The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Our crippled schools won’t hurt advantaged parents’ children much

A Navajo Nation high school senior, shown with her sisters in Blue Gap, Ariz., spends six hours most days doing homework in a car next to a school bus turned Wi-Fi hotspot. It's the only way to get assignments to teachers. COVID-19 has brought one of the greatest challenges yet to these students. (Megan Marples/Cronkite News via AP)

When well-educated parents complain about what their children are missing in this pandemic of thin and chaotic online classes, I suggest they read the 1966 Coleman Report. It is still one of the most influential education documents ever written, and relevant to our current plight.

The 737-page report, titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” indicated that the academic skills, financial resources and love of books enjoyed by those complaining parents would mean that their children, at least, would lose little from a year or so of poor schooling.

Nobody should be that happy about that. Their good fortune is overshadowed by what is happening to children whose parents lack the time, money and academic confidence to keep them engaged in learning in these conditions. Often such parents are unable to get their children connected to even the mediocre online lessons schools are providing.

James Coleman was a 41-year-old Johns Hopkins University sociologist when he wrote his famous report. He checked into a D.C. motel to avoid any distractions as he illuminated the unprecedented survey he and his team had organized of 600,000 students and 60,000 teachers in 4,000 public schools. “The achievement of minority pupils depends more on the schools they attend than does the achievement of majority pupils,” he concluded.

As he later explained: “The research results indicate that a child’s performance, especially a working-class child’s performance, is greatly benefited by his going to school with children who come from different backgrounds. If you integrate children of different backgrounds and socioeconomics, kids perform better.”

As writer Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson noted in a 2016 Johns Hopkins Magazine piece celebrating the report’s 50th birthday, the federal officials who sponsored the report were not ready for that message. They had hoped Coleman would just call for more federal funding for schools.

What the sociologist actually produced was so complex that all sides in the education debate eventually found something in it they liked. But federal bureaucrats didn’t appreciate its unforeseen twists. Dickinson said they released the report on the July Fourth weekend in 1966 in the hopes that as few people as possible would read it.

The different social classes needed to be intermingled, Coleman said. Low-income students would not be challenged in the same way middle-class students would be if you left them in separate schools.

A vast web of people not considered to be educators still help with tough assignments

Flip that conclusion around, and it means if you are a child with parents who fill your house with books, read to you often and take you on intriguing excursions, you won’t lose so much this school year. You may be frustrated by sluggish Zoom classes and distracted by opportunities to play Minecraft on that device on your lap your teachers can’t see. But your parents will make sure you get enough intellectual stimulation to be ready when schools, rescued by new vaccines, return to normal in the fall of 2021.

Michael J. Petrilli is the father of a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old in Montgomery County and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank focusing on education. He noted that affluent parents occasionally take their children out of school for trips abroad or to national parks. Such children may fall behind this year, Petrilli said, “but if they are diligent about catching up, it won’t be a major problem. And on the flip side, they have learned so many other things from the experience.”

Parents still worry. The Portland, Ore.-based educational assessment organization NWEA estimated that students starting this fall term were at least a third of a year behind in reading and a half year behind in math because of the pandemic.

Tom Loveless, past director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said no one knows for sure. “My guess is that the loss will be less than expected, more in math than in English language arts, and more consequential for middle- to high-schoolers,” he said. “I also think there could be a surprising post-covid rebound. Children are more resilient than we usually think.”

Will parents similarly recover from this nightmare? Many school districts are doing their best to get every child engaged in learning. “60 Minutes” on CBS News recently reported that the Hillsborough County school district in Florida had tracked down 6,300 of the 7,000 students who had disappeared from classes when the pandemic began. School staffers in most places are working hard to get children up to speed.

Yet after classrooms reopen, old problems will remain. School days aren’t long enough for students to adequately absorb their lessons. Teachers need more training, and more access to coaches to keep their standards high. The mixing of social classes that Coleman considered vital is not a priority in this era.

As usual, the children who were furthest behind before the pandemic are going to suffer the most. Once in-class education resumes, their need to catch up should be each school’s most important objective.

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