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Treating the Symptoms of Our Sick Educational System


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Our education system was struggling long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The quality of our system was already impaired by insufficient resources for schools, poor treatment for teachers, inadequate conditions for students, and disparity problems for minorities. Much of this brought about by the alt-right movement to take over public schools for private gain. (YS Sept 2014) As ill as the educational system was, the pandemic has managed to even further exacerbate these symptoms. The struggle to avoid COVID outbreaks in the classrooms and the difficulty of doing remote learning from home has had a devastating impact on the learning experience, cognitive development, and social skills of our children.

However, this negative circumstance of worsening symptoms in our schools provides an opportunity to generate a positive transformation for our students. Just as destruction of the old always leads to the creation of the new, so too this is the most optimal moment for our society to address the need to implement dramatic changes to transform our educational practices and improve our school systems. When the chaos pertaining to trying to complete semesters in the midst of a pandemic finally subsides, and when schools are able to finally reopen without any encumbrances, this pivotal moment affords us a chance to evaluate the changes that can be made and remedies that can be applied to treat the problems with our system and to improve the health of our schools.

Implementing practices embraced by the democratic education schools concept would be highly beneficial for our children. The democratic education philosophy involves providing students with many rights, freedoms, and powers that they currently lack in the current system. Democratic schools provide students with the freedom to choose the academic subjects they study, the learning methods they use, and the educational activities they fulfill. Schools that embrace democratic concepts also grant students with the power to collaborate together and cast votes to participate in decision-making processes. Additionally, the schools achieve a level of complete equality that would be advantageous for minority students and that would help rectify our disparity problems. As the world struggles to reopen and schools rebound from recent challenges, this is an ideal moment to address the failures of our schools, the deficiencies of our practices, the problems for our students, and the ways in which radically transforming our education system can maximize the overall quality of our schools and the performance levels of our students.

Photo: USA Today

COVID Worsens the Symptoms of our Schools

COVID has asserted a destructive impact on students across the nation. Schools have been trying to remain open for in-person classes by desperately implementing health protocols involving mask mandates, distance requirements, ventilation improvements, sanitation standards, and testing procedures. Despite all of these efforts, remaining open for in-person learning continues to be a challenge. With outbreaks in schools often facilitating drastic shortages of teachers or complicated quarantine requirements for students, our education systems have consistently had to resort to remote learning to protect children from being endangered by the virus and to prevent communities from being overwhelmed by any outbreaks.

Schools have been trying to remain open for in-person classes by desperately implementing health protocols… Despite all of these efforts, remaining open for in-person learning continues to be a challenge.

Although remote learning does entail important safety benefits for our communities, the impact on the learning experience has been devastating for our children. Many flaws impair the ability for children to adequately acquire knowledge and meet expectations while trying to fulfill lessons and complete activities from home. The struggles include the distractions for children attending a virtual classroom while sitting on the living room couch, the difficulties of students completing lessons through computer programs, the challenges for teachers to deliver the curricula on digital platforms, the inconvenience of parents needing to provide assistance for their kids, the insufficient internet bandwidth in rural communities, and the lack of computers in low-income households.

A Nation United by Low Test Scores

The statistics demonstrate the detrimental effect the remote learning process has had on the test scores of our students and the learning levels of our children. A comprehensive study conducted by McKinsey and Company shows the specific data regarding how far behind students have regressed since the pandemic began. McKinsey and Company is a leading research organization in the US, and their study compiled data regarding the test scores and performance levels of schools across the entire country. The results show that test scores in most schools have plummeted, that students are falling far short of expectations, that their performance levels have significantly regressed, and that this problem is disproportionately worse for minorities.

The results show that test scores in most schools have plummeted… students are falling far short of expectations… performance levels have significantly regressed, and that this problem is disproportionately worse for minorities.

Many results from the McKinsey study highlight the regression of students during the year of 2020, when the pandemic first began shutting down schools and forcing students to use remote learning methods. For reading at the K-12 level, schools with primarily White students fell 10 percent below previous levels and schools with vast minority populations dropped 23 percent below expectation standards. This means that, for reading, the White students in the K-12 system fell approximately 2 months behind and minorities slipped about 4 months behind.

Students in the K-12 system also went backwards in their math skills. Schools with mostly White students declined to 31 percent below prior levels, and schools with predominantly minority students regressed to 41 percent below expected levels.  For math, this translates to the White students falling about 3 months behind pace and minority students plummeting approximately 5 months behind schedule.

Colorado Schools Show the Same Symptoms

Colorado has also experienced this worrisome trend at the state-level. In August of 2021, The Colorado Department of Education published its report on the student performance levels for the spring semester of that year. The Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) report showed that student performance in the state had dramatically declined since the pandemic, that our children have fallen years behind schedule on several subjects, and that minority and low-income students reflected the demographic most severely hit by the academic struggles.

…student performance in the state had dramatically declined since the pandemic… our children have fallen years behind schedule on several subjects, and… minority and low-income students reflected the demographic most severely hit by the academic struggles.

The performance levels of Colorado elementary school students demonstrated a significant pattern of decline.

In English, only 39 percent of third graders and just 47 percent of 5th graders met expectations. Minorities fared far worse in English, as 49 percent of White third-graders reached expected levels while only 24 percent of Black and 22 percent of Latino students met expectations. This disparity was even more glaringly lopsided at the 5th grade level, where about 60 percent of White students reached expectations, but only 30 percent of Black and 27 percent of Latino students were able to do so. 

Mathematics has been especially difficult for elementary school students during the pandemic, which fits the consistent pattern also experienced throughout the entire country. Among Colorado 4th graders, just 29 percent of the students actually met or exceeded expectations. But the math scores for 4th graders were especially devastating for minority students. While 38 percent of White students met expectations, which is incredibly low in itself, a shockingly disparate 12 percent of both Black and Latino students were able to reach the expected levels.

Middle schools also incurred the frustrations of low test scores in both math assessments and literacy tests. In the English Language tests, only 43 percent of 7th grade students met the expectations, with 53 percent of White students hitting that mark, and only 28 percent of Black and 25 percent of Latino students reaching that level. Mathematics has also been a difficult subject for middle school students during the pandemic, as only 30 percent of 8th graders met expectations on their math exams for the last spring semester. Once again the numbers were strikingly lower for minority students, with about 40 percent of White students meeting expectations, but only 15 percent of Black and 13 percent of Latino students achieving that goal.  

Additionally, science was another casualty of middle school test scores since the pandemic, with only 26 percent of 8th grade students meeting expectations in scientific subjects. In line with the common pattern, the disparity among minorities was drastic in science as well. Whereas approximately 36 percent of White students met the expectations, only 12 percent of Black and 11 percent of Latino students were able to do so. In almost every category, the performance levels of the students declined from the pre-pandemic era, minorities experienced deeper declines than their White counterparts, and the student population across Colorado is now at risk of falling years behind the standard pace of academic progress and the expected levels of student performance.

…the performance levels of the students declined from the pre-pandemic era, minorities experienced deeper declines than their White counterparts…

The Chasm of Disparity Widens as the Era of COVID Lingers

Certain practical reasons can help explain the reasons why minority students and low-income communities are performing lower on test scores and declining further on academic progress than their White peers or wealthy counterparts.

Regarding minorities, studies show that people of color have been doing remote learning at a rate that is approximately 20 percentage points higher than White students. This is largely due to the location of the students and the dynamics of the pandemic. The overwhelming majority of minorities — particularly Black and Latino families — reside in urban areas such as metropolitan cities where the dense populations are more susceptible to encounter outbreaks and the overwhelmed communities are more likely to shut-down schools. While rural towns or remote regions were able to more effectively avoid incurring outbreaks, circumventing virus hazards was much more difficult for dense cities and keeping schools open was much more impractical for minority communities. Additionally, the urban regions where many minority families live also tend to lean more politically Democratic, which means their communities were more diligent in taking measures to alleviate the outbreaks and more willing to shut down schools to protect their communities. With remote learning being difficult for all students, it is understandable that the regression in school and the decline of scores was more pronounced for minorities in Colorado and throughout the nation.

…studies show that people of color have been doing remote learning at a rate that is approximately 20 percentage points higher than White students.

Many reasons can explain why schools in low-income communities have also featured deeper academic regressions during the COVID pandemic. According to a report published by the Colorado Futures Center, about 5 percent of students in Colorado do not have access to the internet from their households, which accounts to approximately 55,000 children throughout the state. Two demographics were most predominantly impacted by the challenge of not having internet access and by the difficulty of attending virtual classes. White students living in rural regions often experienced this problem either because their low-income households could not afford the monthly payments for internet services, or because their remote locations fail to provide a broadband connection that is strong enough to handle online classroom programs.  Additionally, Latinos in low-income households represent the other demographic that is especially vulnerable to lack internet service at home.

According to a report published by the Colorado Futures Center, about 5 percent of students in Colorado do not have access to the internet from their households, which accounts to approximately 55,000 children throughout the state.

But the data shows that low-income students of all races also struggled with remote learning at disproportionate rates because of a lack of resources. Many poverty-stricken families with multiple kids in their household could not supply a separate computer for each child student, and many low-income households could not afford the technological devices required for online learning. Also, low-income households were much more likely to have parents working in essential industries, which means that during shut-down phases of the pandemic these parents have difficulties assisting their children with the remote learning process. Thus, low-income students performed lower on test scores and struggled more with remote learning than their affluent counterparts largely because of weak internet access, insufficient computer devices, and parents needing to continue working in their essential occupations.

A Post-COVID Rebirth of our Dying Educational System

With the educational system and student performance already struggling prior to the arrival of COVID, for the pandemic to further exacerbate the problems with our schools is extremely detrimental. Teachers are struggling to adequately teach the curricula through digital platforms, students are regressing years behind schedule in various subjects, and the disparity gap of minority and low-income students has been widening to unprecedented levels. However, the dramatic struggles of students and the frequent closures of classrooms also provides an optimal opportunity to transform our system as we revive our schools. Rather than returning to the same old systems that have been so insufficient for our children, the pivotal developments of COVID establishes this as a highly conducive moment to evaluate the challenges of our students, reimagine the structures of our schools, and implement dramatic changes that can substantially improve the performance levels of our students.

Rather than returning to the same old systems that have been so insufficient for our children, the pivotal developments of COVID establishes this as a highly conducive moment to evaluate the challenges of our students, reimagine the structures of our schools, and implement dramatic changes that can substantially improve the performance levels of our students.

Allocating more funds to schools that contain predominantly minority students or that serve low-income communities would be an efficacious solution. Despite the clambering for more funds from the educational institutions across the nation, the inability for our federal and state governments to impose reasonable tax rates on the wealthiest Americans and the largest corporations has minimized the amount of money that can be allocated to schools and has impaired the quality of education that our children can obtain. Thus, increasing tax rates on the rich and allocating more funds to schools can provide more textbooks for students, resources for teachers, equipment for classrooms, and improved teacher-student ratios for districts.

But Colorado also has to solve its unique problem relating to TABOR. Our Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights places a strict cap limit on the amount of revenue that the state government can spend in its budget each year. Even if the tax revenue exceeds that cap limit, the government must return that extra money back to the taxpayers rather than being able to use the extra funds for beneficial purposes. Eliminating TABOR would immediately increase the amount of funds that are available for our schools, which can increase the salaries of teachers, improve the conditions of schools, and enhance the performances of students.

A Democratic Revolution in our Educational System

Although throwing money at the problem would facilitate positive improvements, our society also needs to implement transformational ideological changes to improve the quality of the educational system. The current status quo has not been working for our children, especially for minority students and low-income communities. With students falling further behind during the pandemic, this is an ideal time to reinvent the practices of our schools and the methods in our classrooms.

Many aspects of the democratic education philosophy would help solve the problems our children currently encounter. The democratic education refers to a style of teaching that grants students maximum freedom, equality, and participation regarding the curricula in the classrooms and the methods of the schools. The democratic education concept originated from John Locke’s writings on providing children with a liberal style of education, and in the ensuing centuries several schools in Europe incorporated some elements of the democratic education style into their programs. But in 1921 the first official democratic school opened in Suffolk, England, and then during the 1960s the values of unbridled freedom enabled the concept of a democratic education to spread throughout the US as well. The Sudbury Valley School was founded in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts, and this prominent democratic school became a model that is now replicated in various areas around the country. Boulder County now has two democratic schools, with Alpine Valley School in Wheat Ridge and then the Boulder Sudbury School on Plateau Rd. As we recover from COVID and revive our schools, incorporating certain qualities of the democratic education into traditional schools would be highly beneficial for our children.

…during the 1960s the values of unbridled freedom enabled the concept of a democratic education to spread throughout the US…

The freedom of choice granted the students in democratic schools is a unique and productive feature of the systems. Students in democratic schools have extensive freedoms in choosing the curricula, including which educational subjects to study, learning styles to utilize, academic projects to complete, athletic games to play, or social activities to enjoy. Some schools provide classrooms with the ability to vote on these decisions, and others allow the students to choose their own subjects throughout stretches of the day.

Alpine Valley School

Many benefits accompany this quality of democratic schools. Offering the students a freedom of choice regarding academic subjects and teaching methods can increase their passion for learning and enhance the efficacy of lessons. As most teachers can profess, different students might learn more effectively from different teaching styles, and the standard style of teaching in traditional schools might not be productive for many of the students. The democratic education style can obviate this challenge. For instance, customizing the learning methods according to the needs or preferences of the individual students can instill the children with enthusiasm for the subject matter, encourage them to acquire the relevant knowledge, and improve their ability to comprehend the material and apply the information. Additionally, providing children with more freedom to prioritize which subjects they focus on throughout the school day can also enable the students to achieve self-discovery while identifying their most fervent passions and prominent skills. 

The goal of equality in democratic schools would be especially helpful in rectifying the egregious disparity problem and achievement gap in our traditional systems. Although traditional schools in urban areas might have diversity in the classroom with students featuring different skin colors, the schools still maintain strict uniformity in the lessons with every student learning the exact same way. In contrast, democratic schools offer diversity in the actual learning styles. Students from different minority groups can cater their learning methods in a way that is most conducive for their particular race, ethnicity, or lifestyle. This ability to integrate their cultural background into the academic lessons would further inflame their desire to learn and effectively improve their performances on tests.

Boulder Sudbury School

The value of collaboration and sense of community championed by democratic schools would be beneficial for the students and crucial for our society. This is a great dichotomy of the democratic education. Although democratic schools enable students to think as individuals, the schools also encourage them to collaborate as communities. Democratic schools allow the students to collaborate together, discuss issues, exchange ideas, and cast votes to participate in the decision-making processes of their classrooms or schools. They often meet and vote on various issues, such as resolving conflicts, changing rules, determining curricula, and solving problems.  

Fostering this type of collaboration would be highly beneficial for our declining society in numerous ways. With the US suffering from extreme levels of polarized divisiveness and intense hatred, instilling students with a value of community can perhaps alleviate the hostility in the US for the next generation. The democratic style teaches students to communicate more effectively by expressing their thoughts while also listening to their peers, understanding their sentiments, and showing them compassion. This can significantly enhance the camaraderie of our society and the communication of our citizens. 

Settling conflicts and solving problems as a group also prepares the students for an important aspect of citizenship. We all live in communities, whether it’s our small towns, large cities, and our society as a whole. Part of being citizens in communities is experiencing the same communal problems and needing to collaborate together to implement solutions to those shared problems. In an era of political paralysis, teaching kids to work together, propose strategies, and establish compromises is a highly beneficial quality that would also be transformational for our broken government.

…teaching kids to work together, propose strategies, and establish compromises is a highly beneficial quality that would also be transformational for our broken government.

Finally, teaching kids the voting aspect of citizenship is a tremendous feature of the democratic style. Right now a large portion of the US society is destroying the concept of accepting the outcomes of our elections and respecting the will of the voters. You win some, you lose some, but you accept the results and prepare for the next battle. It’s unfortunate that our society needs to be reminded of this necessary element of the democratic process, but here we are. Thus, enabling students to exercise their right to vote instills them with a sense of citizenship, and teaching them to respect the outcomes of elections strengthens our democracy.

Although traditional schools do not need to be entirely torn down and replaced with these democratic schools, certainly our current system would benefit from incorporating the principles of the democratic education into their institutions. The current system is impaired by inadequate resources for schools, declining performances from students, and expanding disparities for minorities. The destruction facilitated by COVID during the pandemic has exacerbated these symptoms of our sick education system, but COVID also offers us this ideal opportunity to transform our system to treat those symptoms. Although more funding would be helpful towards increasing the resources that are available for all schools and enhancing the performances that are possible for all students, ideological changes and radical transformations must also be fulfilled. Integrating tenants of the democratic education into our system would help supply new advantages and solve lingering problems. Providing students with increased freedom, options, and equality in the classrooms can help improve the effective strategies of our schools, accelerate the academic progress of our students, and repair the detrimental flaws in our society.

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