James — who teaches, researches and writes about race and the law — explains the dynamics of education policy that has long made this a reality in American education and explains how things could be different in a post-coronavirus world if Americans care enough to try.
James is part of the OpEd Project’s Public Voices Fellowship, a national initiative to increase the public impact of our nation’s top underrepresented thinkers.
You can follow James on Twitter: @ProfOsamudiaJ
By Osamudia James
District by district, state by state, school leaders across the country are canceling the remainder of the academic year in response to covid-19. This, in combination with disparities in the access to and quality of online instruction among students has yielded nascent calls to hold the most disadvantaged students back for the 20-21 academic year, while their more privileged peers move forward. Not too far behind that are suggestions that parents exit the public school system all together, taking even their tax dollars with them.
Like so many other policy decisions under scrutiny for racial disparities, these early responses to uneven remote learning are primed to leave more nonwhite than white children behind, aggravating educational inequalities already embedded in our system. Unfortunately, this is nothing new.
American education history is littered with instances of leaving kids behind. The national myth is that all our children learn together, but a persistently segregated school system tells a different story, and that story is, in part, about flight. Intransigent in the face of integration orders and emboldened by Supreme Court protection, white parents deserted the school integration project in the 1960s and ’70s, taking their resources, social capital, and political clout with them to white suburban enclaves.
The children they abandoned are often subject to policy that disregards or even aggravates disadvantage linked to race and class — a second injury on top of the first. The adoption of zero-tolerance and extremely punitive disciplinary policies is more likely as the percentage of black students in a school system increases.
School-choice programs are pushed despite the likelihood that they will aggravate student racial isolation, especially given the tendency of many white parents to make school selections informed by race.
High-stakes tests are adopted despite the disproportionate negative impact on minority communities.
A robust vocabulary, featuring words like “race-neutral,” “accountability,” and “choice,” is adopted to mask the racial impact of these initiatives, to hide our impulse to adopt policies that hurt more than they help, that blame students and families rather than respond.
The real sources of inequality and uneven academic outcomes — enduring racial segregation, significant school finance disparities, a threadbare social safety net that perpetuates housing and food insecurity — are ignored.
Suggestions to hold students back for the next academic year, while more privileged students take off altogether, are no different. Although commentators are careful not to specifically refer to race, euphemisms like “disadvantaged,” “low-income,” or “vulnerable” signal that children of color will be disproportionately subject to retention policies.
Indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Hispanic and black students are already 1.5 times more likely to be retained than white students. Grade retention, particularly after grade 3, however, has not been shown to improve high school persistence or attainment. Moreover, dropout rates are higher among high school students who were held back in middle school. Given the limited upside and social and psychological downside, wholesale retention suggestions at this point are unwarranted, at best.
The absence of premature calls for such drastic measures in white communities only compounds frustration. Ultimately, all students are likely to finish the school year farther back in the curriculum than they would have been otherwise. Yet, we are ever confident in our ability to provide whiter and wealthier communities the support they need to bridge the gap: individual and small-group tutoring, accommodations for or suspension of high-stakes testing, robust enrichment and summer learning. These are the opportunities that are assumed to be available in white school districts, but quickly discounted in school districts serving children of color.
All of this begs questions about our willingness to take chances with particular demographics. Although the percentage of students attending low-income schools is lowest among white students, the absolute number of white children in low-income Title I schools was actually second only to Hispanic students in 2016 — a reminder that even whites can be caught in the policy webs that disregard for nonwhite communities produce.
If the kids we had in mind when considering large-scale retention were all white, would we be so eager to take a risk on unproven and potentially damaging policy? If not, it should signal to us that our motivations are unacceptably racialized, no matter the vocabulary we adopt to disguise it. And that race has again accelerated an impulse to leave certain children behind.
Concerns about the digital divide during a time when online instruction is the primary source of educational instruction are real. Although examples of quick mobilization in response to the gap have laid bare the lies we previously told about the impossibility of leveling the education playing fields, questions still remain about who has access to quality online instruction during this time.
Add to that the drain on psychic resources that a national pandemic has exacted, and it’s a miracle that caregivers and students are logging on at all. Yes, some students will fall (further) behind, and based on the racial and economic fault lines we’ve constructed in the past, that gap will be raced and classed in a post-covid-19 future.
In thinking about our solutions, however, we should not further burden students caught in the flawed system we’ve created. Nor should we double-down on an ethos of rabid individualism, independence, and, ultimately, abandonment, that has devastatingly undercut our public health response to the very crises that has prompted nationwide online learning.
Rather, we should keep in mind that our assessment of quality policy is often shaped by the people we believe will be helped or harmed by it. In education, policies to which we would resist subjecting white kids all of a sudden become sound decisions to which we should subject black and brown kids. The coronavirus may be novel, but this pattern in American policymaking is not.
Unlike our fractured and inadequate public health response to the virus, however, preparing in advance to counter racialized decision-making in the education system after covid-19 is still a possibility.