To Improve Education, We Need to Look at the Last 50 Years, Not Just the Last 18 Months

The lunches are packed, the supplies have been purchased, the classrooms are decorated, and we’re off and running on our third school year in the shadow of COVID-19.

Though teachers, parents, students and administrators are still navigating the day-to-day logistics of how to handle the contagious Delta variant, most students are back in a school building to learn—at least for the time being. Now, our collective focus is shifting from whether children will be in school in person to how to tackle learning loss and the “COVID-19 slide” now that they’re back. How badly have our students fallen behind? Have the gaps gotten bigger? How do we fix it?

I welcome the opportunity to change our education system to meet the needs of all children. But I caution against keeping the focus so squarely on COVID-19 and its impacts. Because the truth is while the pandemic may have exacerbated the existing issues within our education system, it certainly did not create them.

To evolve our education system and improve student outcomes for good, we need to reevaluate our policy-making decisions from the last 50-plus years—not just the last 18 months—while also looking forward to what students need to learn to be successful in the future. We need to examine how we value and invest in teachers and students. We must ensure students have the basic reading and math competencies they need to succeed in any trade. Most importantly, we have to incorporate equity into everything we do, so all students—regardless of race, ethnicity or ZIP code—have the opportunity to succeed.

The pandemic has accelerated existing trends in remote work, e-commerce and automation. As a result, more than one in 16 workers—25 percent more than before the pandemic—will need to find a new job by 2030. Students entering kindergarten today will graduate high school in 2034. Will they be ready for what their world will look like when they go to college or enter the workforce?

Not according to long-term test score trends from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and assessments like the EdWeek Research Center’s analysis of nationwide and state-specific data from 2018-2020, both of which show that widening opportunity gaps and a need for better education policies long pre-date COVID-19 and the subsequent COVID slide.

Data also shows a clear need for equity in all aspects of our education system, which includes bringing leaders of color into the rooms where policy is being made. While 2019 NAEP scores show just under half of white fourth-grade students were reading at or above proficiency, the number drops to 18 percent, or roughly one in six, for Black students. For Hispanic or Latino students, fourth-grade reading proficiency is 23 percent, or just under one in four students. Eighth-grade data for Black students, Hispanic and Latino students, and other students of color tells a similar story.

Now is the time to reinforce the fundamental scaffolding that determines whether a child has a fair shot at success later in life. This starts by redefining who is making educational policy and how students are assessed and by providing the needed supports to guarantee a sound, basic education for all children.

Several efforts are underway. Recently, NAEP determined a new reading assessment framework aimed at making the test more equitable. States like my home state of North Carolina are addressing broadband access, because technology is now a basic need for students in the same way up-to-date textbooks once were. Learning innovation is happening—in Mississippi, test scores were boosted dramatically after the state made sure that teachers understood the science of how we learn to read.

But none of that is enough if we don’t engage new voices at the leadership level and incorporate new, innovative ideas to create systems of education that look totally different—because our world is totally different. We aren’t going back to the way we operated pre-COVID in our workplaces or in our health care systems. We’ve changed as consumers and as people. Why on Earth should we go back to pre-COVID education policies and systems?

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