Williams: The Education Reform Era Is Ending and American Schools Need a New Paradigm for Tackling Ingrained Inequity

The final months of the 2020-21 school year involved tens of millions of children waking up, shuffling around their homes and logging on to another day of school in the United States. They chattered with peers, read, wrote and — more often than not — worked through lessons that were better than nothing but fell far short of what they could have been.

That’s public education in the United States today — limping along under some of the most trying circumstances imaginable. It’s a scenario that is now likely to be repeated to varying degrees in the fall as the pandemic worsens in many states and the prospect of full-time, in-person learning recedes.

And yet, sadly, this new normal wasn’t so different from the halcyon days of brick-and-mortar schools. We uploaded school to the cloud, only to find it quickly assuming the form that it’s taken for decades. The American “haves” get one version of public education, and the “have-nots” get another.

This spring, millions of children of color were still more likely to be learning in segregated schools. Students in low-income communities still had fewer resources. English learners in many schools were struggling to access instruction because translated materials and language supports were scarce. Lessons were too often short on engaging, rigorous work. Slap a new set of pixels over an injustice, filter the whole thing through a slick video interface, and lo, it’s still fundamentally unjust.

As always, American public education in 2020 is pulled toward reflecting American inequities instead of undermining them. With some occasional, limited exceptions, our schools have long mirrored American society’s racial, socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural and linguistic biases instead of providing an escape from them. As remarkable as it is to see the conference calls of yesteryear incorporate video interfacing and interactive slide presentations, etc., education technology has yet to prove that it can meaningfully disrupt public education’s entrenched structural inequities.

This frustration — that U.S. public schools struggle to live up to the egalitarian promises of American mythology — has guided school reform efforts at least since new education technology meant typewriters. But now, the country appears to be out of ideas for improving public education.

This quiescence predates the COVID-19 pandemic. This school year, states and school districts were still getting used to implementing the country’s main national K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, even though the deadline for its replacement is nearing.

The 2019 presidential primaries brought some new, vague noise around K-12 education policies. But few candidates dug into the details. At a Democratic Party December education forum in Pittsburgh, for instance, there was plenty of appetite for talking about student loan debt and higher education costs, expanding access to early education, exploring school integration options and increasing overall education funding levels, but major K-12 structural reform proposals were scarce.

Why? Well, for better and worse, we’ve arrived at the end of an era in American public education. This suits the current administration, which shows only casual interest in enforcing existing K-12 legislation but ample enthusiasm for treating children of color and families from historically marginalized communities as collateral props for conservative political narratives.

The basics of the old reform paradigm went something like this: Test students to see what they know, use top-down pressure to nudge schools and districts to focus on educational equity, design accountability systems that measure progress on those lines, and give families options when schools aren’t working for their kids. But after several ascendant decades, it’s pretty much toast. Political shifts made it difficult to sustain, and data on its effectiveness fell short of expectations. There’s little agreement about the value of testing students to see what they know. There’s little political will behind stronger federal efforts to hold schools accountable for addressing educational inequity.

So: American K-12 schools need a new paradigm for thinking about how they operate and how they might better meet the needs of historically underserved groups of children. Any contender for replacing the reform framing needs to be more than a general promise that schools should do more. It needs to 1) diagnose the challenges schools face, 2) explain how these intersect with schools’ place in American society and economy, and 3) provide a meaningful, concrete theory of action for improvement.

There are contenders. Some advocates push for a “whole child” movement in American public education. While compelling, these narratives risk simply reframing old work. Most of the reform crowd, including former secretaries of education like Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr., treated education as far broader than math and literacy test scores. To varying degrees, most of this old guard of education reformers advocated for wraparound services to address family poverty and child well-being. Most argued that a great public education had to include rich, robust curricula across a range of subjects, including civics, character education, social-emotional learning and more. What’s more, there’s reason to believe that a holistic approach to learning is actually compatible with the old test-based reform agenda. What new changes does the new whole-child push indicate for education policy and practice? It’s not entirely clear.

There are also new — and encouraging — local efforts to prioritize desegregation. There is some energy around addressing K-12 funding and resource inequities. But each of these primarily aims at addressing structures surrounding schools, rather than articulating a theory of action for improving schools’ daily functioning, and will be harder to pursue given the pandemic-driven budget cuts to come.

Indeed, even in the period as I’ve been writing this column, the prospects for our economy and the state of our public health have both significantly worsened. Amid our profoundly unstable present, even if a new president arrives in the White House in 2021 with a clear view of how to improve American public schools, their immediate public-health and economic crises will almost certainly consume all of their attention and political capital. And this is to say nothing of the pressure to focus on even more important long-term problems like the climate crisis and/or the public’s crumbling faith in our political institutions (think initiatives to protect voting rights, reform campaign financing and address gerrymandering).

Put simply, a president forced to choose will almost never chase a victory on education policy if it comes at the cost of a major win on taxes, climate change or health care. That’s axiomatic in the best of times, when the economy is in decent shape and Americans aren’t dying by the thousands each day.

So schools will continue to drift. For the foreseeable future, K-12 public education debates will remain centered on the daunting challenges of reopening schools. Insofar as they engage with any sorts of substantive reforms to how those schools operate beyond the immediate COVID-19 crisis, debates will largely orbit controversial issues like school choice and testing. They’ll generate plenty of ad hominem sparks — little flares of heat that can burn and hurt — but illuminate nothing for long.

And the news cycles will stretch across days, which will clump into weeks, which will soon be months and school years filtering tens of millions of children into the camps of haves and have-nots that American public education is designed to reinforce.

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