How we can demand the rebirth of public education
Amy Stuart Wells
Our public education system will never be the same. We have lost dozens of committed educators to COVID-19—at least 50 in my home city of New York City alone. State and local education budgets are being slashed, and thousands of educators may lose their jobs. And the educational opportunity gap between affluent and disadvantaged students has only widened with the shift to online learning; those who lack electronic devices, internet connectivity, and quiet spaces to study are falling further behind.
These are major blows to a public education system already on life support, struggling to maintain its viability after decades of reforms promoting practices antithetical to public institutions and the education profession. For the last 30 years, more standardized testing, private management, and school choice options coupled with less teacher preparation have been just about the full extent of policymakers’ ideas related to education.
Ironically, however, the sudden closure of our schools this spring creates a window of opportunity to push back against these reforms. The pandemic’s disruption of schooling as usual creates space for educators to demonstrate why education is a profession and not just an occupation. In this moment of loss, educators must regroup, reframe, and reimagine that profession.
Several interconnected developments during the pandemic already offer public school educators and their supporters a clear place to start:
1. A renewed and enhanced appreciation for teachers. Amid the shift to remote learning, millions of parents are seeing up close what teachers do every day and marveling at their skills and their patience. Feeling inadequate as involuntary home schoolers, many parents now understand why education is a professional field with a body of knowledge steeped in research on child development, brain science, and learning theory.
As celebrities Tweet that teachers should be paid as much as CEOs, educators must tap into this newfound appreciation to demand policies that ensure educators are well-trained, well-supported, and well-paid for the work they do. Quick-fix, teacher-prep-lite programs—especially for those assigned to teach in the most disadvantaged schools—are not acceptable.
“The pandemic’s disruption of schooling as usual creates space for educators to demonstrate why education is a profession and not just an occupation.”
2. The one-time reprieve from onerous state-mandated standardized testing. The hiatus on standardized testing this spring gives educators the flexibility to tap into this newly appreciated professional knowledge on how children learn and assign students more project-based and student-centered assignments. Such a focus on students as learners as opposed to test scores taps into teachers’ expertise and skills to help students cope with the social and emotional dimensions of what they are experiencing while making curriculum more culturally relevant and responsive to our increasingly diverse student population.
One example of what this might look like: My colleagues and I at Teachers College are working with several of our partnership schools here in New York City to develop at-home assignments for students to interview an elder relative or family friend they live with or can connect with remotely. The students will ask the elders about a challenge they have faced in their lives—be they natural disasters, the loss of a job, or a prior public- health crisis—and how they coped and persevered.
This storytelling assignment not only fosters important life skills such as listening, writing, and analyzing, it also offers students reassurance that this current challenge can be overcome. Meanwhile, it encourages intergenerational and intercultural understanding, respect, and empathy, especially as students share these elder stories with their classmates.
This more student-centered approach enables students to learn from each other and develop intercultural understandings much needed amid a resurgence of bigotry, including the anti-immigration rhetoric and the scapegoating of Asian Americans during this pandemic. We can use this moment to encourage students to re-examine our country’s history of prejudice and racial inequalities that are being exacerbated during the pandemic and propose methods to address and resist them.
3. Freedom from our separate and unequal school attendance boundaries. Because racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic school segregation has become more prevalent amid the rise in school choice policies over the last three decades, the new COVID-19 normal of remote learning opens up some integration opportunities. In the present virtual learning moment, students’ ZIP codes no longer need to seal their educational fate.
Educators should embrace the opportunity to reach beyond physical school boundaries and share lessons and projects with students, parents, and colleagues in other communities. In doing so, they can build bridges across divided school communities allowing students to learn firsthand about the disparities in resilience required to weather the pandemic storm.
4. A clear and urgent demonstration of the importance of civics. Finally, as our politicians are debating about states’ rights, local control, and the authority of the president while our health-care workers lack basic supplies, we see more clearly than ever the need for a robust and renewed civics education, an area of curriculum that has been marginalized by the past 30 years of education reform centered on math and reading test scores.
What good is our children’s ability to read and count if they cannot fathom how to use those skills to question, critique, and ultimately replace elected officials who are not accountable to them? The gift of time that was given educators and students when the state tests were canceled can be regifted to our next generation of voters through deeper learning about our political system and how it should respond to public- health crises.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that we need strong public schools to prepare all of our children to think deeply and critically, solve problems, and participate in a multiracial and multicultural democracy that uses science to advance the public good. Well-trained educators who do not need to spend most of their time on test prep know how to do this.
Much like the environmental movement that has been energized by the teenage Greta Thunberg and her followers, we need an education-for-justice-and-democracy movement that centers the needs of our students and enables professional educators to address them. It is time for educators, students, parents, and taxpayers to unite and demand a much-needed rebirth of our public education system in the wake of this pandemic.
As millions of parents are seeing, most educators in the country are exceedingly essential. They, like our health-care workers, have risen to the COVID-19 occasion. Freed from shortsighted education reforms, they are better positioned to do what they were trained to do–teach our children to think. That is the teachable moment for us all.