There is something about a crisis that has a way of shining light on stark realities — and nowhere is that truer than in education.

The closing of schools during the covid-19 pandemic and the quick switch to distance learning has laid bare the gaping and persistent inequities in educational opportunities that exist across the United States.

This post examines how that looks in the era of the pandemic and how we might look at things differently when schools reopen, which they will — eventually.

This was written by Jack Schneider, a scholar of education history and policy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the author of several books, including “Beyond Test Scores.” He is also the co-host of an education podcast called “Have You Heard” with Jennifer Berkshire.

By Jack Schneider

For the past generation, we have been talking about the achievement gap in American public education — the fact that low income students and students from historically marginalized racial groups, on average, score lower than their more privileged peers. Chiefly, this matter has been treated as a problem with the schools.

In a news release accompanying No Child Left Behind legislation, for instance, president George W. Bush celebrated that “An ‘age of accountability’ is starting to replace an era of low expectations” in our schools. His Democratic successor, Barack Obama, went a step further, pinning responsibility on educators. “The single most important factor” in determining student achievement, Obama insisted, is “who their teacher is.”

Scholars, meanwhile, have made a very different case.

In the research community, it is widely recognized that students transition into schools not from a blank slate, but from an unequal society. Because of that, young people enter school with vastly different levels of preparation. As renowned teacher educator Gloria Ladson-Billings argued in a celebrated address to the educational research community, the “achievement gap” is a misnomer, implying an expectation that all children would perform equally at school. Instead, she suggested, we should train our collective gaze on the “education debt” — the damage done to particular communities by “the historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral decisions and policies that characterize our society.”

The achievement gap, in this framing, is merely a symptom of broader inequality, past and present. The implication is that maybe schools are not to blame, after all. Such a position is well-supported by educational research. But for many Americans, it remains relatively abstract.

The covid-19 outbreak, then, may be the best time to actually see the education debt in action. The playing field across schools has been leveled with a bulldozer — differences in school funding, facilities, curricular resources, teacher experience, arts and music education and more are essentially moot. With students at home, schooling has shifted online, dramatically reducing what can happen educationally. Assume, then, that the schools are now more or less equal. An outgoing tide has lowered all boats.

Yet, some students will make significant educational progress during this hiatus from school, even as many of their peers lose ground.

Consider, first, the parental supports some young people have. Roughly 69 percent of students will have two parents at home with them, tag-teaming to offer support and encouragement. Some of those parents — disproportionately drawn from those with extended formal education — will feel at ease generating a school-like environment.

Those adults who successfully navigated school themselves, especially the minority of Americans who have college degrees, will be more likely to press their children to stay focused on academic work for several hours a day. That is not because they are better parents; it is because they are better situated to pass on their educational privilege. Parents are a child’s first teachers — teaching language, social skills, dispositions and more — and remain the primary influence on how young people approach school.

Consider, too, the resources that are now differentially available to students. Unlike their high-poverty peers, children from middle-class and affluent households almost all have high-speed Internet access at home, as well as web-enabled devices. They’ve got enough books to see them through the end of the crisis — twice as many, on average, as low-income families and African American families. Their homes are more likely to be set up in a manner that supports school learning. Such differences explain why summer breaks from school widen the achievement gap.

Finally, it is important to consider the way that basic needs will be met, or not, in American households over the next several months. Many families have well-stocked pantries and a satisfying rotation of takeout orders; others will struggle to put food on the table.

In Somerville, Mass., where I live, the district is preparing “grab and go” meals to replace the free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches that children here — and 20 million students across America — ordinarily receive at school. To relax, some families will take day trips for nature walks or retreat to their second homes; their less privileged counterparts will be stranded in place, often without heat. Twenty-two percent of the homeless population are children.

Our schools are not equal. Schools in affluent neighborhoods often have more resources than their counterparts in poor neighborhoods, even as research demonstrates a need for the opposite. White children and middle-class children are generally taught by more experienced teachers than their peers and are less likely to experience schooling as an unending preparation for standardized tests. Privileged students receive a more well-rounded curriculum and maintain better access to arts and music education.

Yet even if our schools were equal, they would not produce equal results. They would reflect the different circumstances that characterize the home and neighborhood environments in which young people spend a majority of their time. For the poorest and most marginalized, this means not just present disadvantage, but also the cumulative effects of intergenerational poverty. Right now, this is what you will see. Gaps are not closing; they are beginning to yawn.

For two decades, we have been trashing schools and blaming teachers. It is easy to assume
responsibility rests with them. But the achievement gap is a product of our unequal society — the reflection of an education debt that has never been settled. It is not something schools alone will fix; and as they remain shuttered, that fact will become painfully clear.

Perhaps the present crisis, then, will prompt some deeper reflection about why students succeed. And perhaps we will awaken to the collective obligations we have for so long failed to fulfill.

Schools will eventually reopen. When they do, we should return with eyes unclouded. Rather than finding fault with our schools and the educators who bring them to life, we might begin to wrestle with what it would take for all students to enter on equal footing. Until then, even an equal education will not produce equal outcomes.