Opinion: What Biden administration can learn from NJ’s fight for equitable education

Shennell McCloud | February 3, 2021 | Opinion, Education
In our rush to save lives, we can’t neglect our children’s education and their social-emotional health
Shennell McCloud

With President Joe Biden sworn in two weeks ago, our government will return to being run by competent adults motivated by empathy, not cruelty.

That shift in mindset couldn’t have come a moment too soon. In case anyone has forgotten, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 American lives. More than 10 million jobs that were lost during the pandemic haven’t yet come back. And millions of children have fallen months behind in their education — a COVID-19 slide that could have devastating consequences for low-income families in particular.

It’s that last concern I want to focus on for three reasons: First, because I’m concerned that in a rush to save lives, our children’s futures will be put on the back burner. Second, because we need to be treating the pandemic as an opportunity to look at ourselves in the mirror and reimagine what education looks like, especially for our highest-need kids. Finally, because I think our experience on the ground in New Jersey can provide our new education secretary Miguel Cardona with some valuable lessons.

Cardona will take office at a time when classes in many districts remain fully remote. Other districts are partially open and will be tasked with fulfilling Biden’s pledge to reopen the majority of schools within the first 100 days of his term. It won’t be easy, and with that in mind, here are four critical steps that must be taken to make sure our kids have what they need in the coming year and to change our education system for the better.

1. Support creative solutions and create a big tent 

It’s going to take all hands on deck to recover from months of learning loss, and Cardona’s willingness to put politics aside when it comes to our kids will be essential. In contrast to some of the more controversial names considered for education secretary, everything in Cardona’s background seems to indicate he is someone who cares more about whether a solution works for kids than whether it meets a political litmus test.

Here in Newark, public charter schools have been a lifeline for thousands of families; they’ve helped make the city a public school success story. And through the pandemic, they’ve partnered with families and district leaders to make sure kids and families are getting the support they need. Public charter schools — along with other creative strategies like tutoring, extended learning time, vocational schools, and early-college high schools — must also be a vital part of the solution to catch up once the pandemic is over.

2. Don’t forget about our kids’ social-emotional health 

Last week, I spoke with Newark Superintendent Roger León about how the pandemic has impacted Newark Public Schools. When asked about the most challenging aspect of shifting to remote learning, I expected to hear the superintendent talk about instruction. Instead, he told me about the impact of remote learning on kids’ social-emotional health.

“We know that the isolation that has occurred, the fact that students have lost their friends because they cannot be in the classroom with them … there has been an opportunity for us to seize,” he told me in an interview. “The counseling and social-emotional learning component of the things we needed to change, has been the biggest responsibility on us.”

This aligns with what I’ve heard from so many parents here in Newark: The pandemic’s isolation has severely impacted their kids.

Biden’s COVID-19 rescue package includes funding for counseling services, social workers, and teachers’ aides. Districts would be wise to use this funding to address our kids’ social-emotional health as we emerge from the pandemic and avoid the temptation to spend it elsewhere.

3. Close the digital divide

It’s unclear when schools will be fully back in person. It’s likely to take longer than others for some states due to both epidemiological and political factors. This means remote learning will be a part of our children’s lives for some time, likely through the end of this school year.

This puts an onus on city, state, and federal governments to address the digital divide head-on. It’s not enough to sit back and wait for in-person learning to resume. As Gov. Phil Murphy noted in his State of the State address, New Jersey has nearly closed a critical piece of the digital divide by providing computers and internet access to 95% of the 230,000 students who previously lacked one or both. While New Jersey is relatively well-positioned for internet access, many families across the country don’t have access to broadband wireless, and their children suffer for it.

Fixing this problem now — while there is the political will to address it — will pay dividends for years to come, allowing children growing up in low-income communities to have the same access to the internet as their wealthier peers take for granted.

4. Evaluate schools not just on academics but equity

The year 2020 was one of reckoning on issues of race in America. The pandemic protests, over the murder of innocent Black men and women by police and Trump supporters’ violent insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, forced Americans to confront the racism that directly permeates our national identity.

Our education system is not immune to this disease of racist thinking, and we need to build an antiracist education system to dismantle it. This movement is springing up in school districts and communities across the country, but our government must nurture it.

We should be engaged in a national effort to revamp the curriculum for our K-12 students to encourage a more honest confrontation of America’s racist past. Teacher training must include a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Schools and school districts that excel at educating students of color should be recognized and awarded with federal grants to teach others best practices. These are just a few ways we can build an education system with equity at its center, but this list is by no means comprehensive.

Though it might seem less urgent than addressing the immediate needs of getting students back in school, this work is no less vital to building a better future for our children. Like so many parents, I look forward to the day when going to school becomes part of our routine again. The question is: Will we embrace this opportunity to create a more equitable future?