Eliminating Educational Disparities Once and For All

As schools across the country have headed back to the books, both virtually and in person, some depressing news about ever-widening educational disparities have been released to coincide with the new academic year.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international organization focused on developing global standards and finding solutions to social, economic and environmental challenges, revealed in its Education at a Glance report that it expects disruption to schooling from the COVID-19 pandemic to cause a skill loss that results in a 1.5 percent drop in global economic output for the rest of the century.

For the United States alone, that translates into an economic loss of $15.3 trillion, a number that could rise higher if schools are slow to return to prior levels of performance. Any further drops in education funding, and added travel restrictions affecting students’ mobility could affect the outcome.

This learning loss, meanwhile, isn’t evenly distributed. The pandemic has served to widen gaps in educational opportunities between rich and poor, as well as Black and Brown and white children, the report notes.

“Students from privileged backgrounds … could find their way past closed school doors to alternative learning opportunities,” the report concluded. “Those from disadvantaged backgrounds often remained shut out.”

On top of this, algorithms used to assign students grades during the pandemic—from the International Baccalaureate program to the United Kingdom’s A-levels—have been found to be biased against high-achieving, low-income students, with longstanding prejudices against Black and Brown students baked in to the faulty formulas.

It is indeed a critical time for the world, and for our nation, as we seek to emerge from one of the largest public health crises in modern history while at the same time dismantling systemic racism that is pervasive in nearly every sector of our society.

Educators know a better world begins in the classroom, where, by dismantling prejudicial practices and stereotypes, we can begin anew to put proper building blocks in place for a more just, equitable, and peaceful world.

Just last week, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and the American Federation of Teachers together launched a series of lesson plans focused on racial justice, Defenders of Human Rights and Democracy in Your Community.

In them, classroom teachers associated with both organizations worked together to create easy to use activities and projects where students identify and profile human rights defenders such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Benjamin Hooks, and Dolores Huerta, and then identify democracy advocates in their own communities who also embody ideals of equality and social justice.

The overall goal is to help students to recognize that in a time of great uncertainty, political advocacy in their own communities is a way of highlighting their rights and their place in a democracy. It furthermore reinforces the idea that civic participation in calling for racial justice and social equity are more important than ever. Above all, it injects humanity into the bottom line, at the same time inspiring and training leaders of tomorrow.

More than 50 years ago, when speaking at the University of Kansas in 1968, my father, Robert F. Kennedy, noted that economic output was more than a number on a chart.

“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

If we believe, he said, “that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America.”

It is incumbent upon all of us to heed those calls today, for students to learn about those who came before as they shape tomorrow’s world.