As another school year begins, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape Americans’ daily lives—from where they can travel to who they can see and how schools will operate this fall.
And for six months and counting, the virus has exposed existing inequities in our society and, in many cases, intensified them, especially in education.
Earlier this week, LEAP Innovations, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes personalized learning, culturally relevant teaching and innovation, convened hundreds of Chicago teachers for its sixth annual summit. This year, the event was held fully online.
During the summit, LEAP founder and CEO Phyllis Lockett spoke with former secretary of the U.S. Department of Education John B. King Jr., about the ongoing pandemic and the immense challenges it has created for education. King now serves as president and CEO of Education Trust, a nonprofit that aims to close educational opportunities and achievement gaps.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of King’s remarks.
On the Persistence of the Pandemic
Sigh. We have these extraordinary challenges in education, and many of them, around COVID-19, didn’t have to be this way. That is incredibly frustrating.
If you look across the world, other countries have handled the pandemic very differently. We still do not have a coherent national approach to rapid-results testing. We don’t have a coherent national approach to contact tracing. We don’t have a strategy around supporting folks to effectively quarantine. We don’t have broad compliance with public health guidance on things like mask-wearing.
The result of this lack of a coherent national strategy is the pandemic is out of control in many places in the country. So the societal issue is now being made a school issue. People are having the discourse as though this was about schools, and of course schools can’t be bubbles from the rest of society. They are part of our broader society and are impacted by what’s happening outside of the school building.
I feel sad for school leaders who are struggling with these impossible decisions amongst bad choices.
We all wish we could be in school under normal conditions. We know how important it is for kids academically and socio-emotionally. But we have to be safe. And the truth of the matter is the country hasn’t done the things necessary to make it safe in many places.
So again, the failure of national leadership is being visited upon school leaders who face this impossible dilemma. What I hope is that national leadership will change strategy and step up. But I also hope that school and district leaders will find a way, even with all these challenges, to keep the focus on students and the relationships we have to build and the educational experiences we have to ensure for students—whether we’re in person, hybrid or fully online.
On Inequities Laid Bare by COVID-19
COVID-19 has put our existing inequities in sharper relief and exacerbated them. The sad reality is we give the least to the students who need the most. We give low-income students and students of color less access to early childhood education, less access to resources in K-12. We have shown at Education Trust that as a country we spend about $1,800 less per student in the districts that have large numbers of students of color, compared to the districts with much smaller numbers of students of color. Low-income and students of color get less access to the strongest teachers. They get less access to advanced coursework like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate. They get less access to school counselors. Think about this: We have 1.6 million kids who go to a school where there’s a sworn law enforcement officer in the school building but no school counselor. And low-income students and students of color get less access to post-secondary transition support.
So we have all these challenges in early childhood and K-12 that existed before COVID. What’s happened with COVID is low-income students and students of color had less internet access, so with the closures, there were kids who literally could not participate in school. The schoolhouse door was barred for them because they didn’t have internet access.
On a ‘New Deal’ for Education
Maybe this is a nerdy high school history teacher thing to say, but part of the New Deal, part of its significance, was coming out of the Great Depression, there was a recognition we had to create something better, that we had to strengthen our society going forward, that we had to become a more resilient and a more equitable society. Now, the New Deal fell short of those aspirations in important ways, particularly around race, but the vision was, ‘We can build something better coming out of this Great Depression.’
I would like to think we will take that approach to COVID and that we will say, look: We’ve learned some lessons here, we need a stronger safety net. It shouldn’t be that folks who are sick are going to work because they don’t have sick leave in the United States today. We should strengthen our safety net and we should say that, in the wealthiest country in the world, we can take care of our people and make sure that our people are safe and healthy. And that will be to the benefit of kids and schools.
On Early Childhood Education
We need to invest in equitable, high-quality education, from early childhood through K-12 into higher ed. It shouldn’t be that some folks have high-quality early learning experiences and others have none, particularly when we know there’s an eight-to-one—or more—return on investment for every dollar spent in early childhood. So much brain development happens in those early years. So we ought to commit to universal access to high quality early childhood education from ages 0-4.
On Education Equity
When we look at our K-12 system, we ought to say: It shouldn’t be that race and ZIP code determine the quality of the educational experience you have. We ought to go back to trying to fulfill the vision of Brown v. Board of Education more than 60 years ago, in 1954. We ought to say: How do we dismantle systems of oppression that deny opportunity to some students? And that means equitable resources, intentional efforts to integrate our schools so that kids have the experience of diverse peers and diverse teachers. We ought to be doing more to ensure that at every school, you have the opportunity to not just get English and math but science and social studies and the arts and computer science and AP classes. It shouldn’t be that those are reserved for the affluent. Those should be available to everyone.
I’m optimistic, actually, that this is a moment where people will emerge with new resolve around how we can build a better society going forward.
On Adapting Schools for a Better Future
I hope we’re seeing we can trust students to drive their learning and drive their school experience more than we have in the past. The sudden switch to everyone being online has forced that conversation: How do we help students manage their own learning? How do we help students pursue goals they’ve set for themselves and pursue questions they’ve identified as important to them. One thing I’m hopeful about is that it would be very difficult for us to go back to an entirely teacher-centric model after this experience of kids having a higher degree of choice and agency. So I think there is some opportunity there that we should leverage.
We really have these two pandemics that we’re dealing with: the pandemic of COVID-19, but also the pandemic of systemic racism that has been with us from our earliest days in this country.
On Inclusive Curriculum
The national conversation around that is also an opportunity to rethink teaching and learning, to say: Students should have windows and mirrors in their learning experience. Kids should be seeing authors that reflect their experience in the course of their curriculum. They should see authors, too, who have a very different experience. But they should have both. Kids should see characters in the texts that they read that are diverse. There was a study done recently of elementary school reading curricula that suggests there are more characters that are animals than characters who are people of color. That shouldn’t be. Kids should see themselves reflected.
When we talk about how we teach history, we have to teach an honest account of history that grapples with the role systemic oppression has played in our history, the gap between our values and our reality. But then, we also need to highlight examples of Black excellence, Latino excellence, Asian American excellence, Native American excellence, and the ways in which people of color have helped to build this country. Hopefully this is also a moment where we look back at the curriculum and say, How do we create a curriculum that is more inclusive in meaningful ways?
On Dismantling Broken Systems
We’ve been doing some organizing work here in Montgomery County, Md., where I live. Using data analysis, we took a white seventh grader and a Black seventh grader with the same math achievement. The white seventh grader was significantly more likely to be in eighth grade algebra than the Black seventh grader. They had the same exact achievement. That’s about adult behaviors, adult choices and how we organize systems. We ought to dismantle the systems that deny opportunity to folks. We have that power. We have that opportunity.