Five Immediate Policy Priorities to Further Educational Equity
With the Biden administration preparing to take office, we have an opportunity to center on our students at this critical moment.
The events of this year opened many eyes to issues of longstanding, systemic racism and inequity in our country. Nowhere is this truer than in education.
Long before this pandemic, too many students of color and students in low-income communities were left out and left behind, denied the opportunity for an equal chance in life. We can’t just “go back to normal” in education—"normal” has never served our kids.
As we look forward to 2021, we must co-create a fundamentally different future with our students and communities, centered in their aspirations and grounded in equity. The pandemic is a tragedy. It is also the greatest disruption in the history of our education system. The past 10 months redefined what it means to be a student, an educator, a parent. There’s much we all can learn from this, and much we can do together to reimagine education in this moment and for the future. Our government—federal, state, and local—has an important role to play.
A new year and a new presidential administration are an opportunity to act right away on policies that will move our country closer to ensuring every child has the excellent, equitable education they want and deserve:
1. Pass Additional COVID-19 Relief, Prioritizing Funding for Education and State and Local Governments
As the impact of the pandemic on state revenues and education systems becomes more evident by the day, it’s clear that more resources are needed. While Congress allocated funding for education through the CARES Act earlier this year and in a second relief package this month, this emergency funding for education has not kept pace with the needs of our students, teachers, and communities.
Studies show that the fallout from the Great Recession significantly reduced student achievement in math and English language arts, especially for students in low-income communities. In fact, many of these districts are still recovering from financial and academic implications of the 2007 downturn. The complexities of the current crisis and its impact on state budgets, school systems, students, and teachers make the Great Recession look small (and we all know it wasn’t).
Providing economic support under these unprecedented circumstances must be a long-term, ongoing effort. We will continue to need additional education-specific funds—and these funds must concentrate in historically marginalized and under-resourced communities. Before the pandemic, on average, U.S. school districts serving the largest populations of Black, Latinx, or Native students received roughly $1,800 less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color. A robust federal COVID relief package—particularly one that includes equitably distributed K-12 education funding—is essential.
2. Close the Digital Divide
Like pencils, paper, or other school supplies, technology devices and internet connectivity are now essential for students. Yet an estimated 17 million students lack broadband access and the devices to enable sustained remote learning. In some communities, the vital infrastructure doesn’t even exist. This digital divide will widen to the point of no return if we don’t address it now.
The digital divide is not a new realization. Educators have called out the need to close it for decades—it’s long past time to address it. But this is not only about students having access to resources for distance learning. They need digital skills to thrive in the 21st century economy. We’re seeing individual schools and districts find success, but closing these gaps needs to be a national priority. We must invest in guaranteeing that every child has the necessary devices and connectivity, and that all teachers receive the training and support to teach effectively when classes go virtual.
Moving forward, our educators will be tasked with a whole new way of operating. Elements of remote learning are here to stay—and our educators must have the support and preparation to provide creative, engaging, and rigorous remote instruction.
3. Diversify the Teaching Workforce
More than half of America’s students identify as people of color, but only 1 in 5 teachers do. Students can’t be what they can’t see. Research shows students benefit from having teachers who share their racial and cultural backgrounds. According to Brookings, students of color often perform better on standardized tests, have improved attendance, and are suspended less frequently when they have at least one same-race teacher.
At Teach For America, we’re committed to recruiting a teaching corps that’s diverse in every way. Each year since 2014, about half of the leaders we brought into classrooms identify as people of color, about half identify as white, and about 1 in 3 are first-generation college graduates.
Building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive teaching force must be a core priority at every level of our education system. First, we need to invest in what already works: increasing high-quality alternative pathways to the classroom, which are far more diverse than traditional pathways. It’s crucial to break down financial barriers to entering the profession—for example, by expanding student loan forgiveness options for those teaching and working in school systems serving under-resourced students. And robust federal funding for AmeriCorps must continue; this funding is key to ensuring that TFA and other service organizations can recruit leaders from all backgrounds.
As we work to bring in more young people from all walks of life, we know diversity is not enough. Our systems—national, state, and local—and their actions must ground in racial equity, inclusiveness, and belonging. Without a teaching force reflective of our students, equity will not be possible.
4. Address Learning Loss: Meet Students Where They Are and Allocate Resources Equitably
As the pandemic’s severity shifts from one day to the next, our school and district leaders are playing 3-D chess. Parents are worried about their children veering off track and missing out on learning crucial skills. And not only are teachers tasked with teaching our children in new ways, but thousands are still tracking down their students. According to estimates from Bellwether Education Partners, between 1 and 3 million U.S. students haven’t engaged with school since pandemic-related closures began in March—and Black and Latinx students are twice as likely as white students to be disengaged.
We must find and engage all students to prevent a year of lost learning—academically, socially, and emotionally. We need to take a trauma-informed approach as we help students through this historic moment and into the future. And we must identify—as clearly as we can—where more support for students and educators will make a difference, and then direct resources there.
Despite the many limitations of tests—especially in this moment—educators, families, schools, and systems need data to understand where and how to appropriately intervene and invest in academic and social-emotional learning. When we approach assessments as a tool for providing the necessary supports, we can face learning loss with clear eyes and begin to address it.
5. Create Safe and Welcoming Learning Spaces
The pandemic created a situation in which many students don’t have the stability of the school environment. Educators’ relationships with their students have never been more important, as students are experiencing profound disruption, trauma, and loss. As our country recovers, building classrooms rooted in love, safety, and support must be a priority. Learning must affirm students’ identities and create the conditions to connect across lines of difference. Our children deserve a culturally responsive education that hears them and values them.
It’s key for our policies and legislation to promote school environments where all students can thrive. At TFA, we continue to advocate for ending disparities in discipline, to support DACA and a permanent legislative solution for Dreamers, and to amplify new resources, policies, and approaches proven to support a safe, welcoming place for all kids.
This year, we witnessed people across our country gain a wider appreciation for what schools and educators do every day for our children and our society. But that recognition alone is not enough. Now is the time to show the world what our kids can do if we provide them with the education they want and deserve. It’s time to take on the systemic inequities that confront them every day. It’s time to provide students the relevant education they yearn for—one that’s individualized, connected to the real world, and supports their dreams. Making education relevant isn’t simply “nice to have” anymore—it’s vital to the success of our students, our communities, and our country.
Looking forward, I believe we will recover from this year, but I hope we never forget it. We’re at an inflection point in our country and education system. We can return to the status quo and the opportunity gap will continue to grow—or we can learn from this moment and fight for equity harder than ever with our children and communities. I’m convinced that this reimagination is possible—I see evidence of it every time I speak to our students and educators—and I know this fight is worth fighting. As we enter this new year, let’s stay rooted in a clear-eyed conviction: All children deserve an equal chance at a future filled with possibility, and all of us have a role in co-creating that better future.