Will This Pandemic Force Us To Boldly Address the Inequities in Our Schools?

I live right off Route 206, a mostly two-lane road that begins in the Pinelands of southern New Jersey, winds 130 miles north to Stokes State Forest, and ends in Dingman Township, Pennsylvania. One twelve-mile stretch of 206 connects Princeton, Lawrence Township (where I live), and Trenton, the state capitol. 

As COVID-19 affects, well, everything —here, we’re currently in something close to a lockdown, with a 158% jump in confirmed cases during the last three days —New Jersey’s educational inequities come into sharp relief. 

Think of this stretch of Route 206 as an emblem of America.

Princeton Regional Public Schools, a district where only 8% of students are economically-disadvantaged and 80% of 10th-graders meet or exceed benchmarks in reading, created a “Pandemic Response Team” that has issued a 10-page booklet explaining how students will continue to learn at home. Every student  has a laptop or iPad, as well as internet access; if necessary, the district will fill in any gaps. Special education students have daily to-do lists and “teachers will send individualized guidance and support to parents through email.”

The district website lists separate letters from each of its principals detailing daily expectations. At Princeton High School, for example, “teachers will post content…and [students] will have a minimum of 1 hour of coursework for each class each day.”  At elementary schools, students will have four hours of coursework per day and “one or more of our teachers [will] check in with each pupil and his or her family multiple times per week via telephone calls, e-mails, Class Dojo, or some other means.”

Now let’s travel 12 miles south to Trenton where 70% of students are economically-disadvantaged and 22% of 10th-graders meet or exceed benchmarks in reading. The district has a booklet labeled “Health-Related School Closures” that says, “a series of learning experiences has been created for students by grade levels.” There is a one-page letter from the superintendent that says “the current school closure is not a vacation” and “students are expected to log on to Google daily for at least 4 hours daily and complete assignments in Google classroom” using a one-page reference of free online education programs.  If a family doesn’t have a computer or online access (for comparison, in demographically-similar Camden only 30% do), parents can “pick up a paper packet from their school.” 

Or not. Just up the district website: “The district has exhausted all of the printed packets; the district is closed and our vendors have limited resources in printing out additional packets. Therefore, no additional copies are available until further notice.”

If you are a Princeton High School student, you get six hours of online instruction a day and regular check-ins with teachers.

If you are a Trenton high school student who happens to have a laptop and access to the internet, you get up to four hours of online instruction with no assured teacher contact. If you don’t have a laptop and internet access you get nothing.

This disparity in opportunity and access was true before the pandemic but now we see the gaps more clearly. Oh, the data was always there: according to state DOE data, 72% of third-graders at this Princeton elementary school read at or above grade level; at this Trenton elementary school 11% do. Ninety percent of Princeton High graduates enroll in postsecondary programs but 51% of Trenton Central High graduates do. (It’s 12% at Trenton’s alternative high school where 445 students are enrolled.)

These starkly disparate numbers haven’t swayed New Jersey to do anything in the last half-century but throw more money at the problem with no impact on student outcomes. While we seem susceptible to bromides like those from the state teacher union that proclaim “NJ schools rank first in the country,” parents stuck at home now have an unfiltered view of our deficiencies.

Of course, these opportunity gaps aren’t limited to a two-lane road in New Jersey. Camden superintendent Katrina McCombs says the school shutdown “has just exacerbated the inequalities.”

Colin Seale writes, 

The coronavirus pandemic is revealing new layers of inequity that may end up setting us back even further. Education leaders are tackling the unexpected challenge of providing distance learning as the primary mode of instruction for weeks, months, and possibly the remainder of the school year. How can school systems that struggle to deliver equitable results in a standard brick and mortar setting overcome the added challenges inherent in distance learning?

Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, told NPR,

 The inequities that we often talk about have a spotlight during this crisis. So if you’re wealthy or of a better socioeconomic means, you can get an access to tests, still get access to the support you need for your students. But that’s not true in communities where there’s high poverty and high need.

We’re all trying to stay healthy and keep our loved ones safe. It’s hard to think beyond this day or this week. But I think we must. Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institute says “plagues drive change.” Rahm Emanuel says, “you never let a serious crisis go to waste. Things that we had postponed for too long, that were long-term, are now immediate and must be dealt with. This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.”

We have to do things we thought we could not do before. We have to drive change. Otherwise your location on a twelve-mile stretch of road represents whether or not your third-grader can read or your high school graduate will go to college or get a job. It may have taken a pandemic to enable us to see this clearly, but here we are. Do we have what it takes to address systemic inadequacies, to innovate and buck a broken system? I hope so but I don’t know the answer.

What do you think?

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