Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Justice over achievement

Image via https://twitter.com/lunchbreath
One of my big takeaways from COVID-19 is the importance of equity. Our society, including our educational system, has been built on a model that values overall achievement over equity. In other words, as long as you are enabling your top students, or at best, most students, to achieve at high levels, you are doing a good job. But this is wrong. I've been wrong. I have historically had it backwards, idolizing human potential and achievement and neglecting equity. Here's what I'm learning:

1) Prioritize equity: Better to live in a just society than an advanced one. If forced to choose between a just society or school and a high achieving one, choose just.
2) Don't teach or test in a way that disadvantages some students.
3) If that means the quickest won't progress as fast because you can't support those who are less ready, then that's how it will have to be until we can get better at supporting and challenging everyone. "Do no harm" is the guiding principle.
4) Challenge every student, but not more than they can actually handle. Set the bar high. Let them try. Then adjust it, always trying to challenge them and inch it higher.

So how can we actually do this in the COVID-19 world?

Let's take a look at the primary hinderances kids are dealing with, and some possible solutions.

Access to technology

Problem: Many students of low socio-economic status lack fast, stable internet or computers. This can lead to an inability to participate fully in Zoom calls, especially if webcams are required.

Possible solutions: Don't require webcams. Provide asynchronous options for learning, and extended deadlines. Bring these students in to school, in-person and full time, if possible.


Problem: Many students have home environments that are not conducive to participating in live classes. Some are caring for siblings. Others have distracting activity all around them. Others may be embarrassed to show their homes or families.

Possible solutions: Same as above, plus multiple opportunities for learning and success. In other words, mastery-based learning. They need flexibility. They need to be able to take or submit an assessment when they are ready, not on a deadline. They may also need extra academic help and social-emotional resources and instruction.

ADHD, sleep issues, low conscientiousness, low SEL skills

Problem: Many students attempting to learn from home are hindered by a lack of non-cognitive skills: the ability to get up on time, stay awake during class, manage their sleep, schedules, and tasks, stay focused, manage depression or anxiety, etc. These things prevent them from accessing the curriculum.

Possible solutions: Same as above, mastery-based learning, with a focus on explicit instruction in social-emotional learning and 1:1 SEL support. Instruction, assignments and assessments that target SEL skills separately from content skills.

Lack of readiness

Problem: Many students lack the pre-requisite academic skills and knowledge to access the curriculum.

Possible solutions: The mastery model. Extra academic help and support. 

As you can see, I keep coming back to the mastery model. I think it's really going to be the only way forward if we want to keep standards high and value equity. The impact of COVID-19 is going to ripple out into the coming decade, with students entering each successive year less ready than they would have been--and less equal. COVID-19 has disproportionally impacted at-risk students, so we can unfortunately expect gaps to be wider. 

Moving forward, we can either be driven by the fear of losing some imagined edge or status as a individuals, schools, country or society, or we can be driven by compassion and a desire for a just and equitable society. 

2020 was a unique and challenging year, and it's been hard to accomplish much, but one thing we can do is learn. Unfortunately, in our society we have a history of valuing some people over others. We have the opportunity to learn better and change.

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