The pandemic shines an intense light on inequities that have long existed in our education system: long lines for food pick-up by school families, lack of devices and Wi-Fi for remote learning, and unfair funding formulas that allocate less to schools with the most students of color and those from low-income families.
These inequalities undergird the protests demanding racial justice that are convulsing our country. How we choose to respond will impact the rising generation, and the fabric of our whole society, for years to come.
Policymakers and education leaders need a shared set of principles for developing and evaluating responses to the COVID-19 crisis that advance positive change for students and reckon with systemic racism in public schools. As the director of the Education & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, I developed a framework of five principles and related actions for leading public education from recovery to renewal last month.
With the nation's focus now on achieving racial justice, these principles are even more urgent:
1. Equity & Agency: Policymakers must be cleareyed that schools reflect the inequities that plague society at-large. Every powerful driver of learning-safe and nurturing learning environments; rigorous and relevant academic content; teachers who see and value students' cultures and communities; voice and choice in important decisions-is provided to white and affluent students more than students of color and students from low-income families. Leadership in this moment must correct inequitable funding and cede decisionmaking power to those most directly affected.
Take Action: (1) Governors and legislators must prioritize funding for schools educating students of color and students from low-income families. (2) For states to receive additional federal funds, which they will need to avoid layoffs, they should be required to address inequity in education funding. (3) State leaders should seek out the most vulnerable students and families to understand what they most need to feel safe, supported, and engaged-and respond with action.
2. Coherence: Education leaders will be juggling many issues just to start the new school year, in the context of immense strain on state budgets and rising needs among vulnerable children and families. Policymakers need a holistic frame for addressing the needs of students and families so each decision is related to the whole. If every issue is treated serially, by the assumed level of urgency, decisions made by different agencies and state vs. local leaders won't be aligned, and school leaders will be left to sort out the confusion.
Take Action: (1) Governors should prioritize cross-agency coordination to address the needs of children and families, avoid duplication of efforts, and keep turf battles from slowing down delivery. (2) Within education, coherence calls for integrating social-emotional dimensions of learning into academic instruction so these reinforce each other in students' experience of school. Schooling next year in particular needs to become a place of healing and processing what's happened, or students will experience the disconnect and hypocrisy viscerally.
3. Science of Learning and Development: Breakthroughs in neuroscience, epigenetics, and research have created a new understanding about how people learn. We know student safety, belonging, and connectedness to school are foundational to resilience and engagement that then enable academic success and thriving in life. Focusing too narrowly on making up for lost instructional time will compound inequity and depress long-term achievement if done without adequately resourcing psychological safety, relationships, and a sense of belonging.
Take Action: (1) Prioritize school climate and relationships. Assigning every adult to mentor a manageable number of students and instituting advisories are two aspects of relationship-rich schools that will be especially valuable. (2) State agencies can commission appropriate online, interactive courses to provide teacher professional development and offer micro-credentials. (3) Modest investments in community service for near-peer mentors and tutors, both high school juniors and seniors and recent graduates, could imbue learning with greater purpose, while at the same time providing needed mentorship and tutoring for younger students.
4. Long-Term Success: Even before the crisis, profound questions were on the table about the role of education in society and the education outcomes that are essential for students to be ready to thrive as adults. Changes will be accelerated and intensified by the pandemic, the economic upheaval it is provoking, and the widespread political awakening on systemic racism in our society.
Take Action: (1) Policymakers must identify competencies that are needed to navigate the future of work; to build a new, anti-racist pluralism; and to support a healthy democracy. (2) Education agencies and state school boards should pilot assessments of critical skills for the modern workplace like working on teams, communicating in diverse settings, and evaluating the credibility and relevance of information from multiple sources.
5. Innovation: Many new online instruction and student-engagement practices are being rapidly designed and implemented. For instance, teachers as well as students have developed facility with digital-learning platforms. The challenge is to understand the reality of what's being tried (rather than what was planned) and to learn what worked to improve practice long term.
Take Action: (1) States should track emergency- response measures, both official decisions and emerging practice. (2) State education agencies can help organize working groups to collect data, learn quickly, and adapt policy and practice decisions. Empanel students and parents as part of these efforts, compensate them for their time, and start by asking what they experienced and what's most important to them going forward. (3) Publish and share what is learned.
The challenge—and opportunity—of returning to school calls on all of us to clarify the principles and enduring values we want to live by and to use these to build common ground where we can. Just as some work routines and home-life dynamics will be indelibly altered even when the crisis recedes, the social contract that public schools represent is overdue for renewal. We must re-envision public education to meet this emergency while also setting a course that improves on the status quo, or policies that had outlived their usefulness will be extended in a rush to "return to normal" as quickly as possible.
Ross Wiener is the executive director of the Aspen Institute's Education & Society Program and a former trial lawyer in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Starting next month, Aspen Education is sponsoring public dialogues on these principles.