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The pandemic has made racial and economic inequities in public education, already stark for those of us working in California’s schools, even worse. That is why we must be bold: We must close the learning opportunity gap deeply entrenched in our school system.

The inequities became painfully obvious within a week of the shelter-in-place order. Some students started receiving an education via robust distance-learning experiences, including social-emotional support, meaningful new academic content, plus art, music and physical education. Other families, however, considered themselves lucky if they received a few worksheets for their children to practice already-mastered skills. Now it’s summer break, and learning losses continue to mount.

We must use the crisis of the pandemic to reimagine our schools. Here’s where we begin:

Recognize every student’s potential. Too often our schools expect less of students of color living in poverty, instead of activating all of which they are capable. Even if students do what is asked and get straight A’s, too many are assigned to remedial courses in college. All students deserve grade-appropriate assignments rather than simplified coursework. We must support teachers to raise expectations, deliver strong instruction to help students think deeply about meaningful content, and engage and inspire students. We’re seeing students organize peaceful rallies against police brutality and calling for the right to vote in local elections — they are clearly ready for greater challenge in the classroom. If you are a parent — regardless of your race or the race of your child — ask your child’s teacher or principal: “What is the school doing to ensure all students, especially Black and Latino students, are getting access to rigorous academic experiences?”

Think bigger than getting “back to normal.” Principals, teachers and families had to get creative when schools suddenly closed as the pandemic swept in. Necessity sidelined caution, inertia and bureaucracy that normally impede innovation. Redesigning school policies, practices and systems for kindergarten through high school to promote equality requires the same urgency.

For starters, let’s make A-G courses, which are required for admission to the University of California and the California State University systems, required of all high school students. Let’s create more dual-language programs for our multilingual students (not just Spanish but also Chinese and Arabic). Let’s get rid of last-in-first-out teacher layoff policies, which exacerbate staff turnover at high-poverty schools. Let’s allow for much wider ranges of class sizes to accommodate student need, grade, subject and learning style. Let’s ensure the state Local Control Funding Formula additional-support dollars are going to the high-need students (English learners, low-income and foster care students) for whom the finance system was designed. Let’s ask students and families: “What about this class (or school or district department) does not work for you?” and try out one of their ideas.

Create a collaborative community culture of learning. No classroom, school, civic organization or public agency should be an island. Our school districts have the scale, reach and ability to tap the support of other governmental agencies that can help support our students during these challenging times and beyond. Our charter schools can quickly change their curriculum and teaching methods and share their learnings widely with other educators. Libraries and community centers have a treasure trove of materials, ideas and talent that we should lean into. Our community service providers and faith centers have close relationships with families, giving these organizations the ability to share important resources with parents and students. If you lead, work for or volunteer in any civic organization or business, offer your assets, expertise and resources so all kids can continue to learn through the summer and beyond.

Close the digital divide. We have the wealth to get digital devices into every home and public access to the internet in every neighborhood. In Oakland, for example, the city, school district, foundations and businesses together raised $13 million, meeting the digital divide campaign goal in two weeks with the help of a $10 million donation from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Nearly 3,000 laptops and hotpots have been distributed to 11th-and 12th-grade students and summer school students. Now we need a well-coordinated, multi agency effort to buy and distribute devices and internet access, and provide the technical assistance families and teachers need to use them effectively.

You can help: If you have gently used computers or tablets lying around the house, donate them to the TechExchange; if you have time, volunteer to help configure and distribute devices.

We know public education must never go back to pre-pandemic normal because it was not working for so many of our children. We have the tools, talent and resources to rebuild the education system with our most vulnerable students at the center. Hopefully, we have the will to use them.

•••

Gloria Lee is founder and CEO of Educate78, a 501(c3) nonprofit organization that works to improve public education across the 78 square miles of Oakland.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. We welcome guest commentaries that reflect the diversity, challenges and successes of education in California. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Dr. Bill Conrad 5 months ago5 months ago

    Before we reimagine our schools, can we spend a few moments revisiting the real mission of schools? Students and parents expect their schools to treat them with respect, like them, and give them voice. They want their teachers to know their content well and to be able to teach it well. It is as simple as that. Is that what students and families are getting though? Sadly? No. Figure skaters in competition must engage in required compulsory … Read More

    Before we reimagine our schools, can we spend a few moments revisiting the real mission of schools?

    Students and parents expect their schools to treat them with respect, like them, and give them voice. They want their teachers to know their content well and to be able to teach it well. It is as simple as that.

    Is that what students and families are getting though? Sadly? No.

    Figure skaters in competition must engage in required compulsory exercises where they demonstrate essential skating skills before they are allowed to improvise in the free style competition. In K-12 education, we are unable to adequately prepare our students to compete in the compulsories and amateurishly engage students in free style exercises.

    The student academic results demonstrate the folly of our ways especially for our children of color and our economically disadvantaged students.

    Our profession is still not up to speed in preparing our children academically. We are afflicted with a multiplicity of pathologies that must be addressed so that we can achieve our educational mission. Some of these pathologies include:

    • A group of educators who masquerades as a profession when in reality, they represent a chaotic non-systematic collection of ill-prepared amateurs who are woefully deficient in content knowledge and aligned professional practices.
    • Pretend data-driven acolytes who use special case and cherry-picked data as a substitute for systemic data that indicts a failed system.
    • Faux assessment warriors who rage against the thermometers rather than use atrocious student academic outcome results as a catalyst to transform the professional practices of a poorly performing system.
    • Administrator schmoozers who lead a lost in the fog system that values loyalty over competency and redirects human and material resources to themselves, their family, and their friends,
    • Alchemists committed to scientifically unproven educational programs that do not get results for kids but are effective in lining their pockets and assuaging star-struck and adulation craving local school boards.
    • Unaccountable and amateur implementers of educational programs who then drop programs due to poor implementation rather than the quality of the program,
    • Protectors of entitlement who focus on providing the best for the white kids in the system even making sure they slow down English acquisition for the second-language students so the white kids can learn some Spanish.
    • Faddists who glom on to the latest technology fads in order to bolster their image rather than really support student learning.
    • Devotees of education babble that enhances the fog of education in which they can operate more effectively to advance their personal interests and redirect resources to themselves, their family, and friends.
    • Adulation seeking local school board members who use the system to garner love and as a steppingstone to their next governmental gig.
    • Wishful thinkers who eschew scientific thinking for the magical thinking that permeates a make-believe educational system.
    • Racists who will deploy a veneer of faux equity over a system that is fundamentally racist to the core.

    Let’s work on transforming the K-12 education system from top to bottom rather than engage in the wishful thinking of “reimagining” education. Let’s see if we can achieve the mission that has been set out for us by our children and their families.

  2. Heidi S 5 months ago5 months ago

    Thank you for writing this. I often equate public education (pre-pandemic) to US Steel in the 1970s. Other countries were making steel better and more efficient but the US refused to budge and they lost their market share quickly. The US Public Education continues to operate on an agrarian schedule, with outdated policies, course offerings, and no PD for teachers when it comes to use of curriculum in the classroom. Your … Read More

    Thank you for writing this. I often equate public education (pre-pandemic) to US Steel in the 1970s. Other countries were making steel better and more efficient but the US refused to budge and they lost their market share quickly. The US Public Education continues to operate on an agrarian schedule, with outdated policies, course offerings, and no PD for teachers when it comes to use of curriculum in the classroom.

    Your article just touches the surface on the issues the public education faces in the U.S. pre and post pandemic. I wish that districts would have halted school at the end of April and then required teachers to work in PLCs to improve their craft so they could hit the ground running in Aug/Sep in a virtual or physically distanced classroom. Let’s hope this time in our history forces positive change for our K12 public schools.

  3. Michelle Tjosvold 5 months ago5 months ago

    Thank you for your insight and focus, Gloria Lee. Yes, more equipment is needed for the equity of all students involved in Distance Learning, more teacher training for engaging lesson creation and adoption, and teacher relief deserve consideration. Pressures toward returning parents to the workforce are pushing school districts toward reopening, despite the dangers. This pandemic requires the utmost consideration of its threat. Any "re-opening" must occur with every possible safety precaution in … Read More

    Thank you for your insight and focus, Gloria Lee.

    Yes, more equipment is needed for the equity of all students involved in Distance Learning, more teacher training for engaging lesson creation and adoption, and teacher relief deserve consideration. Pressures toward returning parents to the workforce are pushing school districts toward reopening, despite the dangers.

    This pandemic requires the utmost consideration of its threat. Any “re-opening” must occur with every possible safety precaution in place without a wait and see, crossed-fingers approach to do something if numbers of infection increase. Students, teachers, staff, and property management personnel must not be exposed, period. And DL might not be the only solution.

    Personally, I am collecting sites that have shown innovations for safe small-number interpersonal interactions. I am also sketching possible learning center scenarios with modifications to these applications, using my special education lens within a multi-age ‘one-room schoolhouse’ model.

    And others out there must be at the drawing board, as well! If a venue exists for open, informal collaboration and exchange of ideas toward retooling public education, please direct us. Virtual congregation is available to continue this dialogue and afford our opportunity to brain-storm together. I believe we all have a stake in moving forward safely. We must make it so.

  4. Bo Loney 5 months ago5 months ago

    I would like to see Maria Montessori's methods implemented. Instead of talking about employing more people to pull students out of classrooms during instructional hours, how about more aides in the all classrooms? Not just for special ed children, but for the benefit of every child. How about speech and other therapies being held after 3? After instructional hours so the child benefits from the instruction all of the other children are having. A child … Read More

    I would like to see Maria Montessori’s methods implemented. Instead of talking about employing more people to pull students out of classrooms during instructional hours, how about more aides in the all classrooms? Not just for special ed children, but for the benefit of every child. How about speech and other therapies being held after 3? After instructional hours so the child benefits from the instruction all of the other children are having. A child that has a speech or occupational difference does not necessarily have an intelligence difference. To pull them out of class during instructional hours puts them at a disadvantage for their entire school career.

    I believe in mixed aged classrooms and the ability for students to work at their own pace. There would have a whole lot less kids tapping their pencils and rolling on the floor if they were left to fly. I’m trying to be understanding the authors’ comment of “especially black and brown students” when all students sit, or presumably have been sitting, in the same public education classrooms. I feel like all students have been in the same boat here.