F. Chris Curran
Originally published in the Gainesville Sun
The global pandemic ended the school year early for schools in Florida and much of the nation. Already, many are asking what schools will look like should they re-open in fall for the start of the next school year. It is, of course, too early to tell. But, many have suggested that classes could be limited to less than twelve students, that students may only be able to attend part-time, that physical attendance might be optional, that students might wear face masks all day and be restricted from close interaction with peers, and that hand washing and other disinfecting will be ubiquitous.
As an educational researcher, former public school teacher, and parent of an incoming kindergartner, these are jarring images. Lost instructional time, socially distanced learning environments, and students in fear for their well-being are not exactly the picturesque schooling experience that we envision for our students.
But, in the midst of all of this uncertainty, there is an opportunity for some good. You see, the reality is that our picturesque image of school has, prior to the pandemic, not been a reality for too many students nationwide. Too many students have lost instructional time to low quality teaching. Too many students wake up scared to go to school due to chaotic or violent school environments. And, too many school systems have already socially distanced students of color and low-income students from their more affluent and white peers through tracking and segregated schooling.
In other words, our education system has been one that perpetuates advantage for some and disadvantage for others. Collectively, it places our country not much better than average on international comparisons of education performance.
The reality of this situation is driven home by a current federal court case brought by a group of Detroit students who are seeking legal remedy for being denied a basic education due to “poor conditions within their classrooms, including missing or unqualified teachers, physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials”.
The good news is that this inequitable and underperforming system does not have to be the case. If policy and practice engage with these issues proactively, the disruption caused by the pandemic could be an opportunity for systematic change in the education system.
Organizations, governments, and societies generally exhibit “path dependency” in which change is shaped largely by the prior state of affairs and often occurs only incrementally and at the margins. Our society and the schools within it are grounded in a racially and socio-economically discriminatory past and, unsurprisingly, continue to propagate this system into the future. It is the unique and often rare occurrence of large-scale disruptions that offer windows of opportunity for more systematic change.
If schools attempt to hold to their prior
structures through the pandemic, inequalities are only likely to be
exacerbated. Schools and families with
more resources will be better equipped to weather the pandemic, and the
inequalities will likely widen.
Imagine instead, though, if we leveraged this opportunity to restructure our system of schooling. New federal or state funding streams could be established that channel resources in a more equitable way or incentivize local systems to reduce disparities in educational outcomes. In a blended or virtual learning environment, a low-income and high-income student from opposites sides of town (or the state) could learn in the same classroom, the obstacle of residential segregation reduced. With sufficient leadership, the best science teachers in the state could develop lesson plans to serve students state-wide. With further development of educational apps, students could experience differentiated and adaptive lessons that cater to their specific needs. With a better resourced early educational system, we could reach our youngest learners when the opportunity for large and lasting impacts is ripe. With supports for mental health and social services, the contextual disadvantage experienced by many students could be reduced.
Just this past month, a federal appeals court ruling on the case of the Detroit students found that they have a federal right to a basic minimum education adequate to participate in our political system. While this ruling will likely be challenged in a higher court and may not be upheld, it is a stark reversal of prior court decisions that have generally found no federal right to an education. At the least, this decision recognizes that the system we have has failed far too many students.
The disruption of the pandemic then offers an opportunity to rethink what public schooling could look like. Rather than thinking about how to get schools back to “normal”, let us leverage this situation as an opportunity to think and act in ways that get our schools away from the inequitable normal of the past and on a path to expanded opportunity for students in the future.