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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

COVID-19, Education and Inequality: Reimagining Justice in Uncertain Times

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised urgent questions not only about access to education, but also about education’s deeper purposes, challenges and possibilities. In a Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs webinar this week, Dr. Sally Nuamah and Dr. Shirin Vossoughi provided a critical analysis of current educational discourse, policy and practice, drawing on their scholarly perspectives and experiences as educators. Here are four key takeaways:

Traditional measures of achievement perpetuate educational inequities: K-12 schools and higher education institutions nationwide have halted traditional grading systems—dropping SAT or ACT requirements and moving to pass/fail grading systems—to “eliminate any problems with fairness while allowing students and faculty to focus on creating a meaningful learning experience in anxious times.” And this should be the norm, Nuamah said, calling for a move that will persist beyond the pandemic: the valuing of what she calls Net Achievement. According to Nuamah, Net Achievement consists of “the absence of damage from experiences with learning in and outside of school.” This isn’t to say measuring a person’s ability to determine 1+1=2 isn’t important, she said, but we need to think about what a correct answer actually means. It doesn’t necessarily indicate cognitive superiority; it can indicate some students are coming into a learning context with some advantages. “Some students come into school much more prepared than others and if they continue to do well, that doesn’t mean I’ve taught them anything,” Nuamah said. “It just means I’m advantaging students who are already advantaged. Traditional achievement may be the marker of success in an equitable society, but in an inequitable society, it is a myth.”

Schools are social safety nets, not just centers of learning:  All 50 U.S. states have closed schools at some point in response to COVID-19, affecting nearly 50.8 million students. When schools close even temporarily, low-income families go without the critical supports that public schools provide, Nuamah noted, pointing to the millions of free meals schools across the country have provided and to the community schools movement more broadly. “Public schools are not exclusive spaces for teaching, learning and evaluations of achievement. Instead, they serve a broader civic and social purpose,” she said, noting many schools provide health care such as flu shots and other critical community services.

“Schools play an outsized role in our communities, yet we’ve disinvested in them,” Vossoughi added. “We need to invest in schools as social safety nets, not just centers of learning, but that will require a completely different way of thinking about our welfare system.”

Vossoughi also advocated for looking at the other side of “learning loss” making headlines amid COVID-19. Headlines like “The COVID-19 Slide” and “The coronavirus will explode achievement gaps in education” reinforce deficit views and the idea that “learning is the property of schooling versus a fundamental activity that is part of our everyday lives,” she said. “But youth are engaged in tremendous learning and sense making at this moment. What can we learn from students’ engagement in community contexts? How can we partner with parents and caregivers to offer different forms of learning?”

Schools can be conduits for social and political equity: “Schools can be arbiters of justice and essential mechanisms for accessing what democracy promises,” Nuamah said, pointing to the freedom schools of the 1960s, Afrocentric schools and indigenous schools. These schools provide “counter models for what traditional schools were built to do,” providing spaces where young people learn to mobilize and create institutional change with letter-writing campaigns and other forms of civic engagement integrated into the curriculum, Nuamah said. “Traditional schools weren’t constructed for this. They were constructed to contribute to the labor market – to teach people how to do the work required to keep our economy going and enable adults to go to work everyday.”

Schools can cultivate and measure well being, not just learning: “Social relationships characterized by trust, respect and love – as well as culturally and politically relevant knowledge production – need to be understood as both the starting points and goals of education,” Vossoughi said. Yet the deeper purpose and meaning of learning can get lost amid the focus on high stakes testing and the recent shift to distance learning, she added, noting that learning during the pandemic has been described as robotic rather than human. “We need a broader imagination for what meaningful distance learning can look like,” she said. “We need to create space for young people to process what’s happening, engage in forms of healing and joy, and feel a sense of radical agency and hope.”

Schools must also be held accountable for students’ well being in a broader sense, Nuamah added. “Schools that aren’t actually capturing rates of racial oppression and sexual violence are part of the problem,” she said. “You could be a high-achieving institution regardless of whether your students are experiencing racism and sexism. So what does a ranking mean? What does it mean that students are doing well?”

Ultimately, Nuamah and Vossoughi both pointed to the opportunity for schools to broaden their focus from achievement in a traditional sense to human development. “Schooling as an institution reproduces inequality, sorting and ranking young people according to a narrow definition of learning and structuring society according to those hierarchies,” Vossoughi said. “I think we need a broader language around learning and human development, and the role schools can play in that. It is a global challenge for schools to rethink human development.”

Nuamah concurred: Fostering greater equity will require “ridding ourselves of false notions of merit that allow systems of racism and sexism to flourish,” she said. “Maybe if society were different, we could carry on and focus on achieving a particular grade. But while injustice is the way of the world, we need to focus on well being and eliminating racist systems.”