As is seen all over the headlines, there’s a rush to get students and teachers back to school. We say come the fall but the reality is most schools go back over summer. This is the same summer that has shown significant spikes in Covid-19 cases and increased death rates of all ages. The worsening of this situation is by no means the fault of schools, but instead is a direct result of the government’s lack of trust in professionals and inability to act. There’s a pressure to get students back in schools to get our economy ‘back to normal’ and allow parents to go to work. The justifications given for this to happen are often pretexts for the need for child-care. What is happening is that we continue (yes, I mean continue) to normalize children dying for the sake of the economy.
While I’d like nothing more than to be reunited with my students, I understand that the most vulnerable students are at risk if we go back to in person learning. One thing we cannot argue is that academics are more easily recovered than a human life.
If you are eager for schools to be back in session because you argue that the most vulnerable students are at risk of falling behind, you are absolutely correct. However, if you have not been advocating for these students prior to this, you need to consider the whole picture. We talk about the ‘achievement gap’ and ‘opportunity gap’ that exists between BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) students and white students, rich and poor, able-bodied and those with disabilities, heterosexual, cisgender students and LGBTQIA+ students, and we have labeled these students who are given less opportunity as at risk or vulnerable. If you have not always advocated for equity in schools and social justice, you need to examine your motives for doing so now to justify going back to school. If your argument is that re-opening schools is necessary to not widen the opportunity gap, you must also acknowledge that in-person schooling contributes to the opportunity gap.
If we claim to need to go back to school for these students, we must acknowledge that BIPOC populations are the most vulnerable in our school system and act on that knowledge. We need to be fully committed to seeking educational justice. Here are ten ideas as to how to support ‘vulnerable’ students.
1.Advocate for socially just teaching, ethnic studies, and rewriting entire curriculums. Many BIPOC students are disadvantaged in schools because the curriculum is whitewashed, Eurocentric and excludes the history, culture and representation of BIPOC students. Libraries and learning needs to be inclusive of all students. Schools need to be a safe place that celebrates the history and excellence of BIPOC, immigrants, LGBTQIA+, homeless, those with learning disabilities, etc. Vidhya Nagarajan for NPR (2017) best represents the many students left out of the system of education in the drawing above. We need to focus on the intersectionality of education and inclusion of all students in the classroom, curriculum and staff. If you are worried about students learning, you need to be worried about what they are being taught. Read more by experts about social justice and anti-racist teaching in the following article: http://neatoday.org/2019/01/22/why-social-justice-in-schools-matters/.
2. Fully fund schools and home libraries for students. Give students access to all the same materials and supplies that their peers have. For this to happen that includes having materials and supplies that represent them. Fully fund libraries that focus on representation of BIPOC students and cultures. Students need access to these materials at school and at home to be successful. Renaissance Learning (2015) found that students who read less than 15 min a day at home were not able to make reading growth, despite classroom interventions. We need all students to have access to quality books, which might include funding more libraries in low-income neighborhoods so they are walking distance from schools or students’ homes. If you’re worried about student learning, you have to be worried about access to learning materials and literacy.
In the article “Why White School Districts Have so Much Money” Lombardo of NPR explores research that concludes that predominately white districts receive $23 billion more in funding than schools with mostly BIPOC students. Based on their research, the national average of school funding is $1,600 less per student for districts serving mostly BIPOC students, while districts that have mostly poor, white students only receive $130 less per student than the national average (Lombardo, 2019). Funding cannot be linked to housing around the school. More than half of our students in the US attend schools that are “racially segregated” (Lombardo, 2019). It’s as if Brown v. Board of Education (1954) never happened.
3. Implement restorative justice practices into schools. Train teachers and staff in anti-racist practices and how to help change behaviors, not punish them. Hold schools accountable for the criminalization of BIPOC students and longterm impact on their lives. If you care about student learning, you have to care about suspension rates that take them out of the classroom and how it is systemically racist. Read more on the African American Policy Forum about how suspension rates disproportionately impact Black students: https://aapf.org/school-to-prison-pipeline.
4. Eradicate standardized testing. Tests are also biased toward white students and not to mention, a huge use of time that might be better spent another way. Students from 3rd grade up take a state standardized test that can take over a month to complete. That’s a MONTH of learning time they lose each year to be able to take a test. My first graders took 6 benchmarks every trimester, which took them about 2-3 weeks to complete. This is 3x a year. By the way, the 3rd grade and up take these benchmarks, in addition to the state test. An immense amount of time is spent on testing! No amount of data is worth losing that much learning time. If you are worried about student learning, you need to be worried about how much time is spent testing students and what those scores mean for schools, tracking, expectation value, etc.
5. Fully fund STEAM in schools (science, technology, engineering, arts and math). I have worked in countless schools in low income areas that do not have funding for things like science and hands-on activities. These things are often paid for by the teachers themselves. Between 79% (USA Today, 2019) and 94% of teachers (Vox, 2019) spend their own money on classroom supplies. This is why places like Donors Choose exist. My last principal actually told the teachers, don’t worry about teaching social studies or science, these kids just need reading. I was told if I get 40% at grade level, that’s the target. The fallacy in this thinking is that by over focusing on literacy, students then lack the content knowledge and experiences to use as background knowledge for reading and writing. “Put simply, the more you know about a topic, the easier it is to read a text, understand it, and retain the information. Previous studies (Alexander, Kulikowich, & Schulze, 1994; Shapiro, 2004) have shown that background knowledge plays an enormous role in reading comprehension (Hirsch, 2003)” (Neuman, Kaefer, Pinkham). If you are worried about student learning, you need to be focused on all content areas and funding for STEAM in schools.
6. Early childhood education needs to be prioritized in our society and offered at no cost to families. This is the foundation of schooling and if only those who can afford preschool attend, they will be starting off Kinder with a leg up on everyone who wasn’t able to go to pre-school. If you’re worried about student learning, you have to know where the gap starts and address it.
7. After school programs should be free and widespread. If students are supposed to get a leg up, they need to build up experiences and background knowledge. They should be active in elective classes and sports. These need to be free and fully funded. If we want justice in our schools, we need to give all students the opportunity to follow their passions, not just those of families that can afford it. If you are worried about student learning, you need to be worried about opportunities to follow their interests outside of school.
8. Move schools to year-round schedules. Having time off in the summer disproportionately impacts the students that are most vulnerable. This infographic made by LoShiavo (2019) illustrates it best. Source: https://www.jaxpubliclibrary.org/ilovejpl/stellar-summer-reading-stats-2019 We are not farmers anymore. We can go to school year round with shorter breaks for students in between that don’t put them at risk of falling behind. If you are worried about student learning, you need to be worried about summer slide.
9. Focus on recruiting, retaining and supporting diverse educators, especially BIPOC teachers, without placing the burden to be the only ones teaching anti-racism. There is essentially no diversity in education, which is irresponsible. We need to recruit and retain diverse teachers. This starts with affordable teaching programs, paying student teachers (that’s right we had to work for half a year with no pay), eliminating the cost of examinations to become a teacher (the CBEST, CSETS and RICA probably cost me a $1,000 for both credentials). This also means that induction should be free (as it was) which is a program new teachers often have to pay out of pocket (depending on their district it’s $1-3k) to “clear” their credential. These systems keep the status quo in place of who can afford to become a teacher. This is called systemic racism. Recruit and retain professionals who are non-white because our world is diverse, and students (and staff) deserve and need to learn about diversity of thought and experience. The next step in retaining teachers is by training all teachers in anti-racist education. More on this subject by experts here: https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/07/08/889112818/what-it-would-take-to-get-an-effective-anti-racist-education. If you’re worried about student learning, you have to care about how schools in the US are systemically racist against BIPOC students and do not retain diverse educators.
10. Fully fund classrooms, and pay teachers for all the time they work. Of course I think teachers deserve higher salaries, however, at the current moment they are not even being paid for the actual work it takes to teach. As a teacher, I’m given one 30 minute period per week when the students receive art, 1 hour after school on our short day (if our meeting doesn’t go over) and 10 minutes in the mornings from when I am supposed to arrive and when I have to pick up students. How then can I adequately plan and prepare lessons for my students, meet with families, address student needs outside of the classroom, hang student work, clean and sanitize materials, respond to office needs, collaborate and also be a human that uses the restroom and what not. I work 2-4 hours a day outside of my contracted time. If not a raise, fine, at least pay teachers for the time it actually takes to do the job. Retaining teachers is also a huge indicator in building relationships and establishing trust between staff and students. If you’re worried about students learning, you have to give students teachers that are treated as professionals. Number one this will give more time for teachers to work on improving their craft, creating more meaningful culturally responsive lessons and when the teacher isn’t frazzled or stressed, the classroom environment benefits from this positively.
While this is lengthy, this is only the tip of the iceberg as far as needs for schools to become just, anti-racist, and equitable places. I agree that distance learning and virtual teaching disadvantages certain populations of students at higher rates. I am not denying this or saying that it is permissible or justifiable. I am saying this, being IN school also has disadvantages for these same populations of students. You cannot address one without the other. If you are arguing that we need to go back to school to help close the opportunity gaps for our students, then you need to also fully advocate for and fund #1-10. Chances are, for the people who are already advocating for #1-10, they also advocate for schools to stay closed until it’s safe because they understand that the schools with less funding have fewer means to provide safe and healthy learning environments for their students. Going back to in-person learning will disproportionately expose the students who attend under funded schools that already struggle to keep classrooms clean and stocked with materials. I truly believe there is nothing that my fellow educators wouldn’t do for their students’ well-being but going back to school isn’t for students’ well-being… is it?