize the opportunity.