The Opportunity to Close Achievement Gaps
The 2020–21 school year may prove to be the most consequential in American history. With unfathomable speed, COVID-19 has forced more change in how schools operate than in the previous half century. Continued upheavals are likely as new outbreaks prompt schools to transition rapidly between different arrangements for student learning, perhaps multiple times throughout the year.
As if that were not challenging enough, an increasing number of families are experiencing significant financial distress, while at the same time new strains on state budgets will greatly limit available funding for education. With such unprecedented levels of disruption and strained resources, the potential for learning losses with long-lasting repercussions is substantial.
With such unprecedented levels of disruption and strained resources, the potential for learning losses with long-lasting repercussions is substantial.
While virtually every family in the country is feeling these challenges, the impacts will be the greatest for those who were already at a major disadvantage. Whereas a graduating senior from a family of means may opt for a gap year instead of remote learning, for the aspiring first- generation college-goer now experiencing additional financial hardships, the result may be a dream that becomes permanently deferred.
Although supporting virtual learning is taxing for any parent – especially those with younger children – for those with low-paying jobs in which teleworking is not possible, the challenge can be overwhelming if not completely untenable. And while parents with sufficient financial resources may be able to supplement a year of suboptimal learning experiences for their children with tutoring and enrichment activities, families who are struggling to pay the rent have no such option.
Such discrepancies in how families and students are likely to experience the turbulent 2020–21 school year threaten to exacerbate the achievement gaps that so many have been working so hard to close in recent decades. This should be cause for great concern for anyone who believes in the ideals that have long defined our country and the longstanding elusive goal of equal opportunity.
Asking Hard Questions for Positive Change
Like so many other groups that work for positive change in this field, the Education Program at Carnegie Corporation of New York has been consumed in recent months with the search for ways to head off this outcome.
We have repurposed funds to make expertise on remote teaching available to teachers, schools, and districts. We have shifted monies to initiatives that make high-quality educational resources directly accessible to parents, free of charge. We have increased our investments in online postsecondary options available at no cost to high school graduates from low-income families. We have also formed new working groups with other philanthropies to share information on emerging needs and strategies, and we have allowed our own grantees the flexibility to adjust their Corporation-funded projects to meet the demands of new circumstances.
More fundamentally, we have asked ourselves some hard questions about the relevance of our pre-pandemic education strategy. While this crisis will come to an end, both its present effects and what are likely to be long-term economic consequences render some issues more urgent than ever before.
Indeed, if past global crises offer any lessons, it is that the world never fully returns to how it was. In the last century, we recovered from a depression and two world wars, but each time the recovery brought with it dramatic changes to our economy, society, and educational systems. We have no reason to think this crisis will be any different.
A great deal of what we have been investing in for the past two decades is, in fact, even more important amid the current pandemic.
Thankfully, when we examine our existing strategy in light of the current situation, we see much that is pertinent to present challenges. A great deal of what we have been investing in for the past two decades is, in fact, even more important amid the current pandemic. Our entire strategy has been geared toward helping educators and families transform the student learning experience so that all students are well prepared for the demands of the twenty-first century. (For more on our Education Program, see Transforming Education for a Rapidly Changing World: Achieving Equity, Rigor, and Relevance through Human-Centered Systems Change.)
Download Transforming Education for a Rapidly Changing World
We support school communities in the design and implementation of innovative learning models that meet the needs of the local context. We invest in the development of high-quality instructional materials aligned to rigorous academic standards. We provide funding to expand the range of quality postsecondary options and supports to help low-income and first-generation college goers enroll in and complete a postsecondary program. And we invest in family engagement initiatives that strengthen the home-school connection and enlist parents and caregivers as active contributors to student learning.
All of these efforts have now gained even greater importance as schools and families adjust to new conditions. Indeed, the fact that so many of our grantees have been working on these issues for several years meant that when the crisis first hit, we had a ready supply of expertise and innovation to inform a response. Practically every problem of practice associated with the transition in education had an existing solution thanks to hard work already done.
Keeping the Goal of Equity Front and Center
This is not to say that business as usual is sufficient for these extraordinary times. Every organization that is committed to educational improvement needs to ask itself what it can do differently to further advance the cause of educational equity during this continuing crisis. As we know from past experience, if the goal of equity is not kept front and center, those who are already behind for no fault of their own will benefit the least. If ever there were a time to heed this caution, it is now.
Addressing educational inequities during this current school year is crucial to securing the future to which we aspire.
Addressing educational inequities during this current school year is crucial to securing the future to which we aspire. Viewed through this lens, we see the need to give an even greater priority to certain aspects of our strategy in the near-term. Among them:
Family Outreach and Engagement. The link between home and school was a weak point in American education well before the pandemic hit. Now the consequence of that weakness is much more apparent, and for traditionally underserved families, it is much more dire. Essential steps must be taken to ensure that parents know how to support their children’s learning and understand what is expected of them. We can only do that if schools actively find out what parents need, especially those parents who find it the most difficult to engage.
Instructional Supports for Teachers. The DIY-approach toward lesson planning that has long characterized the teaching profession proved to be a disaster for many educators last spring. Committed teachers scoured the Internet for resources as they cobbled together and delivered lessons through a medium they had never used before — often while they were having to care for their own children. Thanks to many recent initiatives, it is possible to find curriculum materials aligned to college- and career-ready standards. But teachers cannot shoulder the burden alone. When instructional planning becomes a matter of “every teacher for themselves,” the result is inconsistencies in quality — and more often than not it is the traditionally underserved students who pay the greatest price.
The High School Class of 2021. The list of new challenges faced by this year’s graduating students is too long to enumerate. Students who complete high school this year will need to apply to, choose, and secure financial aid to start college amid a world of unknowns –– and with less direct engagement with counselors and the institutions in which they hope to enroll. Advisor caseloads were a major problem in many schools before the crisis; now, advisors who are already overextended will be helping their students navigate a completely new landscape. We need to make it one of our top priorities to do all we can to support the class of 2021 as they prepare for and transition to what comes next.
This Year’s College Graduates. Those students who complete college in the spring will likely be entering the labor force in one of the worst economies in recent memory. Even in the best of times, first-generation graduates typically face steep odds securing the kind of first job that can make a lifetime of difference. Relative to other recent graduates, they tend to lack the social connections and additional experiences that give candidates a chance to compete. With a greatly constrained labor market, those disadvantages may be almost impossible to overcome.
Systemic Supports for New Learning Models. Recently, much of the field has been focused on transforming student learning experiences to better align with the changing nature of work and civic life. Progress in this regard has been mixed, but a new consensus had emerged that emphasized mastery over the amount of time students spend in a classroom and standardized test results; personalized learning experiences; and social-emotional learning as a complement to rigorous academics. Given the pandemic, it might be tempting to see these models as less important while we focus on meeting more basic needs. That would be a mistake, especially for students in low-income families who have the greatest need for learning experiences designed to prepare them for success in the modern world.
If past economic downturns are any indication, the current one will only accelerate the decline in opportunities for low-skilled workers with limited education. As schools transition to new modes of learning for public health reasons, we must make sure they have the knowledge, technical assistance, and resources to manage the change so as to promote the kind of learning required to meet the demands of the twenty-first century.
Prioritizing Students Who Face Overwhelming Odds
These are the priorities that should be top of mind right now for anyone in a position to direct resources and energy toward educational services. We all need to advance thoughtful solutions to make sure that those students who face the most overwhelming odds come through this period on track to take full advantage of America’s tremendous possibilities.
As a prerequisite, we must also be smart about how we go about our work. The stakes are too great to disregard the lessons we have learned in our endeavors to elevate student learning. The Corporation’s long history of promoting positive change in education has taught us that how we go about pursuing change is as important as the changes we seek to undertake.
Too often in this field, improvement strategies are designed without a full understanding of the contexts in which they are implemented. And just as often, we fail to make needed adjustments when things do not go as initially envisioned, opting instead for an entirely different strategy. Although rarely practiced, the solution to this problem is simple: Whatever strategy we pursue must be deeply informed by the human experience of those whose circumstances we aim to improve.
The Corporation’s long history of promoting positive change in education has taught us that how we go about pursuing change is as important as the changes we seek to undertake.
Making a concerted effort to do so is all the more important now when families living at the margins are even more invisible to those of us who are able to isolate in relative comfort. We don’t know the lived experience of the middle schooler whose only quiet place to study is on the fire escape, or the older student who misses online instruction while working at the grocery store to make up for lost family income.
It is not enough to send out surveys asking families how to sufficiently support them. We must put the most challenged families and frontline education professionals at the center of our attention and actually engage them in the process of designing and providing those provisions. The extent to which we do so this school year will determine, to a significant degree, what our society looks like for the rest of our lifetimes. The work and civic life of a high school student today will extend well into the last decades of this century. What we do now will affect what kind of country we are for generations to come.
LaVerne Evans Srinivasan is the vice president of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s National Program and the program director for Education.