Schools across the country were already facing major equity challenges before the pandemic, but the disruptions it caused have exacerbated them.
After students returned to school buildings after more than a year in hybrid schooling, districts faced disciplinary challenges and separated schools again. In an October EdWeek Research Center nationwide survey, 65 percent of 824 teachers and school and district leaders surveyed said they are more concerned now than before the pandemic about filling academic opportunity gaps impacting student learning of different races, socioeconomic levels, disability categories, and English learner status.
But educators trying to prioritize equity have an uphill battle overcoming these challenges, especially in the face of legislation and school policies that attempt to combat equity initiatives across the country.
The pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in 2020 prompted many districts to recognize long-standing racial disparities in academics, discipline and access to resources and to commit to addressing them. But in 2021, a backlash to such equity initiatives accelerated and has now led 18 states to pass laws limiting classes on race and racism, and many also to pass laws limiting the rights and welfare of LGBTQ students.
This slew of Republican-led laws pose a new hurdle for districts seeking to address racial and other inequalities in public schools.
During an Education Week K-12 Essentials forum last week, journalists, educators and researchers spoke about these challenges and possible solutions to improve equity in education.
Takeru Nagayoshi, who was Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 2020 and one of the speakers at the forum, said he never felt represented as a gay, Asian kid in public school until he read about the Stonewall riots , of the civil rights movement, and the comprehensive story of marginalized groups working together to change systems of oppression.
“These are the learning experiences that inspired me to be a teacher and to strive to make our country better for everyone,” she said.
“Our students truly benefit the most when they learn about themselves and the world they find themselves in. They are in a safe space with teachers who provide them with an honest education and an accurate history.”
Here are some points from the discussion:
Schools are still highly segregated
Almost 70 years after the Supreme Court ruling Brown v Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, most students attend schools where they see a majority of other students of their racial demographic.
Black students, who made up 15 percent of public school enrollment in 2019, attended schools where black students made up an average of 47 percent of enrollment, according to a UCLA report.
They attended schools with a combined Black and Latino enrollment with an average of 67%, while Latinx students attended schools with a combined Black and Latino enrollment with an average of 66%.
Overall, the percentage of schools where the majority of students are non-white increased from 14.8% of schools in 2003 to 18.2% in 2016.
“Mostly minority schools [get] fewer resources, and that’s a problem, but there’s another problem as well, and it’s sort of a problem for democracy,” said John Borkowski, a trainee lawyer at Husch Blackwell.
“I think it’s so much better for a multiracial, multiethnic democracy, when people have the opportunity to interact with each other, to learn together, you know, and you see all the problems we’ve had in recent years with the rise of white supremacy and white supremacist groups.
School discipline problems were exacerbated due to student trauma
In the absence of national data on school discipline, anecdotal evidence and expert interviews suggest that suspensions, both in and out of school, and expulsions, decreased when students went remotely.
In 2021, the number of crashes spiked again as most students returned to school buildings, but it was still below pre-pandemic levels, according to research by Richard Welsh, an associate professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt’s. Peabody College of Education.
But forum attendees, who were mostly district and school leaders as well as teachers, disagreed, with 66 percent saying the pandemic has worsened school accidents that warrant discipline. This is likely due to the heightening of student trauma due to the pandemic. Eighty-three percent of forum participants who responded to a sample survey said they’ve noticed an increase in behavior problems since returning to in-person school.
Restorative justice in education is gaining popularity
One reason the Welsh thought that disciplinary incidents had not yet surpassed pre-pandemic levels despite the exacerbation of student trauma is the adoption of restorative justice practices, which focus on conflict resolution, understanding causes of students’ disruptive behavior and on addressing the reason behind it instead of handing out punishments.
Kansas City Public Schools are an example of a district that has had improvements with restorative justice, with approximately two-thirds of the district’s 35 schools seeing a decrease in suspensions and expulsions in 2021 compared to 2019.
Forum participants reaffirmed the need or success of restorative justice, with 36% of those responding to a forum survey saying that restorative justice works in their district or school, and 27% saying that he wanted his district to implement some of his principles.
However, 12% of respondents also said restorative justice hasn’t worked for them. Racial disparities in school discipline also still persist, despite restorative justice being implemented, indicating that such practices may not be ideal for addressing excessive discipline of black, Latino, and other historically marginalized students.