The Rush to Reopen Schools Comes at a Price for Marginalized Students

May 20, 2021 12:00:00 AM


The growing demand to reopen schools echoes across the country, supported by billions of dollars in federal funds to help schools “build back better.” States like California are backing the effort with their own money, too. In March, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill offering California districts a total of $2 billion to help them reopen at least some of their schools’ doors by April 1.  

But in their rush to meet the April deadline, district leaders reopened without consulting their communities, especially BIPOC students, parents and teachers. This is just one example of how the culture of power and privilege operates—making decisions without the cooperation of the people most affected by them. [pullquote]If we ignore the characteristics of white dominance as they show up in decision-making, those burdened by such decisions will pay too great a price.[/pullquote]

Let’s look more deeply at three ways white power and privilege show up in institutional decision making.

Emphasis on Quantitative Over Qualitative Data

To substantiate their decisions to reopen schools, educational leaders point to assessment data because the results will reflect the predictable “learning loss” taking place in these unprecedented times.

But assessment data collected remotely can prove to be invalid and unreliable. For instance, in my district, early school assessment data showed some kindergarten students performing as high as fifth grade, because older siblings took the tests or parents helped them. Before the pandemic, regulations required strict mandates for standardized assessments like covering classroom walls, turning in cell phones, and reading scripted directions; however, in remote testing, all of these procedures are out of our control. Thus, it’s impossible to gather comparable data.

It’s also time to ask why we’re pushing for the same standardized assessments that perpetuate a narrative perceiving BIPOC as lacking and low-achieving. For decades, data gathered this way have been used by districts and schools to create a self-fulfilling prophecy about BIPOC children. Low test scores force them into groups held to lower expectations.

Too often, these BIPOC students identified as “low-achieving” are pulled from their regular classrooms to endure lessons lacking in rigor and relevance. The experience saps their curiosity and motivation to think critically while at school. Where is the problem? In our students? In the measures we use to assess their achievement? In the solutions offered by educators without consulting with students and their families? The problem does not lie within our students, of that I am sure.

Just as it has in the past, the data we gather this year will be used to validate decisions to remediate, retain, or return to failed practices to narrow “the gap.” [pullquote]Any assessment data collected during this time of national distress will not tell the real stories of our students’ learning and what they need to thrive.[/pullquote]

Exaggerated Claims of Deficiency

The current focus on “learning loss” has roots in a longstanding bias among dominant-culture decision-makers: a fixation on deficits among BIPOC and a refusal to see our strengths. The persistent mentality that says “students are not learning” or “nothing beats in-person instruction” overlooks the ways in which many BIPOC students are thriving without daily exposure to the implicit biases of educators, microaggressions and disproportionate discipline.

Moreover, the way learning loss is calculated stems from the same data that shows a longstanding, persistent racial “achievement gap,” that has stayed constant despite years of in-person instruction. Maybe we need to look at learning and achievement differently, especially now that the continuity of this standardized test data has been interrupted by the pandemic. What if standardized test scores measured opportunity gaps more accurately than they measure our children’s unique gifts and strengths? What if we used that data to provide true equity of opportunity, rather than punishing students and their teachers for not measuring up?

Worse, this continued fixation on deficits positions those in power to step into BIPOC communities with solutions to problems the leaders identify, not necessarily the problems or solutions that the community would prioritize. For example, many districts are pushing poorly-conceived social-emotional learning (SEL) programs as a one-size-fits-all solution to address the effects of the twin crises of the pandemic and racism on the health and well-being of BIPOC students.

But [pullquote]SEL in isolation from an anti-oppressive, anti-racist lens risks becoming “white supremacy with a hug,”[/pullquote] as Dena Simmons, founder of LiberatED, describes it. Without including a look into the diverse, empathetic voices declaring Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, SEL clearly denies students the life-changing learning offered by current social movements.

False Sense of Urgency

To be clear, learning loss is not a new phenomenon. In education, we observe learning loss every year following the three months of summer vacation. (However, recent research even calls into question how much learning is slowed or stopped and asks whether the tests we have used to measure growth in learning over time are really giving us accurate data.) Moreover, though there may be a slowing down—not a complete halt—to acquiring academic skills, many students are flourishing in robust learning gains related to empathy, creativity and resilience. We just don’t measure them on standardized tests.

Thus, while children are growing in the empathy, creativity and resilience they will need to challenge and improve existing conditions, these skills hold minimal value in spaces of power and privilege. An attitude of “what gets measured gets met” ensures that educators are missing opportunities to grow more than a narrow set of skills.

Leaders all over the country are using the rhetoric of “learning loss” to layer in their concerns about equity and achievement for BIPOC students. Yet data concerning the racial achievement gap confirm that alarms needed to be set off since the 1980s. Where was this sense of urgency in all those years?

Perhaps the real urgency is to listen to the perspectives of those historically and systemically pushed to the margins in schools.

[pullquote]Decentering power and privilege allows discussions to shift toward the concerns of those directly affected by the policies and standards.[/pullquote] If political and educational leaders thoughtfully examined learning gains and qualitative measures during a pandemic, they could both affirm the true progress students and their teachers have made while making changes to reduce the historic disparities magnified in 2020.

Imagine if we replaced traditional tests this year with surveys about learning gains in today’s context. Those qualitative measures could humanize education and reveal untold stories.

Now is the moment to carefully interrogate our educational policies, using reliable, robust data—both qualitative and quantitative—so we can finally make meaningful change for our students. Taking the time to develop realistic proposals to ensure equity, address student achievement, and infuse culturally responsive teaching practices could lead to meaningful transformation in our schools. If only we’d do it.

Tina Starks

Tina Starks is an educational designer for Student Achievement Partners and an education consultant. She is also a 2021-22 Teach Plus California Policy Senior Fellow.

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