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The Conversation on Equity that is long overdue in K-12 Education

Recent events in the US and our K-12 education system have exacerbated what should already be blatantly clear to education policymakers: all students do not have equal access to public education. It is a moral imperative that we as a nation step back, acknowledge the inherit shortcomings of education funding, recognize the disparate education experiences of our students, and understand that moving forward in this way is unjust.

Remote Learning highlights inequities across town, county, state, and federal lines.

While remote learning has required internet and devices as hardware to the teaching and learning process, it also requires training and support. Initially, conversations on K-12 districts switching to remote learning focused on these physical components as the tangible inequities across public school districts:

  1. Not all Households have reliable internet. The Hechinger Report pointed out that the Coronavirus is poised to inflame inequality in schools. In this article, the author talks about the correlation between household income and access to the internet. It should be no surprise that students from lower income families are lacking in consistent, reliable internet connections that position them to engage in online learning. Middle and upper class families, however, do have more reliable internet access and these students do have the ability to access online learning.

  2. Not all students have devices. While this reality should now be abundantly clear to most, it should also be mentioned that underfunded districts across the nation have not invested in devices for all students, embracing the "Bring Your Own Device" or BYOD approach to digital learning. Some have scrambled at the last minute, offering students who do not have devices at home to sign out a device during remote learning. While this is all they can do at the moment, we have to also acknowledge that signing out a device requires transportation to the district for that student during the assigned window and also requires that there is a reliable internet connection at home. It is a bandaid, but it does not fix the issue.

I am not blaming school districts here. If you have time, and access to reliable internet, you should take a look at the Fact Tank at the Pew Research Center on the Digital Divide. While remote learning is the buzz word of the day, the conversation must shift toward one on the digital divide: the reality that access to technology and devices has become a major barrier to low-income families and a weapon of class warfare. The reality is that reliable internet access is a societal issue, not just an education issue, and work must be done to extend internet access to our low-income and rural communities. We also have to do a better job at distinguishing between education issues and societal issues.

Understand that Remote Learning is more than just a device issue.

School districts that have prioritized technology over the past decade, and have had access to funding to build their infrastructure, have been able to shift learning toward a 1:1 environment. This has included building infrastructure to support student access to technology during the school day, however simply handing kids devices and setting up wi-fi networks does not constitute moving your district into the future. Now more than ever, we need to be careful and not let the idea of remote learning oversimplify the issue.

  1. The buck does not stop at devices and wi-fi. When school districts bring in technology they have to also make additional EdTech purchases to support and sustain a digital learning environment. This means vendors and recurring expenses. For districts with the funding and a supportive school committee, the technology budget includes human capital, software for security and infrastructure, and software for learning. There are layers to bringing digital learning to students that a well-funded district is able to plan for and sustain, layers that an underfunded school district simply cannot shoulder.

  2. There are free and paid for versions for most EdTech. This is to me the big ruse in public education, the idea that free versions for EdTech can somehow provide the same customer service and support for learning that a paid for version will. The EdTech industry is booming right now, offering new and improved ways to engage in digital learning. The reality is that the districts that can afford to make EdTech purchases, beyond security and devices, are providing their students with a packaged online learning experience that is accessible and supportive. Purchased as opposed to free digital learning tools are exacerbating an underfunded school district's ability to scaffold for all types of learners.

  3. Integrating technology well requires robust professional learning. As the bandwidth for technology in schools grows, districts that have the funding have begun to integrate professional training. No, managing a digital learning environment has not been at the forefront of educator preparation programs. Even in cases where early career teachers are comfortable with technology, the speed at which the EdTech industry is moving and changing can often feel like teachers are jumping on the freeway in a go-cart. There's too much out there and not enough time to curate or fine-tune how you are integrating technology in the classroom. Well-funded districts have prioritized training teachers consistently, ensuring that there is a multi-tiered system for digital learning where educators have a baseline of tools to use along with an intermediate and expert level of tech integration that teachers can work toward.

Remote Learning should be our education equity wake-up call.

Equity has become a buzzword in education, and we must recognize that it is a part of every facet of a child's education. This is not a device issue, an internet access issue, or a teacher preparation issue, or at least not exclusively. Remote learning in the US should call our attention to the reality that we are not fulfilling the promise of public education for all students and we're failing our kids.

I've spoken about equal access to education opportunity in my conversations on mathematics education, curriculum, and programming, and have recognized that equity and access are moral imperatives to improving outcomes. There are ubiquitous layers to equity from equitable funding to K-12 districts, equitable access to digital learning, equitable access to highly qualified educators, to equitable access to curriculum and opportunities for learning. The idea of equity highlights the major shortcomings in public education.

  1. Equitable Access to Funding. Your zip code should not determine whether you have access to a high quality education and, no, school vouchers are not the answer. Things like school choice (which I happen to take advantage of), charter schools (which I also happen to take advantage of), and school vouchers are not the solution to closing the opportunity gap for students. I have had the luxury of being able to relocate my family for a better education, and I have had the chutzpah to drive at some times three hours per day just to give my children a chance at a better education. This is not the answer for all families and its not even feasible for most. Funding for public education must be equitably distributed to all school districts so that all students have access to a quality education locally. If you don't believe that this is an issue, check out this EdWeek article on K-12 fiscal equity.

  2. Equitable Access to Digital Learning. I get that capitalism is great and competition typically incentivizes improvements, but something has to be done to regulate the EdTech market in order to ensure that it is not just another Berlin Wall between the haves and the have-nots. This might be an unpopular opinion, but when we make paid-for versions for education software better at scaffolding content and supporting all learners, we are marginalizing our students that require this and leaving them behind. ISTE has identified digital learning standards for students and we must strive to bring this to all of our students, not just the fortunate few.

  3. Equitable Access to Highly Qualified Educators. Teachers need to be paid more across the board. US News published an article on the teacher and gender pay gap in this country, highlighting the significant income gap between public educators and folks with the same level of college education. This is a profession where every year teachers are expected to do more with less AND reach every student in their classroom. This is not just about salary though, it is also about centralizing professional learning so that all teachers have access to training and support. We cannot expect our teachers to produce the same outcomes when we only provide opportunities for professional growth in well-funded clusters across the country. Our process for licensure and professional learning must be reformed so that learning is affordable and accessible to all of our educators.

  4. Equitable Access to Curriculum and Opportunities for Learning. While these all overlap extensively, equitable access to curriculum and opportunity is the greatest casualty when we do not prioritize equitable funding and equitable access to professional learning. We have state curriculum frameworks, national standards for curriculum and assessment, but yet it is still the case that your zip code determines the quality of your programming and your access to opportunity. I don't have an answer to this one, except that there's a real opportunity for change here as more districts build up their digital learning repertoire. School districts should be looking for ways to leverage remote learning to be more creative with providing access and opportunity to their students. Companies have global networks, why shouldn't we?

I hope that what has started as an access to technology conversation will morph into a conversation about education inequities. I am hoping that when the dust settles the American people are more attuned to the differences in education opportunities that exist town to town, county to county, and state to state. I am hoping that the anger and frustration associated with this reality is harnessed and that we focus on the correct culprit: equitable funding in K-12 education. We have to stop protesting our local districts, and our underperforming districts, expecting that they produce better outcomes with fewer resources. There's not another profession in the world where this is the expectation, so let's actually fund our children's futures.

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