The Importance of Education
Today I start a weekly series with the Sixers Youth Foundation doing one of the things I truly enjoy: talking about educational empowerment. I’m honored to be a part of this necessary work, and thankful that the Sixers were looking to unpack some of the particularly challenging subjects that we are confronted with as a nation right now.
I wanted to get a few talking points together ahead of the conversation, though the format that we will be using will be free-flowing, so this is by no means the final script.
When I first found Medium back in March, I planned to have home-based schooling be a main focus of my ongoing writing. Like the rest of us with kids doing remote learning from home, I was hopeful that the abrupt ending to in-person school, and sports, and life as we knew it would get sorted out somehow over the summer, and September would have us back in classrooms around the country. Some students are back, with masks… or not. And some of them are testing positive for COVID-19 in the process, as our national numbers pick back up from whatever flattening we had previously achieved.
Deciding whether or not to open a single school or a district is an unenviable task. While the dust is still settling, I must say that I appreciate the responsiveness of The School District of Philadelphia’s process — where I have four children attending. We initially received a lengthy online family survey for input, then, when the preliminary plan was announced, the public was able to weigh in. And weigh in they did, with six hours of statements during a school board meeting. In the end, the district moved away from a hybrid model to all virtual, at least through November. This isn’t going to be the best option for families who rely on school for much more than classroom content, and young people who lack any of the many things it takes to maintain a constructive learning environment outside of a school setting.
Exploring this further takes us to the heart of today’s conversation, so let me now share these two thoughts:
- Education should prioritize safety. Years ago when I first started my work on college completion, I would cite various studies that highlighted the increased civic participation and better health of college grads. It makes sense. College grads earn more money, can afford to settle down in a “better” neighborhood, and may have a more flexible job to have the time to run for their school board or other volunteer roles. This line of thinking positions education, or more specifically, educational credentials, as a competitive carrot. But let’s look at this from another angle. When we don’t prioritize counseling, and incorporate holistic school community-building methods that address trauma and well-being, we underserve those most in need. Now, with COVID-19, we’re having a much simpler and more dire conversation about life and death — of teachers and staff, of caregivers and older relatives, and of students.
- Education should facilitate empowerment. Each year there are media features about a handful of students who get admitted into all eight Ivy League colleges. This is a remarkable achievement that should be celebrated, but is the function of education to produce a valedictorian, or is it to raise communities? Are grades and test scores the only measure of success? How can educational opportunities nurture entire blocks in meaningful ways, addressing health disparities and wealth gaps, while shaping new cycles of collective success?
These questions pre-date COVID-19, but this moment has provided a significant opportunity for reflection, and is furthered by the social justice messaging around anti-Blackness. I am moved by this piece out of Chicago that’s been making the rounds. I am very much thinking along these lines in the courses I teach and the work I do at Penn, the projects and content I’m helping to create, additional resources for my book Higher Learning, and what I will be doing with my own family while we are likely at home for the full school year.
By sheer necessity, school will have to operate differently for the foreseeable future. For me, this is a time to look at the whole picture — aging school buildings, student-teacher ratios, the school day and year, content, pedagogy, intent, outcomes, community relationships, privatization, and more, along with the ways that race, place, and class have shaped the dialogue. Education has always been much bigger than school. How can we, as a caring community, use the tools we have (virtual and good old fashioned books) and our innate problem-solving genius to pour into the now generation? How can we collaboratively rethink how education is experienced, and raise the bar on what’s possible? And how can we prioritize wellness and safety, while imagining a new kind of collective empowerment?
Answering these questions is the 2020–21 American educational assignment that maybe we didn’t ask for, but is long overdue. Let’s put our best feet forward and have everybody shine. I’ll be back with more thoughts as we do this work.