What will equity in education look like?
Is it racist to hold back Black kids if white kids did better in remote learning?
The Biden administration is committed to introducing outcome-based “equity” to education at all levels. In June, the Department of Education announced a series of summits and actions designed to “encourage schools more broadly to reimagine their education systems and practices and infuse equity into all of their work, so that every student has access to rigorous, culturally responsive, and fulfilling instruction.”
With schools beginning the 2021-22 year as in-person education returns, what does that mean?
“This is our moment as educators and as leaders to transform our education systems so they are truly serving all of our nation’s students,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “While COVID-19 has worsened many inequities in our schools and communities, we know that even before the pandemic, a high-quality education was out of reach for too many of our nation’s students and families. Our mission at the Department is to safely reopen schools for in-person learning, dramatically increase investments in communities that for too long have been furthest from opportunity, and reimagine our schools so that all students have their needs met. We must take bold action together to ensure our nation’s schools are defined not by disparities, but by equity and opportunity for all.”
Listen, I’m not going to play “sound the alarm!” games, that liberals are going to indoctrinate your kids into Critical Race Theory, or have them volunteering to harvest ballots in the 2024 election. It’s easy to find examples of this, and plenty of websites exist to feed their audience raw meat. I’m not going to do that. But it’s clear that the Biden Department of Education is committed to the language of “equity” in practice and in policy. Let’s break that down.
Fulton County, Georgia schools open once again today. Since January 2021, these schools have been open, while many others (including DeKalb County in Georgia) remained closed. Now all schools are open for in-person education. They are going to face major challenges integrating kids who had poor virtual learning experiences with kids who got through it with little problem.
COVID-19’s remote virtual education was an absolute bust for many minority students. This is not conservative opinion, it’s fact. A year ago, McKinsey and Company shared the results of their analysis, which highlighted the “inequity” in access to computers. According to a WSB-TV story from September 2020, “When it comes to computers, 11% of all Georgia households are without them. 14.8% of black families, 15.5% American Indian and Alaska native and 21.8% Latino households in Georgia don’t have computers.”
Thousands of computers have been given out to families—totaling 39,000 for Atlanta Public Schools, which represents 66 percent of APS’s 59,000 students. In January 2021, The Washington Post skewered local Montgomery County, Maryland’s school system as “failing its Black, Latino and disadvantaged minority students, who are falling further and further behind their peers.”
Though school closures may have been necessary in the spring, numerous U.S. and international studies demonstrate they are unnecessary now and that school districts that continue to insist on this approach are relying on outdated science. MCPS has shuttered its doors for more than 300 days, and the equity gap that existed before the pandemic has widened substantially. In fact, prolonged school closures are affecting minority students significantly more than the coronavirus itself.
The “equity gap” due to pandemic-related in-person school closures is a major factor in minority children falling behind. Even with school-provided laptops, if parents are unable to stay home to supervise kids, they are less likely to stay online, follow the lessons, and receive adult support. In other words, they aren’t going to learn.
Most of America experienced a whole school year of virtual teaching. Some school systems had one and a half years out of the classroom and are just now returning. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted a situation that the country was not prepared for, and many students need extra help.
But what the Biden administration’s rhetoric is pushing, along with so many educators who use “equity” as a yardstick versus equality of education, or equality of opportunity, is something different than just extra help for students who fell behind.
They are promoting curriculum changes like “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction.” Here’s equitablemath.org’s “5 strides on the path to math equity.”
Dismantling racism in mathematics instruction
Fostering deep understanding
Creating conditions to thrive
Connecting critical intersections
Sustaining equitable practice
The section heading “Tool for Supporting Priority Math Content for Students Gaining Proficiency in English in Grades 6-8” cites a paper titled “The Mo(ve)ment to Prioritize Antiracist Mathematics: Planning for This and Every School Year.”
“An antiracist position in mathematics education is a pledge to dismantle systems and structures that maintain racism within teaching and learning mathematics from challenging belief systems that perpetuate microaggressions to disrupting the role mathematics classes play in pushing students out of schooling. If we truly believe that we are moving towards assets-based views of students, we must expand our understanding of what it means to be good at mathematics, make space for alternative ways of knowing and doing mathematics based in the community, and acknowledge the brilliance, both in mathematics and beyond, of BIPOC in our classrooms. We must be explicitly antiracist.”
Besides reading like impenetrable jargon, this statement seems more a political manifesto than an approach for teaching math to kids who have fallen behind due to their socio-economic status or a year of ineffective home learning.
Another website by the liberal nonprofit Waterford.org educates us on the difference between equity and equality in schools. While equality focuses on the treatment of all students (it also applies to other categories like employment and government policies), equity focuses on outcomes, and isn’t bound by the measures of equality. An equity-based solution could, in fact, include reparations for past inequality or inequity.
Equity in education is based on the shifting of power, not limited to improving a system that is unequal, or giving more help to those who need it. Quoting Waterford:
Equity in schools is the answer to supporting every student, not just those from disadvantaged backgrounds. When schools provide their students with resources that fit individual circumstances, the entire classroom environment improves. Not only that, but the importance of equity extends to our society as a whole. In equitable communities, everyone has the opportunity to succeed regardless of their original circumstances.
President Biden’s American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funding is available to school districts to implement equity-based education. The FAQ defines a full-service community school thusly:
Broadly, a full-service community school is a partnership among school staff, families, children, youth, and the community to raise student achievement by ensuring that children are physically, emotionally, and socially supported to learn. A full-service community school can also serve as a neighborhood center or hub by providing access to such critical programs and services as health care, mentoring, expanded learning programs, adult education, and other services that support the whole child, engage families, and strengthen the entire community.
This is all great sounding, high-minded, “it takes a village” prose. What it does, in practice, is shift parenting responsibility to schools, which for families without stable structures, will become the default parenting authority for health care, meals, moral support and a variety of other services not related to education, but of course affect the ability of children to learn. The problem is that all families will benefit from these services, so “equity” will not happen unless services are denied to stable families based on racial group, based on the perception of need.
Surely, many students from families in inner cities will need extra help. They may need to repeat a grade level. The stigma of being “held back” will be a political decision, however, and responded to by “community based” programs, which will attempt to classify services by race and achieve an engineered result. Instead of dealing with the pandemic as an isolated event where some kids fell behind because of family and economic factors, the equity approach demands that Black kids and white kids pass at the same rate, and going forward structures exist (and others are dismantled) to ensure that outcome.
The biggest challenge to equity in educational outcomes is resuming in-person classes. As pediatrician Lavanya Sithanandam noted in her scathing takedown of Montgomery County back in January: “If MCPS is genuinely concerned about equity for its students, particularly students of color, it must reopen to provide desperately needed additional resources that can only be delivered through in-person learning.”
For this school year, everyone is returning to the classroom, though with the surge of new variants, some schools may return to virtual learning. The biggest challenge will be how these schools adjust and catch up those kids who need extra help. I believe the majority of teachers will recognize and focus on this. But some teachers, and many players in the educational process, especially at the federal level, have much more comprehensive plans for transforming education into a driver of equity-based policy.
Our schools must focus on recovery from the lost months and years of COVID-19, not redefining curriculum to turn math into something “explicitly antiracist.” If that means holding back some Black kids while some white kids move to the next grade, then it may just be for the best, for the kids, and for our schools. But politics dictates differently.
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