School Climate & Safety Opinion

The Five Guiding Principles to Combat Inequities Before Schools Reopen

By Ross Wiener — June 25, 2020 3 min read
37Wiener IMG

The pandemic shines an intense light on inequities that have long existed in our education system: long lines for food pick-up by school families, lack of devices and Wi-Fi for remote learning, and unfair funding formulas that allocate less to schools with the most students of color and those from low-income families.

These inequalities undergird the protests demanding racial justice that are convulsing our country. How we choose to respond will impact the rising generation, and the fabric of our whole society, for years to come.

Policymakers and education leaders need a shared set of principles for developing and evaluating responses to the COVID-19 crisis that advance positive change for students and reckon with systemic racism in public schools. As the director of the Education & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, I developed a framework of five principles and related actions for leading public education from recovery to renewal last month.

Every powerful driver of learning is provided to white and affluent students more than students of color and students from low-income families."

With the nation’s focus now on achieving racial justice, these principles are even more urgent:

1. Equity & Agency: Policymakers must be cleareyed that schools reflect the inequities that plague society at-large. Every powerful driver of learning—safe and nurturing learning environments; rigorous and relevant academic content; teachers who see and value students’ cultures and communities; voice and choice in important decisions—is provided to white and affluent students more than students of color and students from low-income families. Leadership in this moment must correct inequitable funding and cede decisionmaking power to those most directly affected.

Take Action: (1) Governors and legislators must prioritize funding for schools educating students of color and students from low-income families. (2) For states to receive additional federal funds, which they will need to avoid layoffs, they should be required to address inequity in education funding. (3) State leaders should seek out the most vulnerable students and families to understand what they most need to feel safe, supported, and engaged—and respond with action.

2. Coherence: Education leaders will be juggling many issues just to start the new school year, in the context of immense strain on state budgets and rising needs among vulnerable children and families. Policymakers need a holistic frame for addressing the needs of students and families so each decision is related to the whole. If every issue is treated serially, by the assumed level of urgency, decisions made by different agencies and state vs. local leaders won’t be aligned, and school leaders will be left to sort out the confusion.

Take Action: (1) Governors should prioritize cross-agency coordination to address the needs of children and families, avoid duplication of efforts, and keep turf battles from slowing down delivery. (2) Within education, coherence calls for integrating social-emotional dimensions of learning into academic instruction so these reinforce each other in students’ experience of school. Schooling next year in particular needs to become a place of healing and processing what’s happened, or students will experience the disconnect and hypocrisy viscerally.

3. Science of Learning and Development: Breakthroughs in neuroscience, epigenetics, and research have created a new understanding about how people learn. We know student safety, belonging, and connectedness to school are foundational to resilience and engagement that then enable academic success and thriving in life. Focusing too narrowly on making up for lost instructional time will compound inequity and depress long-term achievement if done without adequately resourcing psychological safety, relationships, and a sense of belonging.

Take Action: (1) Prioritize school climate and relationships. Assigning every adult to mentor a manageable number of students and instituting advisories are two aspects of relationship-rich schools that will be especially valuable. (2) State agencies can commission appropriate online, interactive courses to provide teacher professional development and offer micro-credentials. (3) Modest investments in community service for near-peer mentors and tutors, both high school juniors and seniors and recent graduates, could imbue learning with greater purpose, while at the same time providing needed mentorship and tutoring for younger students.

4. Long-Term Success: Even before the crisis, profound questions were on the table about the role of education in society and the education outcomes that are essential for students to be ready to thrive as adults. Changes will be accelerated and intensified by the pandemic, the economic upheaval it is provoking, and the widespread political awakening on systemic racism in our society.

Take Action: (1) Policymakers must identify competencies that are needed to navigate the future of work; to build a new, anti-racist pluralism; and to support a healthy democracy. (2) Education agencies and state school boards should pilot assessments of critical skills for the modern workplace like working on teams, communicating in diverse settings, and evaluating the credibility and relevance of information from multiple sources.

5. Innovation: Many new online instruction and student-engagement practices are being rapidly designed and implemented. For instance, teachers as well as students have developed facility with digital-learning platforms. The challenge is to understand the reality of what’s being tried (rather than what was planned) and to learn what worked to improve practice long term.

Take Action: (1) States should track emergency- response measures, both official decisions and emerging practice. (2) State education agencies can help organize working groups to collect data, learn quickly, and adapt policy and practice decisions. Empanel students and parents as part of these efforts, compensate them for their time, and start by asking what they experienced and what’s most important to them going forward. (3) Publish and share what is learned.

The challenge—and opportunity—of returning to school calls on all of us to clarify the principles and enduring values we want to live by and to use these to build common ground where we can. Just as some work routines and home-life dynamics will be indelibly altered even when the crisis recedes, the social contract that public schools represent is overdue for renewal. We must re-envision public education to meet this emergency while also setting a course that improves on the status quo, or policies that had outlived their usefulness will be extended in a rush to “return to normal” as quickly as possible.

Follow the Education Week Opinion section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Opinion in your email inbox.

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Elementary Teacher - Scholars Academy
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

School Climate & Safety When Toxic Positivity Seeps Into Schools, Here's What Educators Can Do
Papering over legitimate, negative feelings with phrases like "look on the bright side" can be harmful for teachers and students.
6 min read
Image shows the Mr. Yuck emoji with his tongue out in response to bubbles of positive sayings all around him.
Gina Tomko/Education Week + Ingram Publishing/Getty
School Climate & Safety Opinion Teaching's 'New Normal'? There's Nothing Normal About the Constant Threat of Death
As the bizarre becomes ordinary, don't forget what's at stake for America's teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Justin Minkel.
4 min read
14Minkel IMG
School Climate & Safety Letter to the Editor Invisibility to Inclusivity for LGBTQ Students
To the Editor:
I read with interest “The Essential Traits of a Positive School Climate” (Special Report: “Getting School Climate Right: A Guide for Principals,” Oct. 14, 2020). The EdWeek Research Center survey of principals and teachers provides interesting insight as to why there are still school climate issues for LGBTQ students.
1 min read
School Climate & Safety As Election 2020 Grinds On, Young Voters Stay Hooked
In states like Georgia, the push to empower the youth vote comes to fruition at a time when “every vote counts” is more than just a slogan.
6 min read
Young people celebrate the presidential election results in Atlanta. Early data on the 2020 turnout show a spike in youth voting, with Georgia, which faces a pair of senatorial runoffs, an epicenter of that trend.
Young people celebrate the presidential election results in Atlanta. Early data on the 2020 turnout show a spike in youth voting, with Georgia, which faces a pair of senatorial runoffs, an epicenter of that trend.
Brynn Anderson/AP