How educational inequalities continue to tear the country apart – The 74th | Team Cansler


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“I’m here to throw hot coals on you all,” the man said at last summer’s Brainerd Public Schools board meeting in Brainerd, Minnesota. “It’s not a common thing… It’s spoken of in the Bible. If you’re wrong, if you’re on the wrong side, it’s gonna hurt. If you’re on the good side [it] doesn’t hurt a bit.”

His biblical incantation was overheated on the subject: critical race theory, the now-familiar academic concept that conservatives have appropriated as an insult to attack doctrines they find too critical of American political institutions. His anger wasn’t unique. Controversy at school board meetings has largely spilled over into the national news for the past year. The pandemic has been terrible for our social cohesion and deepened divisions that were already severely frayed.

And yet, unfortunately, schools are convenient forums for these flare-ups. The educational disparities we have tolerated for so long — segregated schools, allowing for unfair underfunding of campuses with large proportions of children of color, wide disparities in school safety and quality, and the like — are not only terrible for children, they are deadly for them the American democracy. These systemic biases expose the substantial putrefaction of what our country purports to offer all members of its community.

On the one hand, schools exemplify the universal promises of American society. Longtime leader of the teachers’ union, Al Shanker, once explained that public schools were “created for the purpose of teaching immigrant children how to read, write and count and what it means to be American, with the hope that they will then go home and… would teach their parents”. Schools are perhaps the country’s most visible public investment in its citizens – a clear contribution of collective resources to ensuring that each of us accumulates the knowledge and skills needed for a career in business, to enable learning and living with our peers to practice and practice participating in the various systems that shape American life.

But schools are also places where the country makes those promises, where many of the prejudices of American life are systematically passed on and enshrined. The country says, “Work hard here, succeed here, and you will rise in American society.” But when children of color, when children from low-income families come onto campuses, academic rigor is all too often scarce, there is a hard and exclusive discipline, and real opportunities for advancement are largely absent. And then years later her Children come to the same campus only to find the same conditions.

When researchers write about “historically marginalized” children and communities, these are the cruel mechanisms that define the people they mean. These are the means of exclusion. So is it any wonder that children from these schools and backgrounds grow up to be jaded skeptics of American society and its economy? It’s hard to believe in, let alone support, let alone support trust, a system that promises meritocracy while offering daring world-class opportunities to the privileged — and repeatedly sending children to dysfunctional, underfunded universities. The inequalities of our school system make a mockery of the gossamer rhetoric of the American dream.

Worse, the pandemic has further exacerbated the divide between those for whom the system has historically worked and those for whom the system has historically not served. English learners (ELs), who are disproportionately likely to attend socio-economically segregated schools with high levels of poverty, were often excluded from local pandemic curriculum and were more likely to be chronically absent from school. Students in high-poverty schools made less academic progress than peers in wealthier schools during the pandemic. Overall, children of color have not been well served during the many months of schools struggling through virtual and/or hybrid learning schedules.

As my colleague Kevin Mahnken put it in a recent article summarizing new data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress: “At all levels of achievement [math and reading], 9-year-olds experienced a statistically significant drop in their score; but even with the same downward trend, the struggling students lost so much ground that the disparities widened.”

By the way, what is the core statement of the Critical Race Theory? It goes something like this: racism can be detected in public systems, and the design and structure of social policies contribute to social disparities. In other words, it is claimed that the laws, regulations, and institutions that shape public life perpetuate and perpetuate racial divisions across generations. Apparently neutral systems are being manipulated – and they are being manipulated in ways that cause significant harm to certain communities of people.

So, whether you like the term “critical race theory” or not, it offers a fairly accurate description of the unjust reality of public education in the US. The pandemic is a universal experience that imposed roughly equal risks and restrictions on all US schools. But in our country, public schools and communities are not universally equal, universally supported, or of universally high quality. So the effects of the pandemic were not felt equally; COVID-19 took a public education system that had already been wrongly tilted against historically excluded children – and exacerbated its inequalities.

Now more than ever, these divides are fueling the broader culture wars that are invading American education debates today. People for whom the system—the broader American socioeconomic system, its markets, schools, and beyond—has generally worked are defensive about the idea that it is actually not entirely fair and meritocratic. To them it is intuitive that the system must be defended against books and syllabuses that suggest otherwise. It ended up going well for her!

And yet, the past two years have provided tragic, predictable evidence that American public education remains systemically unfair to families of color, low-income families, English learners, and other historically marginalized groups. Members of these groups have ample evidence that they should NotBasically, trust that US schools – or society – routinely prioritize their best interests.

So here we are, from Brainerd to Florida, from Maryland to Orange County, arguing about whether or not it should be legal to discuss this fact. We have mostly white, mostly privileged people anxiously demanding that schools not talk about how the country’s public institutions have unfairly served marginalized communities throughout history – rather than directly addressing the consequences of the unfair treatment of marginalized communities during the pandemic to deal with. We’re not just discussing how US schools teach American sins past. We decide if we, as communities, are ready to address the realities of inequality in America currently.

For years, Americans have struggled to pull together – to solve political problems, to confront public health crises, to respond to injustices in our collective community. Our divided, divided society derives in part from our separate, segregated schools. The pandemic has made it clear that the educational inequalities associated with these divisions are why we are not all in this together, whatever the particular collective challenge. how could we be Americans learn from the start that we are not really in fellowship with these other citizens.

There is no short-term solution. But the long-term solution to our incoherence is not to require children to sing the Pledge of Allegiance or read fables extolling George Washington’s virtues and erasing his slavery from the public record. It’s about transforming our schools so that all children are treated with the care and respect they deserve and that all children are placed in schools that resemble the diverse society they will one day live in as adults.


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