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.
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