Saturday, April 4, 2020

Privilege and the Pandemic

The pandemic-powered slide into crisis schooling is highlighting many aspects of how our public education system works (or doesn't). In particular, the push for some version of distance learning is underlining the huge gap between haves and have-nots.

We see the gap on the district level, between districts that can quickly muster the hardware and resources to maintain "continuity of instruction" (which sounds so much fancier than just "keep doing the work") and districts that have to really struggle for solutions. Various businesses are hoping to "help meet the needs" of districts and make some bucks doing it, presumably focusing on those districts that offer the best promise of long-term ROI.

In homes, the gap is even more severe. It seems particularly stark when one looks at all the perky advice about organizing your home school experience, laying out ideas that I'm sure are super-great if you are in a household where parents aren't trying to work from home, or aren't suddenly unemployed and uninsured, or aren't single parents trying to meet all the schooling obligations just laid on your multiple kids, aren't spending most of your days wracked with fear and uncertainty about how you're going to make it through all of this, or aren't still going out to work every day so that everyone else can have health care or food or some other essential service while you wonder how to get someone to watch your kids during the day as you also wonder if this is the day someone sneezes on you and kills you.

Social media is loaded with parent shaming, often parent on parent, about how "COVID is not a vacation from education" and you should be getting those kids logged on and distance learning away. Does that prospect strike you as somewhere between "stressful" and "nearly impossible" (imagine one parent and three students who all have to work from home on one computer with a lousy wifi connection)? There are also plenty of posts giving advice on how to adjust your attitude so that you can stop whining and just breeze through this.

In short, the current mess is not just highlighting the gap, but highlighting how oblivious some people are to it.

But as schools are forced shut, it's clear-- some students will get some sort of education at home, and some others will not. Schools are better positioned to serve some students than others, and some families are better positioned to keep the ball rolling than others.

Here's the thing-- that has always been true.

Yet districts have been wrestling with how to handle the gap? Do we just leave some students behind because we don't know how to bring them along, as Betsy DeVos seems to suggest? Do we just cancel the year? And if we do, who does that hurt (spoiler alert-- not the privileged families who can keep educating their own children)?

But when the COVID shutdown is over, all of these questions should still remain. In fact, we should be asking where the line is, the line that we just crossed where on the other side we know there is huge inequity in the system but it's an acceptable level. What is that acceptable level of a privilege gap?

It's an uncomfortable question, and yet when we have to put the wheels back on the education system, we may well have to ask it out loud. We can claim that it just sort of evolved to the pre-pandemic point we have reached, but when we go to prop things back up, folks will have to make a conscious decision, may have to actually say out loud what they think is "enough" for the children of "those people."

In the meantime, while crisis schooling, we'll have to be aware of things like the meme that points out that if you're giving grades during the shutdown, you're actually grading privilege. Which, again, will be useful to remember when schools re-open.

There are layers to this. Take the classic class project. Pat comes in with a giant diorama made out of fresh new poster board and legos with a nice paint job and some cool accessories that Pat's mom ordered on line; Chris comes in with a battered old shoe box with details drawn in with a ball point pen. As soon as you start to grade on "quality" or even "effort," you're grading privilege. And even if you are conscious of that, you can never be conscious enough. Because Pat knows that Pat's mom will run to the store for whatever Pat needs, the sky is the limit in the conception stage. Meanwhile, Chris never even gets to "what would be cool for this project" because Chris is stuck on "what can I do with the little bit of stuff I have to work with?" Privilege doesn't just give you a leg up on the task at hand; it broadens your sense of what is possible.

If only we could apply that broad sense of possibility to the big challenge of US education-- providing a quality education to every student, despite whatever obstacles they may face.

I don't know that many districts are going to resolve the issue before this school year limps across whatever arbitrary finish line the powers that be settle on for this year. But even if the summer somehow brings an end to the pandemic and schools can open again in the fall, the issue will not have gone away.

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