Schools have been faced with a slew of critical decisions this spring about how to implement emergency learning equitably. And yet in these unprecedented times, it remains hard to guage whether those decisions the right ones. Was it equitable to postpone instruction or to continue virtually? To permit testing or to cancel it? In a new white paper authored for the Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Meira Levinson walks through the ethical decisions that school, district, and state leaders have had to make. She finds that rather than pose a new set of ethical dilemmas, the pandemic intensifies the inequities that already existed in the American education system.
What do we value schools for?
Policymakers and reformers need to think about whether high-quality instruction and academic achievement are truly the best means of achieving educational equality. Educators have always recognized that learning cannot take place if students are not fed, healthy, safe, and cared for. In the wake of the pandemic, communities now see the central role schools play in basic care, too (for more on how to equip educators, families, and communities with a new vision for K-12 education, check out the latest Education Now webinar and an upcoming webinar hosted by the Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics on reopening and resilience in education).
“Districts’ and states’ responses in March and April demonstrate that schools’ value lies in providing care first (physical, mental, emotional), and learning second,” Levinson writes. “Too often we justify the “extra” services we provide children — free and reduced-price school meals, counseling, nurses, family outreach coordinators, playing fields — in terms of their demonstrated effect on academic learning. But this gets the relationship backward.” She concludes that “schools’ essential value is in providing care even when they cannot provide academics; it is not in providing academics in the absence of care.”
Should schools teach?
School leaders were worried about their ability to deliver free and appropriate education to all students, writes Levinson, especially considering services for students with special needs, disparities in technology and internet access, and lack of equally structured supports at home.
At first many districts and states decided to “level down,” meaning that resources or opportunities were taken down to a level where the broadest number of students could access them — even if this meant halting all instruction. This policy stance was a striking one. “This is one of the only instances of which I am aware in which mainstream policymakers made leveling down arguments at broad scale,” Levinson writes.
Despite questions of access, Levinson maintains that the most equitable decision was to continue with instruction. “Any educational policy is likely to significantly exacerbate inequality during the pandemic, but providing academic education at least offers the prospect of raising the floor of educational opportunity for the least advantaged, which eliminating instruction fails to do.”