First Things First

I just read a New York Times article about the state of U. S. schools today, based on the question, “‘Are American children getting adequate schooling in the pandemic?‘” [NYTimes 1.22.21]. It warns that inconsistency and disruption have been the only constants, that lack of guidance from the federal government has left districts to fend for themselves, that “there has been no official accounting of how many American students are attending school in person or virtually” [Ibid.]. This guarantees that we cannot know how many students have had face-to-face learning or what the educational outcomes might be, but the author argues that “some of the early data is deeply troubling” [Ibid.]

Given the variety of situations, the study chose to provide snapshots of seven districts that, together, provide a cross-section of America. While the snapshots offer interesting contrast, they also suggest confirmation that disadvantaged students suffer disproportionately. “‘Lower-income kids, kids of color, kids with unique needs like those who have a disability or other challenges — the numbers look very, very bad,’ said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy organization based at the University of Washington Bothell” [Ibid.]. They also confirm that students are suffering not only academically but also in terms of their mental health.

An earlier article in The Washington Post supports these findings. In December “A flood of new data — on the national, state and district levels — finds students began this academic year behind. Most of the research concludes students of color and those in high-poverty communities fell further behind their peers, exacerbating long-standing gaps in American education” [Washington Post, 12.6.20]

As a teacher, I’ve always cared about my students’ academic progress. As an activist, I’m working to impact the educational inequities that plague our less advantaged children. Yet I think we’re missing the boat here. Certainly, we need to improve online learning and work for more equity in educational opportunities to limit further harm that the pandemic may inflict on our students. Even more urgent, however, must be our efforts to address the mental and emotional consequences of the pandemic and the strain our students are under. If we ignore the trauma many students – and many families – are enduring for the sake of academic progress, we will ensure that neither improves adequately. Too many of our students will not succeed without more emotional and psychological support.

Last December the Superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, called for an immediate Marshall plan for education, a national commitment to address the national emergency in education [Washington Post 12.12.20]. I agree that such a plan is overdue, but it cannot focus on achievement without addressing mental and emotional health first. Our students are struggling. We’re all struggling. Those who feel helpless and overwhelmed will not achieve academically until they feel more hope. Let’s get our priorities straight here and serve our learners by meeting these needs.

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…