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Cooper: COVID-19 is Our ‘Sputnik’ Moment in Education

By Taikein Cooper | February 23, 2021

Vostok rocket carrying Sputnik 1 on the launch pad in 1957. (Sovfoto / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

Prior to the Soviet Union launching the Sputnik satellite on Oct. 4, 1957, Americans were more focused on who we should or shouldn’t educate, rather than how we were educating.

Despite the earlier Brown v. Board of Education decision, America misguidedly prioritized grappling with the question of whether the Black, brown, disabled, and/or poor children of our country should be educated. After the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik, our attention rapidly shifted toward focusing on how we were educating students, as we coalesced around the need to collectively beat the Soviets in the Cold War.

We began to emphasize science and math in our schools, we redesigned our educational curriculum to meet the needs of the era, and in 1958 Congress passed the National Defense of Education Act. Disappointedly, after the Cold War’s “close,” America retreated from the progressive innovation we had begun to spearhead and crawled back to our segregated schools; unwilling and incapable of meeting the needs of students.

Knowing this history, I determined several years ago that it would take another Sputnik moment to transform our American educational system. While this is not how I imagined or wished it to occur, the COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly our Sputnik moment.

Over the course of this global health crisis, there has rightfully been an outpouring of writing and commentary about the present and future state of education, but unfortunately, I continue to read and hear recycled thoughts about “trying to get back to normal.” Truthfully, even prior to the pandemic, our schools were consistently failing to meet the needs of students in the 21st century. Why return to something that was broken, when we could be leveraging the moment to drastically transform public education as we know it? This is not the moment to return to normal; we need Sputnik-level changes. We must operate with a revolutionary urgency to reconstruct schooling across America.

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If the return to school is to reflect the state of education pre-COVID, then we have failed yet another generation of students. 2020 not only highlighted, but exacerbated many of the ills we face as a society. As the executive director of Virginia Excels, an educational advocacy organization designed to develop and amplify new voices around educational equity, I have heard from scores of students and families that a return to what once was is no longer an option. We must do more; particularly given how this past year has underscored the quintessential need for wraparound services for children and families.

Despite decades of research asserting the contrary, there are still those who expect children to learn when they are hungry, experiencing homelessness and/or extreme weather conditions, or not having their physical and behavioral health needs met.

Likewise, many have accepted that education should only be limited to a school building during school hours. As a result, the American public has become complicit in the consistent underinvestment in education. To truly reimagine education, we must redefine education — it is the sum of all of our learning experiences from conception to death. To drastically improve the state of education across our nation, we must work tirelessly to adequately educate children by focusing on the whole child. While newly sworn-in President Joe Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue plan and pledged to extend the eviction moratorium, the federal government’s earlier unwillingness to pass a meaningful stimulus package, coupled with ongoing evictions, means that 2021 is already extremely difficult for millions of families across the United States. When families struggle, children suffer — and that includes a child’s education.

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The usual response to my charge to restructure education to meet the needs of children is, “…but how do we get there?” Well here’s one route: In the commonwealth of Virginia, we are on the verge of legalizing cannabis, with all parties declaring that action should be taken through an equity lens. Aside from my concerns that equity is currently used so frequently that I question whether folks understand the premise behind it, I propose that an equitable outcome would be to use the additional state revenue from sales to fund a system of education that caters to the whole child. Expungement of past convictions must be a priority in the conversation of decriminalizing marijuana, and alongside these discussions of $100 million in new revenue, we must adopt a collaborative effort to fully develop students. The prospect of legalization is not individual to Virginia, and a national commission to interrogate how educational transformation might be facilitated through the anticipated additional state revenue should be on the table across the country.

We must also fix archaic and dilapidated school buildings. We must adequately pay to train and retain qualified teachers who understand and embody culturally relevant pedagogies. But most importantly, we must work to develop the whole child by addressing as many of life’s challenges as possible to ensure that the needs of students are met academically, socially, and emotionally. There is no better time to think with ingenuity: unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.

Children should be well fed.

Children should have adequate housing.

Children should have their physical and behavioral health needs met, including dental and vision.

Children should be able to be kids and develop at their own pace, without stressing about how to meet their basic needs.

Ensuring that children have all of the above is what a student-centered educational system looks like. That is what equity looks like. This is how we disrupt generational poverty.

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2020 brought a new awareness to systemic injustice in this country, and to not rise to the occasion in 2021 is to gamble away the futures of the most vulnerable: our children. After the launch of Sputnik in 1957, America committed to redesigning our educational system with innovative approaches; the time to do so has come again.

Taikein Cooper is executive director of Virginia Excels, a nonprofit that works to overcome obstacles to children’s academic success and to identify solutions with the greatest potential to advance educational equity.

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