Weeks of racial justice protests and the coronavirus pandemic have together drawn much-needed attention to the race-based disparities embedded in our institutions, from policing to health care. These disparities are also deeply rooted in our communities and schools.
During these prolonged school disruptions, Black, Latinx and low-income students have been disproportionately affected. As we learned in real-time, these students were less likely to have the devices and internet connectivity necessary to engage in effective distance learning. Their families were, and are, more likely to experience loss of employment income and more vulnerable to housing and food insecurity.
To compound the disruption, students have lost many of the academic, social and emotional supports they normally get from school. As a result, most educators and experts anticipate that already-wide achievement gaps affecting Black and Latinx students will widen during this time.
As school resumes, state leaders must prioritize measuring race-based disparities and respond with appropriate resources and interventions. But importantly, they should not act as though these are new problems to be fixed.
Just as the killing of George Floyd left government officials with no option but to finally confront systematic problems with the way policing has been funded and carried out for generations, so too must we look at and address the root causes of our achievement gaps.
Education equity advocates and researchers are generally agreed on what those root causes are. Black and brown students experience differences in resources and opportunities, including access to high-quality preschool, well-funded schools, advanced coursework and college-going supports. They can also experience lower expectations from educators in school and are more often punished for the same behaviors that are ignored in white students. These differences in opportunity lead to differences in student success.
These inequities were carefully documented in a 2019 consensus report by the National Research Council (NRC) called Monitoring Educational Equity. That report recommended our state and country create a national system for measuring educational disparities so that our systems are held accountable not only for improving performance, but also for ensuring equitable opportunities for all students to achieve and thrive.
Particularly salient right now: The report recommends that education leaders measure disparities in school climate, including student perceptions of safety, academic support and teacher-student trust.
They also suggest leaders measure disparities in the emotional, behavioral, mental and physical health supports provided to different groups of students and distribute resources according to need. As state leaders craft policies and design practices to respond to and rebuild from this three-pronged health, education and economic crisis, these are the sorts of data that should guide them.
While some state leaders, like California Governor Gavin Newsom, have had the courage to make equity a priority when it comes to coronavirus relief funding, continued and additional state leadership is needed when it comes to measuring and addressing student learning and whole-child needs.
While educators can and should use data to drive their instruction, this cannot be left entirely to local control, given the importance of identifying systemwide needs and disparities.
Our state leaders need to be clear about what learning they expect to happen during this next school year, especially when we know that many students — particularly students of color — are falling further behind. They should establish clear expectations for instructional time.
They should require districts to find ways of measuring engagement and participation. They should help districts diagnose and address students’ academic needs by creating and providing quality assessments and assistance to help address gaps revealed by the data.
They should require districts, in continuity of learning plans, to explain how they will ensure that students continue to receive high-quality learning, enrichment, and non-academic supports and how schools and districts will measure their progress against clear goals.
In addition, our state leaders must help counties and districts identify and address students’ social and emotional needs, implementing services informed by the science of how children learn and develop.
The state doesn’t need to rush back into standards-aligned testing and accountability just yet. Schooling and student needs have changed, and we should be responsive to that. As this crisis has highlighted, our students’ needs are much more complex than test results will ever reveal. But while traditional accountability systems are on hold, we should use this moment as a time to ramp up new efforts to measure, report and address educational disparities.
Christopher Edley, Jr. is Co-Founder of The Opportunity Institute and Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law, and he served as chair of the committee that wrote the National Research Council “Monitoring Educational Equity” report. Maria Echaveste is the President and CEO of the Opportunity Institute. She has served as a senior White House official in the Clinton administration and has been a consultant, lecturer, long-time community leader, and corporate attorney.
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