Schools Are Closed, But Educational Inequality Remains

Inequality in education exists. I have observed it from the beginning of my career in a relatively poor area of Philadelphia. It is real and it has gotten worse over the years.
I began teaching about a decade after President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was implemented. The middle school where I taught had its cornerstone laid in 1969. The design of the building was quite modern. It included art, music, homemaking, and shop suites. Typing was taught and a computer lab was available. There was a fully equipped gymnasium as well as a pool where students learned to swim.
Remedial classes in reading and math labs were available for students who needed extra help. Reading labs included listening stations where students could listen to a story being read as they followed along with the text. The math labs had hands-on equipment. The teachers in the math labs also taught math topics not included in the regular curriculum.
Thirty Years Later
By the time I retired the only areas still in place were the one art suite, the shop, and the gymnasium and pool. The math and reading labs were no longer used for their original purpose. The resulting inequality was due to repeated budget cuts.
You may be thinking about the activities that were lost were not essential but they allowed many of our students who might not shine in academics to have success in other areas. They also allowed many to go to one of the specialty magnet high schools in Philadelphia.
Inequality in the Covid-19 Pandemic
Fast forward to the existence of the Covid-19 virus and we can see that in many areas things have not changed. When schools closed in Pennsylvania on March 13 the process of education changed. Those students in wealthier districts already had school-issued computers or iPads to take home nightly. Most students in these districts had internet connection already available at home. Their teachers quickly began sending assignments.
Pennsylvania has students who live in poverty throughout its cities, suburbs, and rural areas and the way education looks while schools are closed looked very different. While poor students in the suburbs might have a school-issued computer there may not be sufficient wifi bandwidth to use those computers. Will these students be penalized if they can’t complete assignments? There are many sparsely populated poor counties in Pennsylvania. The Internet is often not available in these areas because it is not cost-effective for companies to provide. The only other options there are a data plan or satellite connection which is often very expensive. This would not be a feasible way for students to complete online assignments. So how do these students complete their lessons? Will this count against them when final grades are handed in at the end of the school year?
Large cities have another challenge. There are often many students who live in homeless shelters or are couch surfing because their family has lost their residence. Even if computers are distributed to these children how will they continue their education? Again will they be penalized for not completing assignments when final grades are calculated? The inequality in these situations must be remedied in order for all of our children to succeed.
My Wish for a More Equal Education
For those of us who believe every child deserves a good education there are a number of ways that we can achieve this goal. We can look at how adaptations are being made during this crisis to change the future.
Among the first things that should be available to all students is access to broadband internet service. This would allow students to continue working at home during school closures. It would also allow those students who don’t have local research resources like libraries available the opportunity to research online.
Currently many if not most of our students are dealing with some level of trauma during this unprecedented time. Whether those traumas are related to being unable to see their friends or relatives or knowing that their parents have lost jobs and have yet to receive any financial relief, we should not expect the best work from students doing online assignments. When we return to normal we need to support those who live with trauma every day. These students need counseling support, tutoring, and empathy.
Finally, we need to rethink our standardized testing policy as well as what our curriculum actually accomplishes. If testing is used to see how well teachers taught and how well students learned then both of these groups need to know what will be tested. If the curriculum is being written specifically to match standardized tests it needs to match what is best for the students not what is best for the test makers.

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