No Child Left Behind. Every Student Succeeds. Race to the Top. Regardless of the names policy makers put behind national education initiatives over the last twenty years, the outcomes have been the same. Children are regularly left behind. Every student does not succeed (many actually lack a legit opportunity to do so). And when it comes to the educational equity race, the ever-elusive finish line makes it feel like we are not on a track, but on a treadmill.
The corona virus pandemic is revealing new layers of inequity that may end up setting us back even further. Education leaders are tackling the unexpected challenge of providing distance learning as the primary mode of instruction for weeks, months, and possibly the remainder of the school year. How can school systems that struggle to deliver equitable results in a standard brick and mortar setting overcome the added challenges inherent in distance learning?
Some districts have answered this question by deciding not to provide any learning, period. The legal obligations here are admittedly complex. Once school systems commit to provide any instruction, they are legally obligated to meet the needs of students with special needs. School closures across the country have also brought to shine a bright light on the enormous role schools play in our children’s safety net. Understandably, requiring students to have the technological resources and support at home needed for effective distance learning programs to work is a challenging legal obligation.
But it is still important to have a clear definition of what successful distance learning should look like. To define success, presume that every single student has the necessary technology, time, motivation, and support to participate in distance learning. Then, consider how success would be measured if standardized exams did not exist. As part of my work with educators, I have regularly asked what they would do if they had a magic wand to re-imagine education. Their most popular answer aligns closely with what success would look like in today’s digital context: giving every child their own independent learning goals and equipping them the tools and resources they need to meet these goals.
There is no exhaustive how-to list for equity because equity work is never quite finished. The key to providing equitable distance learning opportunities for all students is to recognize what this looks like for each student’s unique situation. This transition from “all children” to “each child” is probably a heavier lift than the shift to distance learning. But by recognizing equity as an overarching aspect of every decision school system leaders are making as part of this transition, valuable lessons will be learned that will help schools serve students more effectively in this new distance learning environment.