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Topics / Improving Schools & Systems

Building a Stronger, More Equitable Education System

Solutions to some of education's biggest challenges already exist, but there is an urgent need to apply them at scale


A Massive Amount of Lost Learning

If ever there were a reminder that today’s young people are growing up with unprecedented challenges, it is the events of the past six months. With unfathomable speed, practically every aspect of our lives has been turned upside down.

We went from a strong economy to the precipice of an economic depression. Long-unanswered injustices prompted a critical and overdue national discussion about racial discrimination. And in the midst of all this, every educational institution in the country suddenly stopped doing what it had been doing and scrambled to find ways to do it differently, resulting in vast inconsistency, confusion, and inequality. 

In many districts, challenges to teaching and learning were compounded by the absence of an effective infrastructure to meet the rapidly evolving needs of different populations and contexts. Without a foundation of trusting relationships and habits of collaboration, it was difficult to share and scale strategies that work. 

The outcome for students has been a massive amount of lost learning. And for those already facing stacked odds, the crisis has exacted a far greater toll with the risk of devastating long-term consequences.

The sudden shift to remote learning required a radical rethinking in how teachers, families, and communities keep students connected to school. We saw many educators moving urgently to meet the needs of the moment. In some schools and communities, learning continued. But not everywhere.

Instruction moved online, but even as districts raced to disseminate digital devices and mobile hot spots, around 20 percent of students were entirely disconnected from school. Families became educators overnight — leaving them overwhelmed and often distressingly isolated from needed guidance. Students at critical transition points to college or career found themselves facing an uncertain future.

Even at this dark hour, there is reason to think that we have the capacity to improve the life prospects of our most vulnerable young people and in doing so strengthen our society and democracy.

 

What is most concerning in all of this is the impact on the most underserved and historically marginalized in our society: low-income children and students of color. Even before the current crisis, the future prospects of a young person today looked very different depending on the color of her skin and the zip code in which she grew up, but the pandemic exposed and exacerbated long-standing racial and economic inequities. And the same families who are faring worst in terms of disrupted schooling are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn and disproportionately getting sick, being hospitalized, and dying.

Early presumptions that this would be an inconvenient hiatus are giving way to the realization that we may be dealing with COVID-19 for a year or longer. There will be no sudden all-clear signal followed by a sigh of relief. Whatever the new reality looks like, progress will be a gradual and extended process, likely with multiple setbacks.

And yet, even at this dark hour, there is reason to think that we have the capacity to improve the life prospects of our most vulnerable young people and in doing so strengthen our society and democracy. Major crises tend to galvanize the public toward action on long-simmering issues. Suddenly, problems that our education program has been working on for the past two decades are front and center in the national conversation.

Weaknesses in our education system have become painfully apparent to far more people. As they struggle to facilitate their children’s remote learning, parents are seeing the great inconsistency in the quality of students’ learning experiences. Educators and families are realizing how little they understand about each other’s goals and realities and how that lack of understanding impedes their efforts.

Solutions to Some of Our Biggest Challenges Already Exist 

The great fragmentation that typifies the education sector was also laid bare during this crisis, but the urgency of the moment forced people to let go of practices and beliefs that they held dear  — creating the opportunity to meaningfully change how our education system works and who has a seat at the table when critical decisions are made.

Another cause for cautious optimism is that solutions to some of the biggest challenges of this crisis already exist. Innovators have spent a decade building a knowledge base about personalized learning, making it possible to provide greater flexibility in how, when, and where student learning takes place. Our foundation has also invested in efforts to develop high-quality curricula and instructional materials, along with professional learning to help teachers use them effectively. This ready supply of resources allowed some schools to more nimbly transition to remote learning. Expanding that access will enable educators to better meet student needs in the current crisis and to foster rich, more student-centered learning going forward.

We hope that our nation will approach education with a new sense of purpose and a shared commitment to ensuring that our schools truly work for every child. Whether or not that happens will depend on our resolve and our actions in the coming months. We have the proof points and know-how to transform learning, bolster instruction, and meet the needs of our most disadvantaged students. What has changed is the urgency for doing so at scale.

 

To be clear, we do not envision that a purely online approach to instruction will persist in perpetuity. This crisis has underscored the value of face-to-face interaction to people’s well-being, and cognitive science has demonstrated the importance of social interaction to student learning. But if past upheavals are any indication, when this one stabilizes, the challenges we endured will shape the world that follows. As we return to classrooms, they are likely to look different as a result.

We hope that our nation will approach education with a new sense of purpose and a shared commitment to ensuring that our schools truly work for every child. Whether or not that happens will depend on our resolve and our actions in the coming months. We have the proof points and know-how to transform learning, bolster instruction, and meet the needs of our most disadvantaged students. What has changed is the urgency for doing so at scale.

Our starting place must be a vision of equal opportunity, and from there we must create the conditions that can actually ensure it — irrespective of how different they may look from the ones we now have. We need to reimagine the systems that shape student learning and put the communities whose circumstances we most need to elevate at the center of that process. We need to recognize that we will not improve student outcomes without building the capacity of the adults who work with them, supporting them with high-quality resources and meaningful opportunities for collaboration and professional growth. We need to promote stronger connections between K–12, higher education, and the world of work so that all students are prepared for lifelong success.

None of these ideas are hypothetical. Our grantees have put them into practice in actual schools and postsecondary institutions. Over the coming months, we will share what we and our partners are learning as we work to build a stronger, more equitable education system than the one that was forcibly shuttered this spring.

This crisis has deepened inequities that threaten students’ prospects. But if we seize this moment and learn from it, if we marshal the necessary resources, we have the potential to transform our education system from one characterized by uneven and unjust results to one that puts all students on a path to bright futures.

LaVerne Evans Srinivasan is the vice president of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s National Program and the program director for Education.

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