The pandemic is an extraordinary opportunity to reform US education

As of August 6, the US had more than 4.8 million reported cases of Covid-19 and at least 160,000 deaths. But we know the devastation is far greater: Our testing and contact tracing remain insufficient, and the official numbers don’t capture the indirect death toll, which could be far greater.

If there is one bright spot, nearly every sector of society has seized on the opportunity for systemic reform. We have expanded telehealth and temporarily disabled restrictive policies around medications for the treatment of substance use. We halted cash bail in many jurisdictions, and enacted eviction moratoriums.

Every sector, that is, except for the educational system, which is not even offering temporary measures such as a gap year for students or a moratorium on standardized testing.

As a front-line health care provider and parent who innovated during this pandemic by helping to open temporary hospitals for people experiencing homelessness, and as an educator and parent in the public school system where massive cuts are planned, we find this lack of creative thinking incredibly frustrating.

As schools plan for reopening, it seems as though the door has nearly closed for changes to the educational system that would reduce the opportunity gap and promote individualized learning. But there is a small window of opportunity to take advantage of this pandemic and wedge in measures — including ending compulsory education laws, waiving standardized testing, and empowering teachers — that will allow for deeper changes in the near future. It’s essential to pursue them now before the window closes.

Why is structural change in the education system necessary?

Much of the US educational system is based on outdated institutional policies for standardized testing and student discipline. Even the textbooks that many public schools are forced to use are outdated (because of lack of funding). The landscape of students’ needs has changed over the past 50 years, but the educational system has not.

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For example, there are more English-language learners and children with individualized education plans than ever before. Families are facing profound economic hardships that are rivaled in this country only by stories of the Great Depression. In the Kansas City Public School district alone, nearly half of students will need to transfer to a different school this year due to eviction. Half! Students who experience eviction can miss weeks of classroom time.

Why does this matter? One reason is that students who miss large amounts of class time will, inevitably, “fall behind.” Another reason is that eviction can cause trauma, especially in children.

Nevertheless, children who have experienced eviction are still held to the same standards as their stably housed peers, still expected to perform at grade level, and still expected to sit for standardized tests (which, by the way, have also been shown to cause significant harm especially to low-income students, students of the global majority, English-language learners, and students with disabilities).

Some of these students (especially Black and brown students) are also likely to have negative encounters with school disciplinarians such as resource officers, be targeted for minor infractions such as dress code violations, and be the victims of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies developed during the Reagan administration. Our educational system largely does not account for the complex social, economic, and dynamic needs of students. And, in some cases, it can actually cause harm.

What if, instead, we embraced policies that were not predicated on the need for an uninterrupted linear trajectory from kindergarten to 12th grade?

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What if students were not penalized and harmed for missing school? What if we changed the system such that educational success meant more than “making it through” and taking a test?

Why haven’t schools embraced change in the pandemic?

We have no reason to believe that structural change — no matter how temporary or incremental — is impossible in the educational system. The fault in lack of change thus far lies, in part, with the federal government’s response.

If anything, there is a sense that many in the Trump administration and its allies across the country want public education to fail. For example, Kansas City Metropolitan charter and private schools received between $19.9 million and $55.9 million from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), program whereas Kansas City Public Schools received nothing.

Additionally, Missouri plans to cut $131 million from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The US Department of Education has stayed on the sidelines, allowing these inequities to persist.

Any discussion of schools from the federal government has focused solely on “reopening safely.” On July 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finally released resources and tools intended to help facilitate school openings this fall. Essentially, these guidelines include topics such as how to promote behaviors that prevent the spread of Covid-19, how to make physical modifications to schools, how to restructure school days, and how to keep the school environment healthy through cleaning and proper ventilation.

These recommendations came just days after President Trump pressured the CDC to reverse course and after he threatened to withhold federal funding for schools that did not fully reopen. Not surprisingly, the president then flip-flopped on his stance, admitting that some schools may need to delay full reopening.

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The US Department of Education, again, has been largely silent on the issue and has yet to release any guidance on the topic. Chronic underfunding, inconsistent messaging, and leadership vacuums have put individual schools and school districts in the precarious situation in which they must “go it alone.”

But the lack of progress cannot be blamed fully on the federal government; school district leaders have been largely absent on seizing on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake the system. Aside from groups of individual K-12 educators including “Liberate and Chill” and scholars like Bettina L. Love and the Abolitionist Teaching Network who have mobilized during the pandemic, there have been virtually no district-level attempts to move toward even incremental change, let alone systematic change.

More commonly, school districts have simply assembled expert panels, held town hall meetings, and sent out virtual surveys to parents to determine the best approach forward within the established paradigm. The plans that have emerged are predictable and limited to three models: all in-person learning, all virtual learning, or a mixed model of in-person and virtual for all students. We say these models were predictable because they are predicated on an outdated paradigm of learning that deserves to be reevaluated.

The current paradigm, reinforced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, has forced school districts into the impossible predicament of choosing health or equity rather than health and equity. We would even argue that “health” has largely been ignored and “safety” has been used as a stand-in. By entertaining only in-person or virtual learning, school districts are struggling to understand how they can provide a quality education in a safe and equitable way.

Teachers and activists join a car caravan hosted by the Chicago Teachers Union in Chicago on August 3, 2020, to demand adequate classroom safety measures as schools debate reopening.
Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

Let’s take health first. Schools must grapple with the obvious question of how they protect teachers, staff, and students from Covid-19 — also known as “safety.” This is where the CDC guidance is meant to be useful. Given the confines of the brick buildings, school officials are asking how they can best protect members of our community from Covid-19.

But even though Covid-19 is a clear and present threat to our safety, schools must take a holistic view of health when considering reopening plans. Nearly 32 million students in public schools rely on schools as a source of food. At least 22 percent receive mental health counseling through school programs, a number likely to grow as a result of isolation from the pandemic.

How do we continue to provide these life-sustaining (and lifesaving) services without reopening in person?

Now let’s take on the issue of equity. There is already a profound educational opportunity gap in this country, as Prudence Carter, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and others have helped us understand. What happens to that opportunity gap if private schools, which are filled with affluent white children, are able to reopen for in-person learning while urban public schools, which are populated by majority Black and brown children, are not?

What about kids with individualized educational plans and English-language learners? If schools remain virtual, what does this do to children who cannot learn virtually? What about parents who cannot attend to and monitor their children’s virtual learning? Will the opportunity gap not also widen?

These all-or-none approaches are, at best, lazy, and at worst, harmful. They are lazy because they admit that there is no “good way” forward so we simply need to pick the least bad option. They pit health and equity against each other. They are harmful for a number of reasons, and they do not account for the unique needs of individual children in a larger societal context.

But it raises the question: Why hasn’t the educational system seized on this opportunity to enact permanent or even temporary changes?

Time is almost up to make any changes

Ultimately, the question is not as simple as who should attend school in person versus virtually, but rather, how we can remake our educational system such that it serves the needs of individuals in our path to achieving equity. The potential to innovate for the future and reduce the opportunity gap are bold objectives. From an equity perspective, both require significant changes to policies and established structures.

Sadly, the time appears to be nearly up. Schools in half the country have reopened while the other half are firming up their reopening plans.

Unfortunately, these reopening plans only enhance safety by preventing the transmission of Covid-19, but do little else to promote health and virtually nothing to address the opportunity gap. We have done nothing to reimagine space but to move desks further apart and eat lunch in one’s classroom. We have done nothing to address the fact that education and learning mean more than achieving Common Core standards.

The incremental steps that can be taken now

To salvage this opportunity and leave the door open for structural change, we need to enact incremental or even temporary changes before it is too late.

1) End compulsory education laws

First, we propose to end compulsory education laws. In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to enact a compulsory education law, which required every city and town to offer primary school that focused on grammar and basic arithmetic. Rooted in racism and institutionalized as a way to control minority populations, compulsory education laws became the norm across the US.

Currently, with few exceptions, children across the US are required to attend public or state-accredited private schools from age 6 through 16. The most notable exceptions to the law include homeschooling and work release permits offered in many states that allow students to work outside of the school during normal school hours. In this unprecedented time, we need to consider an end to, or at the very least, a temporary moratorium on compulsory education laws. If done on a temporary basis, parents would be given the choice of whether to send their children to school for the 2020-2021 school year, thus creating a “gap year” alternative.

In the temporary model, any child who does not attend school this fall will be required to begin again in the fall of 2021, and they will start the grade they are currently slated to start.

How would this help?

First, this would result in decongested schools and buses that would allow for more physical distancing, thus making it safer from a Covid-19 standpoint for students who attend in person as well as teachers and other staff.

Second, it might relieve the anguish many parents across the wealth spectrum feel about the inadequacy of virtual education and our inability to monitor our child’s success. A gap year would unburden parents from having to monitor (and worry about) whether their children are paying attention, whether they have completed all their assignments, or whether they are engaged with their schoolwork. Parents may struggle with other activities to occupy their children, but likely will not experience the same stress of worrying that their child is “falling behind.”

Third, it would provide students of all ages with an opportunity to learn outside the traditional classroom. High school-age students may be able to work for the year, helping their families with income and gaining valuable work experience. Younger students may participate in learning pods with other families such that it unburdens individual families with child care responsibilities and children may be exposed to culturally diverse experiences in other households.

Finally, there is not a dearth of college-age students who are also taking a gap year or who are unable to find gainful employment and stand ready to provide enrichment activities and other social-emotional learning opportunities to boost their résumés.

Community members joined Milton teachers in a March against racism on Juneteenth 2020 in Milton, Massachusetts.
Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

2) Do not reinstate standardized tests

When school buildings closed in March and April, the door to structural change for public education seemed wide open. Educators were partnered with families and community organizations knowing that student success was not possible without these relationships. The cancellation of standardized tests was central to this progress. It allowed teachers to engage students in more meaningful learning experiences instead of weeks of test prep, and there was one less barrier to post-secondary education for many students who were no longer required to take a college admission exam.

Teachers across the country came together to form grassroots organizations to provide online learning experiences for educators who wanted to develop their understanding of anti-racist and liberatory pedagogy. This was only possible because teachers were no longer bound by standardized tests as a marker of success. As a result, students were able to engage in schoolwork that spoke to them.

This, coupled with the absence of routine harmful interactions with school resource officers and oppressive school policies faced by many Black and brown students, meant that some students were engaged like never before. School districts and teachers should seize on the fact that a number of colleges and universities are waiving ACT and SAT requirements for the upcoming year. There is no need to reinstate these problematic and inherently racist tests. A continued moratorium on standardized testing buys us time to reimagine what we consider to be valuable knowledge and skills.

3) Empower teachers

While individual teachers have little control over state- and district-wide policies, they can continue to strengthen relationships with parents and students and design curriculums that centers their voices and lived experiences. They can use anti-bias and anti-racist pedagogy not just during back-to-school professional development but for the long haul.

They can use resources (such as Liberate & Chill and the Abolitionist Teaching Network) to create teacher and student learning experiences that provide space to imagine new possibilities and the tools to remake the educational system. They can advocate to make schools a place for educators and not police officers.

They can push schools to reinvest resources at school level and implement restorative justice policies and practices that will help close the school-to-prison pipeline. They can do this if given the freedom to innovate by districts and unconstrained by the need to “teach to the test.”

These ideas are not without problems

Inequities will exist between those students in a gap year who can afford enrichment activities or a full-time one-on-one care provider and those who are part of a gap-year family child care pod. We need a systematic way to ensure that children who are on a gap year remain engaged in some activity that captures their attention and imagination, or addresses a need.

Schools receive funds based on pupil size, which, in turn, is how teachers are provided salaries. Fewer students means less funds (as the president has implied), which would lead to teacher layoffs. Instead of threatening to withhold funding, public schools should receive federal funds to support innovative approaches and retain teachers during this turbulent time. If the federal government can find ways to provide relief packages to corporations, they can surely find a way to provide financial relief to public school districts.

Many people will likely bemoan the lack of standardized testing, as there will be no “objective” way to measure students’ success. But it is clear that standardized tests are not a measure of academic success or intellect and we must resist calls for their reinstatement.

Finally, teachers may encounter resistance from school districts, parents, and government officials. Teachers cannot do this alone, and we need a broad coalition of parents and educators who see this as a way forward to address both health and equity.

These actions do not fix the problem, but they are necessary steps

Do these actions fix all the problems with the educational system? Absolutely not.

Based on our own conversations and experiences, educators have gotten wrapped up in the “we must do everything” mentality instead of the “we must do something” mentality that we are missing the opportunity to do anything. With time running out before public schools reconvene the same system that has not changed in the past 50 years, we must be willing to look for unconventional solutions, no matter how temporary they may be.

As we have seen in the health care system, even temporary changes such as reimbursement for telehealth visits will be hard to reverse. The educational system would be wise to implement even temporary policies such that they leave the door open for the future. Unfortunately, it will likely take another global pandemic to create a similar window of opportunity for change.

Joshua Barocas is an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center and assistant professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.

Jennifer Lacy received her PhD in curriculum and instruction from the University of Wisconsin Madison. She teaches high school science in Kansas City, Missouri, and is the director of Education for American Daughters.