What do we need to do today so schools open differently next fall?
An undeniable body of evidence indicates that despite the combined efforts of educators, parents and students, this year is likely to deepen inequities along lines of race and income. Schools and districts clearly must do everything they can to mitigate learning loss, but policymakers must also step back and ask: Where do we want to be at the start of school next fall?
We are seeing in real time what the worst case scenario looks like: Too many homes without access to essential technology, wealthier families scrambling toward educational options available to too few and too many students without needed wraparound services. By failing to take lessons from the spring — when high-poverty districts were 15 times less likely than low-poverty districts to even take attendance during distance learning — most districts still have no plans to monitor student engagement this year.
Indeed, the most basic question, “can my child attend school in-person if I choose?” is dividing along stark lines of race, with Black and Brown families far less likely to have the option of in-person learning. This year will leave far, far too many children behind.
Parents are understandably losing confidence in their public schools. Low-income parents are facing an impossible child care squeeze. In response, educators and community organizations are rushing to fill gaps with online resource hubs and community learning sites, offering an economic lifeline for families.
This is not sustainable or nearly sufficient. It is the responsibility of our education systems to better plan and prepare. As former system leaders at the district and state level, we understand this can be a difficult task in normal times; we also understand that Black and Brown students, under the dual weight of structural racism and economic marginalization, will bear the brunt of continued short sightedness.
First, schools will need more resources to meet the challenges ahead. At the same time, states and districts are facing a fiscal cliff. We need a federal stimulus that addresses state and local budgets and school system needs, or we risk cuts to school personnel and to programs at the very moment we will need more, not less.
Second, educators and parents need a clear picture of student progress. Evidence from this spring shows that a commitment to progress monitoring can mean the difference between students learning and languishing. Just as teachers need actionable data for their classrooms, school and district leaders need some form of assessments to understand the depth of inequities. Parents deserve to know what reality looks like at the end of this year, too. For policymakers, annual testing should continue in some form alongside diagnostic tools that give us a whole picture of how students are doing. This is not about accountability for teachers, schools or districts; it’s about understanding where students are — especially those already furthest from opportunity.
Third, families will need more options to serve varied student needs in 2021 and beyond. The pandemic has underscored that not every family needs or wants the same thing from their school. The disparate views on reopening confirm that one-size-fits-all does not work in public education and that large, inflexible district bureaucracies hinder educator innovation. Teachers and leaders in schools of all types have difference-making ideas and we cannot let bureaucracy get in their way. Educators must be free from top-down mandates so they can adapt in service to their learners and communities.
Finally, we can’t continue to fight across old, tired battle lines. Most parents have never cared about the label or governance of a school. Now more than ever, they want the best solutions, discovered by any kind of school. That means traditional schools, public charter schools and virtual schools should work in concert to leverage limited resources rather than operate in silos. It is up to system leaders to help schools and educators work together to effectively serve all students.
If we want to put all kids in the best possible position to succeed, we need public education systems that are more responsive and adaptable. That means families, especially those who have been historically marginalized, must be at the core of the decision-making process. It means that school leaders work together to offer different kinds of school options based on the very different needs of students, and that families have fair and equal access to those varying pathways.
Ultimately, it will mean more children — especially those most likely to be left behind by this pandemic — are able to thrive next year and beyond.
Gabrielle Wyatt and Kevin Huffman are partners at The City Fund. Wyatt was previously the executive director of Strategy for Newark Public Schools and Huffman is the former Tennessee commissioner of Education.
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