April 16, 2020
Students of epidemiology from UASEM in NYC and Concordia International School in Shanghai met in a video-conference last week. Students discussed the response to COVID-19 in their cities, as well as the teenage experience as shaped by their knowledge of emergency medicine.
At the Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management, high school students are simulating responses to disease outbreaks, writing public service announcements, and discussing the global impacts of COVID-19 with a CDC ambassador in Shanghai. They are exploring how this epidemic impacts people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds. As the school’s name suggests, crisis management is not new to this community, the majority of whose students hail from the low-income areas hardest hit by crises like Hurricane Sandy or COVID-19. But this team is more than responding to a crisis. They are modeling a more relevant — and equitable — future for education.
COVID-19 has exposed many of our society’s weaknesses, significant among them the degree to which learning opportunities are denied to children living in poverty. Young people without internet access are now completely cut off from formal education. At the Urban Assembly, we have been working for a quarter-century to break the link between zip code and opportunity, by tying schools’ programs to students’ dreams for the future. Will COVID-19 set these equity efforts back? Or will it disrupt our systems to the point where we can finally advance fundamental change?
In New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, three-quarters of our 1.1 million students live in poverty, 114,000 of them homeless. People already facing huge challenges are getting sick, losing jobs and becoming disconnected from school at higher rates than those who came into this crisis with advantages associated with socioeconomic status and race. Hope can be hard to maintain, but Barack Obama defined hope as “the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.” Now we have an opportunity to build a better education system.
Our public schools have long reinforced inequities, with more affluent, white families consistently securing access to well-resourced schools with well-paved pathways to prestigious colleges and high-paying jobs. And at the same time it leaves the majority of young people, even those from more advantaged socioeconomic groups, ill-prepared for their careers. In a 2018 poll by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, just 42% of employers rated graduating college seniors proficient in oral and written communication skills; 21% rated them proficient in global/intercultural fluency.
There is opportunity now, as traditional school structures collapse, to innovate. COVID-19 has prompted New York’s Regents exams to be canceled for this year, so rather than starting with the question of how to use 50 minutes to prepare students for a test, teachers can grapple at deeper levels with what each student needs to master, and create tailored supports. School leaders are introducing new tools, and pressing their teams to use this disruption to nurture the independence so critical to college and career success.
There are opportunities to pilot new ideas in higher education, too. With COVID-19 prompting SAT cancelations, one wonders whether test-taking skills are so important, after all. Affluent families invest fortunes to give their children test-taking tricks because these tests are gatekeepers. Perhaps colleges will follow the lead of schools like Williams, Amherst and Pomona and experiment with test-optional admissions, and likely bring more diverse talent to their campuses.
What will the global community need from schools moving forward? A new generation prepared to build a stronger and more equitable world. Young people with skills like community mobilizing, epidemiological modeling, and supply chain management.
It is increasingly clear that the only way to level the playing field in education is to build a new field. A reprieve from some of the system’s usual constraints gives us an opportunity to try things that might lead to a relevant and equitable education system, from which we will all benefit. Let’s not squander it.
Kearns-Jordan is the CEO of the Urban Assembly, a network of 23 NYC public schools serving 9,000 students and 12,000 alumni.