LISTEN — Class Disrupted Episode 10: We Should Have Fixed Inequity in Education Yesterday. Now the Pandemic Has Made Redesigning the System Exponentially More Urgent

(Class Disrupted)

@Class Disrupted is a weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every Tuesday).

Although the conversations about issues in education are far from over, we’ve reached the final episode of Class Disrupted. We bring the series to a close by looking once more at the problems we’ve examined, but through the urgently important lens of equity.

We recap the main barriers facing students, from lack of resources to teaching methods that don’t recognize individual potential, to curricula that fail to prepare students for life. On the way, we offer ways to redesign a system that can be improved for everyone.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane: Hi, I’m Diane Tavenner.

Michael: And I’m Michael Horn. Thanks for joining us for our last episode of Class Disrupted.

Diane: Michael, we made it!

Michael: I know, we did indeed! And not only that, Diane, but just as in Week One, each week I can honestly say that I’ve been looking forward to spending (virtually, of course, if anyone’s worried) this time with you and our entire team in building out and recording this podcast. And I would say that has been an extraordinarily nice constant during these very turbulent times.

Diane: It’s hard to overestimate the importance of personal connection and relationship during this time, and I, too, have really appreciated it. And Michael, we’ve covered a lot of territory in this time together, but when I reflect back, the biggest point we’ve tried to make is that we have all of these big structures in our education system — that even if they worked at some point in the past, they just aren’t working anymore. And perhaps, most importantly, although they’re not working for all kids, they are incredibly harmful for others. And what it boils down to is that we have a really inequitable education system in America.

Michael: Yeah, that’s exactly right.

Diane: We just need to call it like it is: The structures of our system make the gaps between kids who have money and kids who don’t wider and wider. And so many of the structures are racist and biased. And, you know, we started this show saying, “Hey, everybody, the coronavirus is an opportunity to redesign what isn’t working in education to better meet needs for all kids today.” And we really hope to make a meaningful difference. But as we sit here today, that just isn’t enough. I think our feeling of urgency has grown exponentially.

Michael: I definitely think that’s right. And I think that urgency has become even more pronounced as we’ve gone week by week. And look, the two of us have been hammering away at these issues for years now. We’ve been on stages talking to parents, talking to educators, talking to policymakers for many years, but it’s clear that hammering away is just not enough. We really need a jackhammer.

We all need to look with clear eyes at how we’ve been operating within a flawed system where if you have the resources to do so, you can make it through OK, even if it’s not great. And if you don’t have money, well, honestly, the odds are just considerably [lower]. This isn’t to say that people don’t surmount those odds — they do, and those are wonderful stories, but we shouldn’t be counting on luck or the wonderful stories to carry us through this.

The system is not designed to support individuals, and it can frankly hurt them. And on top of that, as you were just alluding to, if you’re a Black or indigenous student, for example, the flaws of the education system fall disproportionately on your shoulders. The deck is stacked in so many ways against you.

And it’s just wrong, and it’s something that we need to fix. Not today, not tomorrow. We need to fix it yesterday.

Diane: We couldn’t be more aligned, as usual, Michael, and I’m thinking about this constantly now. The other day I was having a conversation with someone who’s passionate about educational equity, and this person is like so many that I know who are completely focused on the impact of race and class on educational outcomes. And I haven’t stopped thinking about that conversation because it’s so clear to me how much people care. And I think the framing of the issue as how a child’s race or socioeconomic status impacts their outcomes is totally wrong.

I think what we’re advocating for is focusing on the impact of school structures and the system on low-income, Black and indigenous students and their opportunity for educational outcomes. There is nothing wrong with these kids. There are huge issues with the system that disproportionately impact low-income students and Black students and indigenous students. And even while they’re not serving other kids.

Michael: Well, I think that’s right. And honestly, so many people just take these structures for granted, as we’ve pointed out in this podcast, so that they don’t even see them. They’re almost invisible. And that’s what I think we’ve been trying to illuminate here. And in my mind, what the system fundamentally fails to do is understand who each student is as an individual when they come into the school, and the promise and potential that each of those individuals represents. And then based on that profile, the set of resources, supports and opportunities each child needs as a result. By layering on this set of structures that closes doors on students based on faulty assumptions around how learning works, it can be life-altering. And when I say that, Diane, often we talk about life-altering experiences in a positive way. Here I’m not talking that — I’m talking, generally, it’s negative.

Diane: So as always, let’s get serious about doing something about this by pulling it all together. Let’s pull all the issues together, and let’s talk about the real pillars and structures of our education system that we’ve been talking about in all of our episodes.

And, Michael, let’s make the case for why no one can wait to address them. Now is the time. To me, it’s clear that there are three distinct buckets of problems we’re dealing with, all of which you can mitigate if you have money and privilege and all, which will hold you back if you don’t.

Michael: OK. So I’m all for the framing and let’s go. I’m very eager to hear what’s in your first bucket.

Diane: All right. So my first bucket: Let’s start with tools, resources and opportunities. So let’s go back to our most recent episode about summer vacation, right? It’s not ideal for anyone, as we showed, but families with resources are able to basically buy enrichment and advancement opportunities or, at the very minimum, child care. And then families without these resources are kind of left to basically watch TV.

This bucket also includes things like computer and internet access. Some families can afford to have those tools for their kids to use, not just during coronavirus but always, and others can’t. And as we’ve talked about, you just cannot be an engaged citizen or productive worker in education or anywhere else in life without dedicated access to a device in good condition.

Michael: Yeah, Diane, I think I’ve learned a lot from you during this podcast, but one of the things is that, I’ll admit it, in the past, I’ve thought, “Well, disruptive innovation and things that make devices more affordable, for example, they’ll start to solve this problem over time.” But I think what’s clear is that we have a fierce urgency to solve this much sooner, as in right now.

And to your point, imagine the adult trying to be a functioning citizen in this country without those things you just mentioned. Good luck, right? And now we’re talking about preparing students for that world. If we’re not giving them that access right now, good luck again. And so given the urgency that I’m feeling around this, let’s make this more real, let’s make it more visceral.

And I propose creating a hypothetical student here, Diane. So let’s call him Jeremy. And imagine what Jeremy’s experiences are like when it comes to these things. Let’s say he’s an only child of a single mom who works multiple minimum-wage jobs. His mom doesn’t have the money for summer camp. And so even when Jeremy’s like 9 years old, he’s staying home alone for days on end because his mom has to work.

Now, he goes back to school in the fall. And his classmates have done all these coding camps that we’ve talked about and sports camps, or they’ve taken the advanced math classes so that they can get an edge when they go back to school. And now back at school, he has to get all of his work done during the day because his mom can’t afford internet access or a computer. He’s missing out on all the learning and exploration his classmates get when they’re at home, Diane.

Diane: I’m with you, Michael, and already, we start to see immediately how these structures are going to negatively impact a student whose education isn’t financially supplemented by his family. And let’s be clear — this is not overt. It’s not like Jeremy’s mom got a list of things and she just couldn’t afford them and didn’t do them. This is like more black market-y. This is more like the subtext here. And so let’s now imagine if these structures were different. If Jeremy, by virtue of being a public school student in America, has a dedicated school-issued computer 24/7 for years on end, year after year after year, and broadband access at home. And let’s imagine that his school has thoughtfully provided licenses to quality adaptive learning programs that he can access all the time.

He isn’t waiting on an adult or a system to decide when or how he can learn or confined to only learn while he’s at school five days a week. He also has a really powerful tool that gives him access to the world of knowledge and opportunity and years to get really good at using it in a professional way in his everyday life.

And so just imagine he goes to school year-round, and then within school, he’s given the opportunity to explore things like coding and swimming and all those things the other kids are exploring on their own. You know school breaks aren’t as long. So his mom can more easily find care for him with neighbors or family or however.

Or at the very least, not feel guilty that she’s leaving him alone all day for months on end with only a TV.

Michael: Yeah, I think that’s spot-on, Diane. And just if people are listening to this and thinking, “But that’s going to cost a lot,” first of all, in the first episode, with Evan Marwell, we talked about how there’s already money in the budget to do a lot of this.

It’s very attainable, but the second thing is: Schools can get creative around this. If they want to do a bring-your-own-device policy for those that already have those devices and focus their resources on those who need it the most, I think that makes all the sense in the world. I’m not recommending something here; the point is, these issues around resources and tools, they are solvable problems. And so many districts and schools around the country have done so. So if we pause there, though, I’m curious, now what’s in your second bucket?

Diane: OK, I think of the second bucket as the structures that rank kids. So this includes the things like tests and grades that support this kind of scarcity mentality that there’s only a few select opportunities or slots and so we have to just be able to pick the few kids who get them. These structures are designed to create winners and losers so that basically by age 18, before your life even gets started, the vast majority of kids think they aren’t good enough or that they are below all these other kids.

Michael: Yeah. It’s so sad, by the way. Just think about that. Right?

Diane: It’s so sad, and it’s just not even strategic from a perspective of our country. Why would we want all our people thinking they’re not good? It would be bad enough if we were only grading and testing what we were teaching. But the reality is these measures capture all sorts of things.

We don’t even bother to teach — even though they’re teachable — skills like self-direction and the skills of strategy-shifting and persisting through challenges and asking appropriate questions and for appropriate help and so many more. And families with resources or the intuition that these skills are important find ways either to teach them or, quite frankly, more often compensate for that absence of them. I’m going to be a little blunt and maybe a little bit provocative right now, Michael, but there are a significant number of students in our country whose grades and test scores are dramatically improved because they have a stay-at-home parent who essentially acts like an executive assistant for them.

Michael: I’m going to try not to laugh because of how vivid that image is in my mind and more think about just how sad it is that so many students don’t have those resources and schools don’t intentionally build them up with those capabilities so that they don’t need them.

And a student whose parent is home to help them with homework or hire them a tutor … of course they’re going to do better in terms of grades and scores. And then [think of] a student who isn’t able to be offered that support. That’s why this pandemic, I think, has shined such a bright light on the inequities that were already there in the system and that we’ve been working for to solve, Diane, for many years.

Diane: Yeah, Michael, think of the differences between a kid whose parent can be at home to oversee distance learning versus a kid who has parents who can’t be. Think of the huge industry of SAT prep or private tutoring, where kids get test scores and grades partially based on their ability to pay for the support. You have companies that can guarantee a 200-point increase, if you pay them enough. And then if you need any more evidence, the whole college admission scandal last year was a really dramatic example of it, but it occurs on smaller and legal levels all day, every day.

Michael: Totally. So to keep us focused, let’s go back to our character, Jeremy, and his experience with these structures.

He, as far as I know, didn’t come out of the womb as a particularly organized human being. None of us do, at least in my limited experience on this. And he hasn’t really ever learned those skills right now. He wants to do well in school, but it’s hard for him to remember to turn in his homework, so his grades aren’t good.

And unlike other kids, his mom isn’t at home acting as that full-time, personal assistant. Not because his mom doesn’t adore him; she loves him. But because she’s so overstretched and trying to make it work for him. And quite frankly, she was never taught those skills either, Diane.

Diane: And my guess is that Jeremy would pretty consistently be put in what he knows is the lowest-level math class. And like most humans, he’s perfectly capable of being good at math, given the right support and amount of time. But there are concepts he’s missed over the years early on, and he’s never gotten a chance to go back and really figure out, and his teacher doesn’t know he’s missing those things. His teacher doesn’t even know exactly what concepts he has missed. And so that teacher just starts to think that he’s just not good at math. And so through a bunch of little decisions and actions, Jeremy doesn’t take algebra until later in high school. And that puts him in a track where a huge number of college options are immediately off the table for him.

Michael: Yeah, completely. Right. But this is actually one where I can very easily envision a different outcome because I tell a story like this quite a bit. And it’s a story that I got to see when I was going to a school in Los Altos, California — and first heard it from Sal Khan, actually — where a student in an elementary school in the fifth grade was ranked in the bottom third in his math class. But this school and his classroom in particular — it was really, honestly, one teacher — made a very conscious decision to redesign the learning environment into what I would call a blended learning environment.

In essence, they divided the math part of the day into three blocks so that students would rotate: between learning individually by working on Khan Academy on a computer; the second block was working in small groups on projects and challenges; and the third was some whole-class instruction and opportunities for a little one-on-one time with the teacher.

And as a result of using Khan Academy in this structure, the student was actually able to go back into key math concepts that he had missed much earlier in his schooling career — so, like, second, third grade — and fill in those gaps in the context of other learning. And then he started to soar. So that within just 70 days he was working well above what most would consider fifth-grade math.

Diane: Such a great example, Michael. It totally illustrates how a system that is focused on evaluating kids so we can judge them to ultimately select them ends up reinforcing perceptions and biases about students, as opposed to the approach we’re advocating for, which is to support and develop the individual.

Michael: Yeah, totally. It’s a very clear example of the way that grouping kids by perceived ability as measured by point-in-time tests and grades narrows opportunities, Diane.

Diane: Absolutely. And one of the things that drives me crazy about our obsession with the achievement gap is that there’s this steady drumbeat that tells everyone that Black and Brown kids don’t do as well academically as white and Asian kids. And that is a clear and simple message that everyone has internalized and thus becomes a gigantic bias that impacts countless decisions and actions every day. And it just simply is not true, Michael. There is nothing wrong with Black and Brown kids. There are countless things wrong with the way their schools are structured, which leads me to bucket three, which is the structures that close doors.

Michael: All right. So I definitely want to hear more about this because I think your point is spot-on that this drumbeat of a message, and not just the message, Diane, but all these things that then back it up, if you will, in schools say, “Yep. It’s not just that your teacher thinks this because they’ve heard this, but actually we’re going to close the door now on you.” So I want to get deeper into these structures and hear more about this third bucket you have.

Diane: OK. Michael, in so many of our episodes, we talked about structures like project-based learning, teaching habits of success, personalizing feedback and so many more that are all structures grounded in the science of how you actually develop human potential and how people learn. And the flip side of all those structures we highlighted and the ones that exist in most schools are, quite frankly, structures we know don’t work for kids, or at least most kids. Add yet schools keep those things in place. They keep doing the same thing.

Michael: Yeah, I think that’s right. And the point that you’re making is that people seem to equate, for example, the decision to personalize learning versus standardizing it, say, in many people’s minds when they hear it, it’s like, “Well, this is just like choosing between vanilla and strawberry ice cream” … that “difference is a personal choice,” like a matter of taste, but the hard truth is that the difference between personalization and standardization, especially in learning, is not personal preference. We’re not talking about learning styles or preference to be taught this way. This is the science.

When you personalize, it’s hands down better at developing every single child. Even those of us who think that the system worked for us, we left so much on the table and so much was literally not developed because we have not applied this to us. And it’s not just the academics.

We’re talking about this as a whole person so that each of us can become a successful adult, full stop.

Diane: Yes. Yes, Michael. And this one is even more explicitly about race. Let’s say our student, Jeremy, is Black. From our previous two buckets, he is already in a competitive school system that is all about sorting and selecting and therefore judging Jeremy against his peers. Many of them have more tools and resources at their disposal. He’s in a culture that has consistent messaging that because he’s Black, he’s less likely to be good at a very narrow set of things that the system measures and values. And now, in this bucket, he has to go to schools where the way he’s taught and developed, the educational experience he has, the opportunities he’s given to learn often aren’t grounded in what science and research tells us will be best for Jeremy, but instead, what is the personal preference of the people who decide how the school’s run.

Michael: OK. So let’s get really specific because when Jeremy’s school decides that it’s going to offer him a learning experience that doesn’t even attempt to teach him self-direction or to offer him quality, actionable feedback, or ensure that learning is fixed and time is variable — and I could go on and on — and that school is closing doors for Jeremy, it’s essentially, “We’re deciding not to offer you the learning experience that’s science, what we currently know says will lead to better life outcomes for you.”

And that’s a bleak picture, Diane, but it’s one that I strongly agree is the current reality for so many kids in our system.

Diane: One of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had in my 25 years as an educator was when I called a student to let her know she had been drawn in the lottery for our school and her dad was listening in. And when I told her she’d been accepted, he literally yelled, “We’ve won the golden ticket!” I can still hear that conversation and that comment in my head, because for this low-income family, for this student who was Black, the opportunity to attend a school that does all the things we’ve been talking about — and let me be super clear, not perfectly by any stretch, but it’s really trying to do these things — literally changed the trajectory of this young woman’s life and thus the trajectory of her family, too. Why that isn’t a compelling enough reason to, to get the change we need … I just [don’t know].

Michael: Yeah, I hear you. This shouldn’t be a lottery system where you happen to get the golden ticket. This should just be the way the system works. The structures we currently have need to be replaced with what we’ve talked about, and these need to become embedded so that this isn’t chance.

And what you said is completely right. A good education, getting into strong networks that develop your passions, that connect you with people who can open doors for you and not close them—they’re life-altering, not just for the individual but literally branches of family trees. That’s how powerful this can be when it’s done.

But it’s chance. And that’s what drives me so nuts in this. But if you’ll go for a second with me on this, I want to flip our script just a little bit, because I’m wondering what those three buckets you talked about are like for a more privileged kid. I know that sounds a bit insensitive after the story you just told, but hang with me here for a minute, because I promised I’m going somewhere with this, which I think you’ll resonate with. Let’s say hypothetical student Julia is a well-off kid who goes to public school and has a lot of support at home. Walk through it with me. What do those three buckets look like for her?

Diane: OK, I’ll go with you, Michael. The first bucket: tools, resources and opportunities. Well, for Julia, let’s be honest, it’s great that she can leverage these tools outside of school to supplement her learning or figure out ways to learn the things that don’t make sense to her in school. But the big question is that even here, by not incorporating these things into the school day, we’re leaving some of that to chance, right? How is a 9-year-old who probably has very busy parents to know what digital resources to trust or which ones are reliable or safe?

And I don’t need to tell you that there’s some pretty horrendous things out there pitched to kids. And then let’s talk about summer break. A long break probably doesn’t work for Julia either. She has to have all her interests crammed into break as opposed to spread throughout the year.

And she’ll have to load up on what she’s doing during the school year. So she’s all stressed out. She wants a more balanced schedule, too. And we know from Mira that parents definitely want that.

Michael: Yeah, I think that’s right. You can feel that stress. It’s the flip side of our challenges with schools that there have been so many books written, not just about the challenges faced by marginalized students and families but also the anxiety and stress faced by students and families in well-off communities. It’s not working either way. And for those parents that want to supplement what their school offers, which has many in this demographic we’re talking, it would be great for Julia to be in a more flexible calendar where she could still do that if her parents wanted to. And the point I’d just like to say: We wouldn’t be taking any of the options away from Julia, but we could improve the baseline.

And so I guess that helps me move on to the second bucket because I could see pretty clearly how Julia would not be thrilled by spending her weekends doing test prep and extra math classes in the afternoon, after she’s exhausted from a school day or her evening seeing tutors, if she needs to get her grades up.

Diane: Or remember those kids who literally were taking the same math class in the summer before the school. I mean, crazy stuff.

Michael: I have that emblazoned in my head and conversations with my local school district in the last couple of days where they were talking about the rush in math that elementary school kids are taking. I would add on top of this, I’ve always been impressed with schools like yours, where I talked to the students, I talked to the teachers, and they’re like, “We don’t really have homework per se. We just have work and it needs to get done. And we help the students figure out where to get it done, whether that happens in school or out of school.”

And look, on top of that, Julia, she might certainly have the tools she needs to play the game well, but that doesn’t mean that it’s working for her, that it’s bringing out her talents or interests. She’s probably constantly comparing herself against others in her class. We know this gets really brutal in middle and high school, instead of focusing on her own development and discovering her purpose. And by the way, if that’s not bad enough, she’s not learning organizational skills or collaboration skills either.

She might get into college, but as happens with so many freshmen, she does not have the skills to figure out how to be there successfully or to work in the professional world successfully, Diane.

Diane: Right? Michael, and for that last bucket, we can assume that Julia and her family, with the resources that they have, will ensure that she performs well. But that doesn’t mean school is engaging. Like Jeremy, she instinctively knows that the way school is structured doesn’t speak to who she is or how she learns. She’s bored and doing what she has to do to get by, but she’s not even coming close to getting the most out of the hours and hours she’s spending in school.

And she graduates without really knowing who she is or what she cares about or what matters to her. And very often feeling really burned out, and like we said, like a failure, because even with all of her advantages, she doesn’t get accepted to the 17 colleges she applied to.

Michael: We could pause right there and do another podcast off of that. But it’s such a good point, Diane, which is why I wanted to bring Julia into this because for so long, I think people have tended to look at equity issues as a zero-sum framing, a system of winners and losers. I think a big purpose of this conversation is that we need to change the framing for these conversations and make it a positive sum where we all will benefit from doing a better job, educating all children.

And when children grow up, having the opportunity to build passions and know what their interests are, what their purpose is, and what it takes to pursue what they want, our society as a whole can really flourish. And the reality is just that if we can do a tremendously better job educating the Jeremys of the world, then in the process of doing so, the Julias of the world will also benefit. And the way we do that is by redesigning the core pillars of our education system that just are not working for anyone.

Diane: I completely agree. And I would just end by going back to where we started with how urgently important this work is. We’re in the middle of not just one but two pandemics right now. We’ve got the virus, Michael, which every day looks more and more like it’s here for a while and is going to extend our national experiment of out-of-the-building learning. And our second pandemic is a national reckoning with racism. My question is: Are we going to keep making excuses, or are we going to get to doing something about this? And for goodness sake, let’s at least get every child in the country a meaningful device and broadband in their home in the next month. Seriously.

Michael: Yes. And give them access to amazing digital tools that are already out there so that their teachers can then focus on teaching and building their habits of success and help them stay connected.

Diane: Exactly. And this is all doable, Michael, step by step, but we just have to act and then tackle the next thing.

Michael: All right. So that’s the charge. Let’s get to work and let’s keep the conversation going. And next time, Diane, maybe we can even talk in person. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Diane: That would be.

Michael: I would enjoy it. But for now, given where we are, thanks everyone so much for coming along with us for this incredible ride and for joining us on Class Disrupted.

Thanks for listening, and thanks to our awesome crew, making this all work. Jenna Free, our writer, Steve Chaggaris, our producer, and Nathan James, helping us with publicity and graphics.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a lifelong educator and innovator and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

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