Laura Sosik, a 2nd grade teacher at a school in Scranton, Pa., was always attuned to the differences in academic progress between students from higher- and lower-income households.
But this past school year, when she had her first class of students whose school careers had started in kindergarten with virtual learning, those gaps were in stark relief.
The students whose parents had the time, energy, resources, and abilities to help guide their education at home since 2020 did fairly well, some even reading at a 4th grade level. The ones that did not have those supports still struggled to recognize letters.
Educators working to make schools into more-equitable learning environments where all students can grow and learn with all their academic and social-emotional needs met have their work cut out for them moving forward.
In a national EdWeek Research Center survey administered in early October to 824 teachers, and school and district leaders, 65 percent of respondents said they were more concerned now than prior to the pandemic about closing academic opportunity gaps that impact learning for students of different races, socioeconomic levels, disability categories, and English-learner statuses.
The systemic inequities that give rise to academic performance gaps plagued public education long before 2020. In the survey, though, educators said that the academic performance gaps they were used to seeing worsened since the start of the pandemic between students of color and their white peers and especially between students from low- and high-income households.
Specifically, a majority of survey respondents (65 percent) said that unequal opportunities to learn between students from low-income and high-income households, which pre-dated the pandemic, increased as a result of it. About 47 percent thought the same when it came to opportunity gaps between students of color and their white peers.
As educators face pressure to work on learning recovery—especially after recent declines found in national assessment data—and deal with right-wing backlash to equity efforts, researchers and practitioners alike hope that greater public awareness of systemic inequities can move the needle toward steady change.
“We have real work to do in the years ahead, to address not just the disruptions to learning and impact on students’ social and emotional well-being during the pandemic, but to address the deep systemic inequities and barriers that have existed for a really long time,” said Allison Rose Socol, vice president of P-12 policy, practice, and research for the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocating for students from low-income families and students of color.
Equity efforts have shifted over time
There was plenty of work already underway in terms of addressing systemic inequities prior to 2020.
That includes conversations around mental health and psychological wellness for students and educators; a reimagining of how discipline can avoid falling more heavily on Black students, students with disabilities, and students from lower-income households; a push for more culturally responsive teaching practices; and more, said Richard Milner, professor of education in the department of teaching and learning at Vanderbilt Peabody College of Education and Human Development.
Then 2020 happened.
“For Black people, many of us were grappling with disproportionate deaths due to COVID and at the same time, we were experiencing Black bodies being murdered by the state,” Milner said, referring to a spate of Black men and women who were killed by police officers.
Both the pandemic and the calls for national protests following the murder of George Floyd sparked what Milner calls a moment of racial reckoning where school districts, superintendents, policymakers, organizations, even families were open to thinking about the ways in which structural inequity, the ways in which racism, sexism, and their intersections manifest in policies and practices.
“We were on the course for significant shifts,” he said.
But since January 2021, 42 states—driven mostly by conservative leaders—introduced bills or took other steps that would limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in classrooms.
“The political backlash was because we were making progress, because organizations that had never thought about and engaged in this work decided that they were going to actually engage in that way,” Milner said.
His concern now is whether that backlash, which has also led to book bans in schools across the country and prohibitions on what teachers can and cannot say about race in the classroom, will lead to a regression of all the efforts to undo systemic inequities in education. He hopes that the national conversationon learning recovery at least can center on what students and educators learned from virtual learning and build from there, rather than fixate on how much they lost.
Where do we go from here?
Researchers such as Socol are hopeful that federal relief funds can spur some progress.
Socol points to bright spots across the country, such as Nashville schools investing in hiring tutors for targeting more intensive support to address interrupted learning.
In Pennsylvania, after educators spent time engaging in advocacy work, meeting with legislators, writing op-eds, and mobilizing their communities to advocate for federal funding, state leaders responded with budget increases that seem promising, said Sosik, the 2nd grade teacher and Teach Plus senior policy fellow.
Sosik believes funding is key toward making schools more equitable. Her own district in Scranton eliminated its pre-k programming in April 2020 citing budget concerns. The program provided foundational skills for all students entering kindergarten, she said.
At the same time, Socol cautions, districts also need to avoid pitfalls in the mad dash to address learning recovery on top of deep-rooted inequities.
For one, districts need to follow research- and evidence-based practices when deciding what programs and initiatives to fund. Leaders should avoid a push for remediation, which is essentially reviewing old content, and instead focus on acceleration, where teachers and tutors identify individual missed skills and provide students with support for that particular skill so they can succeed with grade level content.
And lastly, she hopes educational leaders don’t skip over meaningful engagement with educators and community members who are best placed to help identify the systemic inequities that have been at play since long before 2020.
Teachers in particular can offer deeper insights to researchers and policymakers on how these inequities play out in the classroom and what resources they need to better help all students, which can include better compensation for teachers’ work, Milner said.
For her part, Sosik agrees.
“I think the more that lawmakers include teachers in these decisions, the better that things will get,” said Sosik.
Coverage of race, opportunity, and equity is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 07, 2022 edition of Education Week as Schools Trying To Prioritize Equity Have Their Work Cut Out for Them, Survey Shows