Books as a Window and a Mirror

On November 30, the New York Times published yet another article about the realities of teaching during the pandemic, claiming “This is not sustainable” and warning that “burnout could erode instructional quality, stymie working parents and hinder the reopening of the economy” [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/30/us/teachers-remote-learning-burnout.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20201201&instance_id=24598&nl=the-morning&regi_id=71948775&segment_id=45745&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2]. Sadly, this is no longer news, nor do there seem to be good answers. As an educator, I feel stymied. I can’t fix this for anyone…

What I can do, though, is find another way to make a difference. This year, thanks to Young, Black, & Lit [youngblackandlit.org], I can do something useful. I was already contributing to this “nonprofit organization committed to increasing access to children’s books that center, reflect, and affirm Black children,” so I received their email about running book drives for schools with minority populations.

I believe in their mission. Children need to see themselves represented in the books they read. In his blog, Athol Williams points out that when children see themselves represented in a positive context, it encourages positive perceptions about their place in the world and tells them “what’s important, and what matters. Seeing themselves in that world establishes them as people who matter and establishes their sense of place in society.” It may also inspire them to read more, which is key to literacy. [https://www.nalibali.org/it-is-important-for-children-to-see-themselves-in-books] If books are both a mirror and a window to the world, readers need to feel included in that world.

In 2012, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviewed 3,600 children’s books, finding only three percent featuring African-Americans,  two percent Asian and Pacific Americans, less than two percent Latinos, and less than one percent  American Indians [https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/08/characters-in-childrens-books-are-almost-always-white-and-its-a-big-problem/]. From The Atlantic: “Half of all five-year-olds in the country belong to a racial or ethnic minority, yet white kids continue to hold center stage in most children’s books and young-adult fiction. As a result, large numbers of kids don’t see themselves reflected in the books they read, and non-white, or non-heterosexual, or even non-male children end up learning that they are marginal, or secondary, in their society.”[https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/05/childrens-literature-needs-more-diversityeven-if-that-means-more-mediocrity/371639/]

The validation children get from seeing themselves on the page is only one reason to make books with varied characters available. Marianne Grasso offers four values to a multicultural library in schools:

  • Promotes empathy and unity
  • Promotes cross-cultural friendship
  • Helps students look critically at the world
  • Encourages identity formation

All students benefit from this exposure, which “helps to build a school community that is supportive, empathetic and accepting of others” [https://www.scisdata.com/connections/issue-96/the-importance-of-multicultural-literature/].

B. J .Epstein writes, “As someone who researches children’s literature, I think we’d have fewer conflicts in the world if we all read more diverse literature and lived more diverse lives” [https://www.newsweek.com/childrens-books-diversity-ethnicity-world-view-553654]. Our world is becoming more diverse, and the books children read need to reflect that diversity. Seeing diverse people get along can teach us all about getting along.

So I may not have a magic wand for the tribulations of remote learning and subsequent burnout for teachers, as well as students and parents/guardians… but I can organize a book drive. I identified a nearby school with a 92% BIPOC population, reached out to their administration, and bought the first several books myself. Now I’m posting on Facebook and working PR channels to find other supporters for this very good cause.

Will it fix education, even at a very local level? Of course not. Might it make a difference? I hope so. Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Words to live by.

Mind the Gap

Image courtesy of Stanford Social Innovation Review

Today I received an email from a good friend who is not an educator asking about the latest Deep Dive in Axios, “1 big thing: The failed promise of education.” This piece posits that the American dream is founded on falsehood, that the promise of education as the ticket to that dream simply doesn’t work. It goes on to explain that, “Family income is perhaps the strongest determinant of student success, and low income becomes an even higher barrier when it intersects with race” [https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-am-hard-truths].

Axios offers compelling support for this claim:

  • “Even when Black students from poor families start kindergarten with above-median test scores, 63% test below the median by the time they’re in the eighth grade, a recent Georgetown University study found.
  • Among kindergartners in the same high-achieving, but lower-income category, nearly 2 in 5 Latino students, nearly 2 in 5 white students and 1 in 5 Asian students also saw lower scores over time.
  • High-achieving students of color are too often overlooked by teachers and administrators: The odds of Black and Latino children being referred to gifted programs are 66% and 47% lower than white students, respectively, per the Fordham Institute.”

Further proof:

  • Black students represent a disproportionate number of students punished and expelled.
  • While affluent school districts offer significantly more resources, impoverished districts have a higher percentage of poor students and students of color who need more resources. And that funding gap continues to grow.
  • Implicit bias among educators hampers the growth of students of color.

“The idea that this is about who’s smart and who’s not is just not true,” says Anthony Carnevale, founder and director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “In the end, the system pretty much places you where you were as a child. Education is the problem. It is not the solution.”

All the research I’ve read says that socioeconomic status is the number one predictor of school success. Other factors like race and implicit bias only increase the gap. Some schools are tackling it head on. The high school in Illinois where I spent most of my career has long had a support program for these students to help them catch up, but I don’t know how successful it is. And if you look at how we fund schools, that further exacerbates this problem: districts with more resources [because their homeowners pay more property taxes to generate those resources] increase that gap, and they are more likely to have fewer BIPOC [Black Indigenous People of Color] students. 

In the early 70s, when I was President of my chapter of the League of Women Voters in Connecticut, we looked at school funding and saw the inequities of funding and of educational outcomes. At that time the national LWV pushed for significant school funding reform. I remember my resistance, based on fear that we would reduce everyone to a lowest common denominator when I was willing to pay more in property taxes to ensure that my children could receive a good education in a public-school system. That concern, understandable though it may be, is part of the problem.

And those long-standing gaps have been exacerbated by the pandemic. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “The pandemic has exacerbated well-documented opportunity gaps that put low-income students at a disadvantage relative to their better-off peers. Opportunity gaps are gaps in access to the conditions and resources that enhance learning and development, and include access to food and nutrition, housing, health insurance and care, and financial relief measures” [https://www.epi.org/publication/the-consequences-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-for-education-performance-and-equity-in-the-united-states-what-can-we-learn-from-pre-pandemic-research-to-inform-relief-recovery-and-rebuilding/]. “Thirty percent of all K-12 public school students, about 15 million to 16 million children, live in homes that don’t have an internet connection or an adequate device for distant learning at home, a study by Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group found. That lack of access, coupled with inadequate help at home and a quiet place to learn, means lower-income, Black and Hispanic children may struggle, a June report from McKinsey & Company found” [https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/12/impact-of-covid-19-on-schools-will-worsen-racial-inequity-experts-say.html]. Clearly, we need to commit resources to reduce these dangerous inequities.

There are programs that make a difference in normal times.  “The Posse” program [https://www.possefoundation.org/] identifies talented BIPOC students and provides scholarships and helps them get into the same college, where they remain connected with each other and a mentor. One of my most revered education professors/mentors is very involved in this. But we need that kind of support from the beginning. Recent studies of the long-term effect of Project Head Start, which provides support to these children and their families starting very early in life, suggests that that kind of intervention matters, which makes sense given that we know that the first five years or so of life are critical for brain development and learning.

We could do a lot more to close the gap if we cared to…

Obstacles into Opportunities

Articles about education, its current challenges, and its possible if uncertain future abound. In educational webinars I see committed if often exhausted educators problem-solving, keeping the focus on what’s best for their students in these unusual times. Too often our education system seems hopeless.  


We don’t even know if schools will reopen later this summer or this fall. But despite President Trump’s prediction that “I think you’ll see a lot of schools open up,” all but a few states have suspended in-person classes for the rest of the academic year, and some are preparing for the possibility of shutdowns or part-time schedules in the fall. Illinois officials have gone even further, warning that remote learning could continue indefinitely. “This may be the new normal even in the fall,” said Janice Jackson, the chief executive of Chicago Public Schools.[1] Yesterday “California State University, the nation’s largest four-year public university system, said on Tuesday that classes at its 23 campuses would be canceled for the fall semester, with instruction taking place almost exclusively online.”[2]

Glaring inequity in access has never been more apparent. “The digital divide is real. Only two-thirds of rural homes have broadband; low-income families typically lack access to Internet-enabled devices beyond smartphones.”[3]

Parents are burning out as they try to help their students with at-home learning, and there is “widespread concern that even with remote learning in place, many students will return to school behind where they would have been if they’d been in the classroom.”[4]

Concerns for special education students have become particularly acute. “It is not only because their students’ challenges often make it more difficult for them to learn remotely, but also because districts are required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide specific services and meet particular goals within a certain time frame to any child deemed to be eligible for special education services. That can include not just academics, but related services such as occupational, physical and speech therapy.”[5]

Nor can we hope to resume a functioning economy until schools reopen. “Now, with schools and child care centers closed, it’s obvious how much child care is a societal, not just an individual, need. Essential workers can’t show up without child care, and remote working parents struggle to work anything close to full time.”[6]

Although these obstacles may seem insurmountable, we have the power to use them as steppingstones to reshape education. It is up to us to turn these obstacles into opportunities. Educational reform, long overdue, can no longer wait. We need to demand change:

  • Learners need universal internet access.
  • Effective schools must build stronger partnerships between parents and teachers.
  • More research into what online learning can do well, and where face-to-face instruction is superior is now essential.
  • Students need more ownership for their learning, and teachers need to coach and facilitate and create learning opportunities.
  • We must recognize that schools are an essential part of our functioning society, not only because they prepare students for the future, but because they empower parents to function now. All of us benefit when schools serve students well.

We cannot afford to feel hopeless. Our schools have not always met the needs of their students or of society. If our educational system has been further broken by Covid-19, we must seize the opportunity to change as we rebuild. As we seek to reopen, we must reinvent.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/us/coronavirus-schools-reopen.html?campaign_id=168&emc=edit_NN_p_20200429&instance_id=18058&nl=morning-briefing&regi_id=71948775&section=topNews&segment_id=26195&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/12/us/cal-state-online-classes.html

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/03/jeb-bush-its-time-embrace-distance-learning-not-just-because-coronavirus/?utm_campaign=wp_opinions&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_opinions

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/nyregion/coronavirus-homeschooling-parents.html?campaign_id=168&emc=edit_NN_p_20200428&instance_id=17997&nl=morning-briefing&regi_id=71948775&section=topNews&segment_id=26118&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/education/learning/coronavirus-teachers-special-needs-students.html?campaign_id=168&emc=edit_NN_p_20200428&instance_id=17997&nl=morning-briefing&regi_id=71948775&section=topNews&segment_id=26118&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/upshot/coronavirus-exposes-workplace-truths.html?campaign_id=43&emc=edit_li_20200428&instance_id=18040&nl=wait-…&regi_id=71948775&segment_id=26146&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2