The pandemic has thrown a bright light on multiple inequalities that exist in daily American life, those in education foremost among them.
Anyone who reads about educational issues is aware that the quality of public schools differs according to zip code. Children who live in affluent neighborhoods attend schools with better amenities than children in poor neighborhoods.
Despite this knowledge, popular discussions of education by journalists, policy-makers, and pundits imply that, despite these differences, all our children have the opportunity to receive more or less the same education.
The pandemic has exposed the stark falsity of this national educational myth.
Virus-driven school shutdowns have made it less possible to ignore the class-driven inequities that attend the education of the young in this country.
The reality in twenty-first century America is not a lot different from what the situation has been since the beginnings of civilization.
Formal education—chiefly literacy—has always been the expensive privilege of wealth. Tax-supported public education is a recent development in the long march of history. Disruptions caused by the pandemic are already recreating the broader disparities that have always existed.
An article by Clara Totenberg Green in the July 22, 2020 New York Times illustrates the widening divisions:
As school districts across the nation announce that their buildings will remain closed in the fall, parents are quickly organizing “learning pods” or “pandemic pods”— small groupings of children who gather every day and learn in a shared space, often participating in the online instruction provided by their schools. Pods are supervised either by a hired private teacher or other adult, or with parents taking turns.
As Green observes, “the learning pod movement appears to be led by families with means, a large portion of whom are white.”
The learning pods Green references are designed to take advantage of public-school resources while minimizing the risk of infection in the regular classroom.
Some parents will abandon the public schools and send their children to private schools that are better able to follow distancing and sanitizing guidelines because of smaller enrolments.
Parents for whom such actions are not an option must improvise.
In considering their children’s continuing education, parents must first of all rid themselves of the notion that “things will eventually return to normal.”
What we have now is normal for now. Parents must work within the circumstances that exist now. For many, that means that some form of home-schooling will be the norm for the foreseeable future.
Location, economic status, educational background, employment status, local school resources and local virus risk will determine parental options.
In this new normal, parents and caretakers must establish priorities. For their sake and their child’s, they must avoid stressing themselves to a frazzle.
For parents who have only the time and emotional energy to concentrate on just one aspect of their child’s education, their first priority should be the development of the child’s basic literacy skills.
One of the greatest failings of US public schools is the continued use of a type of beginning reading instruction that fails at least half the children subjected to it.
Reading research finds that “over six million US students in grades 8-12 are struggling readers. One in four adolescents cannot read well enough to identify the main idea in a passage. Approximately 50% of high school graduates in 2005 did not have the reading skills they needed to succeed in college.
The most important academic skill that your children can acquire for continuing education is the ability to read fluently at the level of their intelligence. If you can do nothing else during this new normal, focus on your child’s literacy skills.
Keep in mind that, for most of history, outside the ranks of the wealthy, children who learned to read at all learned by being taught the alphabet and by practicing on whatever came handy. Think, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass.
School is good; professional teachers are great—when you can get them.
Now when schools and professional teachers are out of reach for many, disparities will widen. The good news is that escape from inequity lies in the fact that the foundation of formal education is mastery of the alphabet. The fluent reader can self-educate.
The American English Doctor site already contains material to help parents teach reading. As time goes on, I’ll be adding mini-lessons and quizzes. I also hope to install a chat application.
Good luck and stay safe.