The pandemic has been a major obstacle for schools, but how we measure student success could be the underlying problem that continues to hold kids—especially the underprivileged—back.

By Tyra Bosnic
October 22, 2020
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Credit: RuslanDashinsky/Getty Images

It’s a cornerstone of the American Dream: A student dons their cap and gown, receives their diploma after years of hard work, and their parents can watch and think, “Our kid made it.” But this year, the very idea of school has become a nightmare for families and teachers alike thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s clear COVID-19 has shattered our sense of normalcy, and that’s made it harder to overlook the glaring shortcomings in the way the old normal operated—namely in our education system.

Parents send their children to school with the expectation they will learn the necessary skills to succeed in life, but that’s not what the education system teaches students. Before the pandemic hit, the typical school day was a series of tests in obedience. From reciting the pledge of allegiance every morning to memorizing material for standardized exams, students were taught how to conform. Marginalized students end up being the most impacted, finding themselves further disenfranchised for not being able to meet the narrow benchmarks for what makes a good pupil. Black youth are criminalized, nonwhite schools receive less funding, and children are compelled to learn about the world through a white gaze. When schools shut down in March of this year due to the pandemic, it was immediately obvious districts would have to make drastic changes to adapt. We’re living in a rare moment that offers us the chance to totally rethink the future of education—but that’s not what is happening.

“I’m wildly disappointed,” says Amy J. Hauenstein, Ph.D., the director of Communications and Non-Degree Programs at Northwestern University and founder of Learning Designs, a consulting agency that offers training in social justice-informed teaching. “We’re really missing a grand opportunity to completely dismantle the system and start fresh.”

Instead, the fiercest debate brewing in districts is whether schools should risk higher infection rates by continuing in-person education or copy-and-pasting the typical school day into a Zoom meeting. That includes adhering to dress codes, receiving remote suspensions for poor behavior, and—in an extreme case—78 days in juvenile detention for a Michigan student who struggled to transition to online learning. For Dr. Hauenstein, these controversial decisions are symptoms of an education system that values obedience over learning. 

“Even the elders in the workforce are saying, ‘Kids are coming out [of school] not being able to critically think,’” says Dr. Hauenstein. “It’s no wonder. We’ve trained them for 12-plus years to not have to think, to just follow instructions.” 

That would mean students who can manage to play by the rules are stunted, too, even if they’re not falling behind. It’s a lose-lose situation, where students are set up to fail if they don’t do what they’re told and reaching the top of the class doesn’t prepare them for the real world. Questioning what succeeding in education means can be a tricky topic, though. There are material benefits to excelling, like easier access to upward mobility. Especially for students from marginalized backgrounds, good grades are seen as a pipeline to higher social standing though studies also show Black and American Indian children specifically don’t reap the same economic benefits of such achievement. Several studies in recent years have highlighted the importance of education in immigrant families compared to native-born counterparts. That’s what makes the American Dream so vivid for many families. It’s a seemingly basic formula: Good grades and hard work equal a brighter future, so parents feel compelled to push their children to reach those goals. 

But better opportunities after graduation can come at the expense of everything else that makes a student who they are. Educators Kass and Cornelius Minor co-founded The Minor Collective to address the oppressive roots of education that are exclusionary to students’ diverse identities, including how we define success.

Measuring Student Achievement

“Success has been constructed in very narrow terms," says Cornelius Minor, Brooklyn-based educator and literacy reform expert. When you think about the history of education, success means getting as close as you can to being a white cisgender male, he explains. 

Minor highlighted the ways American education gives preference to white, cisgender men’s version of history and culture in classrooms. Although some states have passed legislation to diversify curricula, including lessons in LGBTQ history and more comprehensive Black history instruction, those courses are often not required and certainly not the norm. Further, the way in which success is measured is inequitable.

When states and schools measure student success, it’s all a numbers game. The No Child Left Behind Act signed in 2002, and subsequently the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, placed a heavy burden on schools to prove through standardized testing that schools were performing and deserved to receive funding and keep their doors open. Research, however, shows that standardized testing perpetuates racism and ableism and ignores structural barriers that low-income children, students of color, and students with disabilities face in the school system. Due to the pandemic, the Department of Education waived statewide assessment requirements, but long-term issues with relying on the constant testing of students remain. The standards created for students weren’t made for the current obstacles the country is facing, says Cornelius Minor. Can those standards change? “They must,” he says.

Reinventing Education in a Changing World

Dr. Hauenstein and Kass and Cornelius Minor have already seen the tides turning. In light of the pandemic and widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations, educators and parents alike are trying to reimagine a new future for their children. One way to do that could be building bridges between families, teachers, and administrations. 

“The narratives woven about each one of those parties—people really buy into it, and then they stop trusting each other to do the right thing,” says Kass Minor. “Communities are always going to be the best decision-makers for the people who are closest to them.”

A stronger sense of community also means parents can better understand the inner workings of the education system and what they actually want to see in their children’s development. Kass Minor noticed her fellow educators were less likely to push their kids to meet certain academic benchmarks. But parents who did not understand the inner workings of the education system pushed their kids harder out of fear they would fall behind. She says there’s a lack of transparency about what grading standards are used and why, perpetuating problematic narratives that blame students instead of the system. Advocating for clearer explanations behind those benchmarks can be a first step for parents to combat those narratives. 

There’s a hierarchy at play in school districts that parents don’t see in its entirety. Teachers and administrative higher-ups don’t always have the same vision for what’s best for a classroom, as Cornelius Minor notes. That’s why he utilizes documented, results-based inquiry to make changes district heads are wary about implementing. He calls it good teaching, but it’s also a subtle act of defiance when the top of the hierarchy says no to transformation. When teachers can feel beaten down and silenced, parents can become a powerful force advocating for educators to test out radical ideas. 

Parents and teachers need the platform to voice their concerns amid so much uncertainty, and so far it’s been nonexistent. As Kass Minor notes, town halls on issues with major impact are usually led by the heads of districts with limited input from families and the frontline educators that have to deal with them. But now that the internet has become a bigger part of our lives in the age of social distancing, “It’s just built a bedrock of community, of folks who are working toward the same goal in different ways through really different lenses,” Kass Minor says about the growth of grassroots activism. As chaotic as it’s been to cope in the midst of the pandemic, it’s forced us to imagine new realities that we’ve never seen before.

Student success can be totally redefined post-COVID, and it can be measured by something other than test scores or report cards. We’ve already experimented without these benchmarks this year, when many schools eliminated “F” grades or opted for pass/fail models, though those changes weren’t permanent. Scotland has been an inspiration for reforms, where annual inspections take the place of standardized exams. Along with asking students and parents for their input, inspections measure children's wellbeing, investigate equity in schools, and offer clear feedback for institutions to improve. The future is still uncertain, but communities can have a say in what comes next. Engage with your district’s school board. Attend meetings, ask questions about how student success is measured, and become a needed voice during a prime time to reimagine how our education system serves students.

Read more on how parents and teachers alike can improve our children's education in Parents.com’s Anti-Racist Curriculum, here. 

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