Opinion

Sure, Envision a New Public School System. But Don't Ignore the Emergency at Hand

—Digital Vision Vectors/Getty

Addressing the centuries of injustice in education should not come at the expense of getting classes going again

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The debate over whether schools should reopen brings to mind a quip about the 1950s: Pessimists back then worried about World War III, optimists worried about World War IV. As educators and policymakers grapple with questions about this fall, others are leapfrogging with bigger questions, many of them borrowing the cliché about not letting a good crisis go to waste. As one education leader put it, “This … could be a Sputnik-like opportunity to renew America’s commitment to children and equity … eradicate childhood poverty and construct a 21st-century system … that adapts to each child and gives them what they need to be successful.”

Reopening, therefore, has reopened another debate—about unfulfilled promises and the great potential of the American public school system. Motivated by evidence of persistent and rising inequality, advocates for seizing the current moment allege that the system has failed and offer ideas that are bold (if familiar): Stop standardized testing, revise curriculum standards, legislate equity in education spending, invest significantly in teacher professional development, etc.

Political will and national investment in education after Sputnik launched us not just to the moon but to global scientific hegemony; dreamers about the future of education are on to something.

But details matter. For example, doing away with standardized testing has long been popular among some reformers, but it’s not clear that other types of assessment will serve children—and especially children of color—more fairly, particularly if the elimination of external metrics further camouflages disparities in resources and opportunity. To their credit, advocates for educational equity have struggled to find a middle ground between potential bias in testing practice and equally (if not more) damaging effects of judgments distorted by subjective and stereotypically false expectations of children’s potential.

"It is essential to hear the questions on the minds of many parents, kids, educators, and school leaders: What can be done now to recover from the health and economic crisis?"

I agree with those who wish for greater emphasis on social-emotional well-being, civic responsibility in a pluralist democracy, and multicultural sensitivity leading to the inclusion (and exclusion) of classroom content and instructional staff—in all schools and especially in those with high concentrations of Black, Latinx, indigenous, immigrant, LGBTQ, economically disadvantaged children, and children with disabilities. Those suggestions, too, may sound familiar; but they have special resonance today, when the coronavirus is accompanied by the resurgence and spread of the even more dreadful disease of anti-Black racism and white supremacy.

Achieving those goals will take tenacity and political will. As Tyack and Cuban pointed out in their now-classic history of school reform, policy talk often looks toward a whole new era while actual reforms are generally gradual and incremental. That it took 214 years into the life of the republic to pass legislation with “national goals” suggests that “e pluribus unum” is easier to put on our great seal than it is to make operational in a system designed to diffuse authority over governance, curriculum, and finance. It is safe to anticipate, therefore, that some curricular revisions and proposals for big structural reforms will be abhorrent to at least some of those dreaming of a “Sputnik” moment: Some advocates for change might use the crisis to advance vouchers, charters, and other challenges to traditional public schools. There is some irony in the fact that the pursuit of standards—whether in mathematics, reading, science, and other academic subjects, or in so-called “noncognitive” skills—has proven challenging in large part because of our experiment in pluralism, a concept rightly valued so highly by visionary reformers. Pluralism doesn’t favor parsimony.

As the economist Albert Hirschman argued, there is a long history of social scientists and politicians with a perfectionist impulse rejecting progressive reforms because they are flawed, often without considering if the anticipated benefits might outweigh the flaws. And I don’t mean to add fuel to the flames of predictable reactionary opposition to ideals articulated by educators seeking change. Reality may interfere with dreams, but who wants to live in a world without dreamers?

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At the same time, taking the long view should not distract us from the short-term emergency. As we work our way through the last weeks of this grueling summer, it is essential to hear the questions on the minds of many parents, kids, educators, and school leaders: What can be done now to recover from the health and economic crisis? Can we prevent learning loss, especially among historically marginalized youths who can’t access good online options? Who gets to participate in the so-called “pods” being formed by (relatively more affluent) families hoping to enhance their kids’ distance learning?

These questions may seem banal compared to demands for systemic overhaul and the correction of centuries of unequal justice, but we ignore them at our peril. As a wise colleague noted, “Whatever the long-term agenda, we need to get through this moment first and in a way that lays the groundwork for the future we want to leapfrog into.”

Parents today hope for relief—for their kids and themselves; among them are many at the lower end of the income distribution who rely on the public schools not only to teach their children but to feed them and attend to their basic health needs and who are understandably anxious about how a continued shutdown will prevent them from resuming some kind of normal work life. There is strong consensus that classrooms, even with their flaws of curriculum and instruction, are better for academic and social-emotional development than online alternatives with parents as stand-ins for teachers. The consensus is backed by empathic—and cautious—guidance from reputable scientific organizations and hundreds of education researchers. (Crass, inconsistent, and brazenly self-interested pronouncements from our president and secretary of education, by contrast, are not helpful.)

To visualize the day after tomorrow means attending first to … tomorrow. It also means not forgetting victories of yesterday. To paraphrase a truly great American, the arc of education bends toward progress; it would be tragic if visions for the future obscure or unwind gains we have made.

Remaining optimistic these days is increasingly difficult. But our penchant for pragmatism, fueled by grand vision, should give us hope.

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