The challenge of school and college reopening has taken national interest in education to a level unseen since 1958, when the Russian launch of Sputnik led the U.S. to link national security with education. The National Defense in Education Act significantly added federal funding to enhance science and math instruction, making clear the connection of education to the “space race.” Now, the Covid-19 pandemic has linked education to the critical issues of health and economic security. As schools reopen, the health and safety of students, faculty, and families are of prime concern. It is also critically important that the interruption of educational progress for so many students is reversed. Failure to do so will make any economic recovery from the pandemic illusive. This is why comprehensive federal legislation providing adequate funding for our schools and colleges is in our national interest.
When Covid-19 hit, a national health response was required, yet neither federal agencies nor the White House provided one. This failure went beyond health. Leadership in education was also needed, and the U.S. Department of Education was nowhere to be found. The department should have immediately convened our nation’s best capabilities, public and private, and made the case for a comprehensive national effort to protect student learning, regardless of ZIP Code. Just like the health challenge of testing, tracing, and treatment, remote learning had its own challenges, including access, equity, and quality, that demanded immediate national action.
Inequality in schools was intensified by inequality in homes. Some students were denied learning in school and still got support, but far too many did not, with students falling further behind, widening the achievement gap. Students in schools and colleges lacked devices and connectivity as well as high-quality content coupled with technology, tools, and support. The Education Department failed to develop a specific plan to address these critical needs. It also failed to outline the needed strategies to improve content and technology tools to help students and parents cope as weeks of closed schools grew into months. Partnerships with the private sector would have helped, but the time to take action was wasted.
It will become clear whether schools and colleges can open safely soon, though it is certain that limiting school attendance has serious consequences, especially for students of color, those who are low income, or lagging behind. Congress will argue over how much to spend, but the focus must not only be on short-term costs. A long-term response is essential, targeting funds on improving teacher quality, more time on task, enhanced support for guidance, a focus on social and emotional learning, and an expansion of innovative efforts connecting school to college and career.
While channeling significant short-term federal resources into schools and colleges is essential to fund the cost of plexiglass walls, air filtration systems, access to testing, tracing, and adaptable space to support social distancing, it can’t stop there. Just as businesses were provided a Payroll Protection Program, our schools need their own plan with an effective public-private partnership that can provide added resources and support so schools can go beyond the need to survive and actually thrive.
It is clear that none of these systemic problems can be solved solely at the state and local level. Especially now, in the midst of a pandemic, the country needs national education leadership and a commitment to ramp up funding not just in the short term. That is why the language used in the National Defense in Education Act, enacted in response to the launch of Sputnik, is useful to recall. Concern over national security led the House report to state that “the very survival of our free country—may depend in large part upon the education we provide for our young people now.”
The pandemic and the challenge of social justice are also linked to our survival. They demand immediate action from all segments of society, coupled with intelligent and significant financial investment combined with public-private partnerships. Federal support is essential for teacher recruitment, retention, compensation, and, importantly, professional development linked to skills in K-12 schools. This last important federal program, Title II A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,was actually cut by the Trump administration during the recent period of economic growth.
The Education Department has also been silent on diversity and inclusion in schools and colleges despite their deep connection to achievement. There needs to be more teachers and principals of color and more support for advanced-placement programs. In addition, a public-private partnership can recruit hundreds of thousands of well-prepared teachers, drawing on millions of highly skilled professionals seeking an “encore career.” These second-career teachers are currently nearing retirement and work in fields like technology, with strong engineering, math, and science skills.
To attract and enhance their skills, employers can match a federal investment by cost sharing their preparation in the transition to teaching, and increasing their skills by supporting them to volunteer as mentors to students and teachers. Teachers with strong technology skills can provide assistance in the classroom and at home. At the college level there is also a crisis in which declining enrollment and economic distress dictates federal assistance and public-private partnerships.
Execution of all this demands an Education Department exercising true national leadership. Its response to Covid-19 was inadequate. To address the problem created by the virus over the long term, it must help chart a path for success. A national education policy must increase funding and partnerships with a federal Education Department that actually helps lead the way. This is in all our interest.
Stanley Litow is a professor at Duke and Columbia universities, and serves as innovator-in-residence at Duke. He is a trustee and chair of the Academic Affairs Committee at the State University of New York. He previously served as deputy chancellor of schools for New York and as president of the IBM Foundation.