For Students, The "Good Ole Days" Are Not Good Enough

by Dr. John H. Jackson, Schott President & CEO

Across the country, everyone is asking one question, “When will we get back to normal?” A cry similar to that of previous generations who often beckon back to the “good ole’ days.” If we are honest, the desire to get back to a place called “normal” is not because the past was better, but simply because it was familiar. The very fact that our past “normal” included a system where, in most school districts, you could identify by race and ethnicity which students were more likely to be suspended, expelled, or less likely to graduate says it all. Our past “normal” was actually abnormal (unless, for some reason which defies all science, you believe that intellect is distributed by race and ethnicity). 

In America, the “good ole’ days,” meant prevalent systemic racism, a widening achievement gap, and scarce resources for our students and teachers. Rather than longing for “back to normal,” our public school system has the opportunity to once again move us forward towards creating a more equitable and just “new normal” for students, parents, and families. There are three common sense places where, post-COVID, we can give birth to a transformative “new normal”:

Good Ole’ Days: 180 Days of School
New Normal: Longer School Year

More than 20 years ago, John Hopkins researcher Karl Alexander revealed that, regarding poor students, America doesn’t have a public school problem, it has a learning time and summer vacation problem. Kids in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan don’t outperform American students on international tests (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study-TIMSS) because they are inherently smarter, they just receive more learning time in well-resourced neighborhood school buildings.

In our “good ole’ days”, as Malcolm Gladwell highlighted in his book “Outliers,” the average school year in the U.S. was 180 days, compared to 220 days in South Korea and 243 days in Japan. Karl Alexander’s work further revealed that summer learning accounts for most of the achievement gap between poor and wealthy students in the U.S. by the end of eighth grade. Children typically lose one to three months of reading and math skills over the summer. The losses are much greater among poor or otherwise disadvantaged groups.

The disruption of the traditional school year brought by COVID-19, and the need to make up for the resulting learning loss, afford us a golden opportunity to give students more time to master what needs to be learned and less time to unlearn over extended breaks, such as the 10-week summer break. Now more than ever, educators and parents should be given a voice to advise state education agencies, local districts, and legislators on the best way to structure a pathway for more learning time that will give all students an opportunity to succeed.  

Good Ole’ Days: Improving Schools & Educators
New Normal: Improving Communities 

In the “good ole days,” the formula for improving learning outcomes for poor students and students of color was too siloed: fix the teachers, fix the schools, fix the students.  But students do not live in silos. The environment in which students, educators, and families exist is just as important to their success as the schools themselves. 

Several years ago, Stanford researcher Sean Reardon revealed that parental income remains a top predictor of student outcomes. Need I point out that parental income is often just a proxy for a student’s access to healthcare, transportation or affordable housing? The old “normal” expected magic. No other country expects the same outcomes from their nation’s students while providing them with such varying levels of living and learning support. We must invest in both the learning (equitable funding, quality early education, and remote learning opportunities) and the living (housing, healthcare, transportation) supports necessary for our students to thrive. 

The Loving Cities Indexa survey released by the Schott Foundation in 2018, which measured the level of living and learning supports (healthcare, education, public transportation, and affordable housing) provided to students and their families, revealed that not one city provided more than 52% of the supports needed to give each student a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. The inability of cities to create a necessary level of healthy living supports impacts learning outcomes just as much as educational standards and programs. 

The truth is, there isn’t anything wrong with our current public education system that what’s right with our system can’t fix. Public schools are the propeller of our democracy and true collaborations between students, parents, and educators. During this COVID-19 pandemic, when public resources were short, our students, local organizers, educators, citizens, and families stepped into action. Showing us that when those closest to the students are engaged in leadership decisions, creative methods to support and address students’ needs can be developed. In our “new normal,” we must assess and build healthy living and learning ecosystems supported by deep public and philanthropic investments in community organizing and community schools.

Good Ole’ Days: Outdated Federal Funding Structure
New Normal: The Department of Youth and Family Success

If we are to make the transformative changes in our schools and communities that are necessary to create a more equitable “new normal,” more coordination and collaboration is needed between the federal, state, and local agencies responsible for supporting students and families.  Rather than returning to the less efficient single-issue agency “back to normal” mentality, we are in need of a new Federal Department of Youth and Family Success to streamline cross-agency resources meant to support children and families.

Following September 11th, a similar need to reduce redundancy and improve the coordination of U.S. safety protocols and resources led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. COVID has revealed a similar 9-11 moment in many communities, and a systemic challenge deserves a systemic response. Whether the Department Education alone can protect every child’s equitable opportunity to learn in our new normal is questionable. Let’s not leave this level of coordination to chance. There needs to be a new federal agency (and, in many cases, a state agency also) whose mission is to create the type of consistent support necessary for public systems and communities to tackle the underlying living and learning gaps that are besieging our students and their families. All of this, of course, must be in the context of ensuring sufficient and equitable funding. Reducing local, state, or federal education budgets post-COVID—what can only be called balancing the budget on the backs of our children—is simply not an option worthy of our democracy. 

We may never get back to the “good ole’ days,” and that’s okay. The old normal won’t work for the challenges our children are facing today. We have a tremendous opportunity to build on new ground, create a system that better addresses inequities, and allow students and families to move forward stronger than ever. Simply stated, the “good ole’ days” are not good enough for our today, or our nation’s future tomorrow. 

This post is part of a Shanker Institute series entitled Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic.

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