Rev. Sharpton: Education Problems Are a ‘Five-Alarm’ Fire

Oct 26, 2020 12:00:00 AM


Now would be a good time to listen to Rev. Al Sharpton.

You didn’t see that coming. Me, of all people, pointing to a left-of-center Civil Rights leader on the issue of education?

Mark the day.

I’m wore down by the scant attention the issues has seen during the run-up to a historic election. After all of political campaigning and several mock debates, [pullquote]the two old men—both private school parents—vying for the American presidency failed to utter anything meaningful about the ineffective training our kids are getting.[/pullquote]

It’s almost as if pesky education problems that presidents have talked about solving for ages will suddenly go away like Trump’s COVID by spring (“like a miracle”).

Be patient folks. All we need is incremental changes through bold sounding and weak acting policy tweaks. That and a bazillion dollars because that always works.


Maybe we may have tired of hearing the “failing schools” narrative and the subsequent lack of solutions that an exorbitant number of dollars thrown at it have failed to produce. I get it. Some might say, “We get it, not all kids are learning, but …”

I don’t know what the “but” is.

[pullquote]A problem doesn’t go away because you shut your eyes out of exasperation.[/pullquote]

In fact, the same issues that fueled decades-long school reform movements continue to dog our students, our workforce and our economy. The pandemic is raising that simmering pot to a rolling boil.

That’s why I’m happy to see a surprising piece from Rev. Al Sharpton show up in my feed that points to the specifics of how COVID is worsening educational failure for populations that already struggle economically.

He says:

Four out of 10 young Black men don’t finish high school, and student absenteeism runs as high as 30% in some cities. Education is about capturing the curiosity and imagination of young minds; how is our system failing so many young students of color?

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned this long-smoldering crisis into a five-alarm fire. The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population but 25% of its COVID-19 cases. The pandemic has torpedoed its way through the lives and wallets of Black and Hispanic communities with a vengeance, and the lash of this scourge is being felt just as acutely in our schools.

Nearly half of the nation’s public school students checked out of distance education when schools shuttered in March, and Black and Hispanic students fell even further behind. Private schools saw just an 18% drop in student participation.

A full 70% of teachers say they weren’t adequately trained for the transition to distance education. Amazingly, only one in three districts expected teachers to teach live lessons and track student progress. But students in wealthy districts were twice as likely to get live, real-time learning.

Among teachers, 60% report that parents were unavailable to help their kids with online learning. Black and brown households—disproportionately headed by single parents working jobs where telecommuting just isn’t an option—were given a Sophie’s choice of either helping their children with schoolwork or taking a second or third job to keep a roof over their heads. Nearly half of our low-income workers lost jobs during the crisis, and many are just too exhausted to help after struggling to make ends meet and are, appallingly, offered next to no help.

One bright spot has been helping to get students connected. A total of 95% of U.S. homes have broadband access, but still, 15% of households with students haven’t signed up. Industry leaders, building on aggressive efforts to get everyone connected, stepped up with offerings of free broadband to low-income neighborhoods.

Chicago and Atlanta, led by African American woman mayors, forged groundbreaking public-private partnerships to make free home broadband service available to any public school students who need it. And while the Trump administration dithers, Democratic leaders in Congress are pushing for an “Emergency Broadband Benefit” to get everyone connected to broadband. This is an example where one of the key challenges for distance learning—residential broadband service—appears solvable by getting the key players to come to the table.

But this is only a start. One in four underprivileged teens has no computer in the house. Our failure to address digital literacy in low-income communities and to modernize digital curricula to stir the curiosity millions of students is another jaw-dropping failure. [pullquote position="right"]We will never win the future or achieve racial justice with festering ills like this unaddressed.[/pullquote]

While I’d love to see more here in the way of support for direct educational funding to parents, more power for families to choose from an array of educational providers and more roads to alternative learning opportunities— give the Rev. props.

More leaders should keep their eye on the educational prize and focus the public’s attention on the problem, and then push policymakers to produce new policy solutions.

Read the whole story.

This post originally appeared on Citizen Stewart as "Rev. Sharpton: Education problems are a ‘five-alarm’ fire."

Chris Stewart

An award-winning writer, speaker, and blogger, Chris Stewart is a relentless advocate for children and families. Based in outstate Minnesota, Chris is CEO of brightbeam, a nonprofit media group that runs campaigns to highlight policies and practices that support thriving kids. He was the founding Director of the African American Leadership Forum, was an elected member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, and founded and served as the CEO of Wayfinder Foundation. Above all, Chris is a serial parent, a Minecraft enthusiast, and an epic firestarter on Twitter where he has antagonized the best of them on the political left and right. You’ll often see Chris blogging at and “tweeting” under the name “Citizen Stewart.”

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