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Many Children Left Behind: How American Schools Became so Unequal


By Cristina Viviana Groeger

One year after A‚Ä®merica’s public schools were forced to go remote overnight in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we know that students have lost time with teachers, friends, and extended family; have lost the daily interactions with crossing guards, cafeteria cashiers, and other workers who once seemed like a small part of their lives but are now starkly missed; and have even lost loved ones, financial security, and health—as well as, we are told, “significant ground” in learning. Above all else, what the pandemic revealed about our educational system is that public schools provide far more than they should, serving as “the great equalizer” in an increasingly stratified society—serving in fact as welfare states, as health care facilities, as child care centers, as sources for counseling and for free breakfasts and lunches.

As we begin to reopen our society with the worst of the pandemic likely in our past, we are thus left with a question: Should we continue to task schools with serving as our primary social safety net for young people, with the hours of instruction received by students now standing in for the redistribution of wealth, or should we take seriously the holistic needs of students as human beings and citizens of a democracy? The summer of 2020 was an opportunity—mostly missed—to reimagine what schools could and should be like: moving some classes outdoors to give kids back their urgently needed recreational time and renovating buildings to provide beautiful, functional spaces, for instance. The need for smaller class sizes to enable social distancing could have led to demands to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes permanently, a measure that could not only put students one to two months ahead in content knowledge but also revitalize their engagement and deepen their relationships with their teachers. But instead of reckoning with the real social and emotional crisis facing school children, many administrators and think tanks opined about “learning loss,” or the number of instructional minutes students missed in math and reading—especially the poor and working-class children who are most “behind.” Thus, as society reopens, children will face, along with the economic and emotional consequences of the pandemic, “high hurdles” in making up these math and reading deficits, according to the thought leaders who measure them by standardized test scores.

No one has yet spelled out how falling behind an estimated one to five months in instruction could rob children of their future, because most people understand there is no need to elaborate on an article of faith. The most radical proposal for reimagining the structure and content of education to come from a government official was New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s cynical bid to preempt teachers (who, he implied, could be removed from the classroom thanks to technological advances) and ignore the wishes of students and parents entirely by turning over the future of the schools to billionaires like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt, formerly of Microsoft and Google.

Exactly whom education should serve, as well as how and for what purposes, are the central questions raised in Christina Viviana Groeger’s new history, The Education Trap. A study of the transformation of informal education and the rise of formal education in the city of Boston, Groeger’s book doesn’t answer all of these questions but instead seeks to remind us that more hours spent in the classroom does not necessarily equal a brighter, more egalitarian future for all. She also reminds us that schools cannot be considered, as Barack Obama once put it in a State of the Union address, “the best anti-poverty program around.” That is the role of social programs that actually redistribute wealth, not of children burdened with the expectation to study their way into the ranks of the elite.

Groeger’s choice of Boston is fitting, given its role as a pioneer and site of struggle in the expansion of educational access throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. The home of Harvard University and educational reformer Horace Mann, Boston is also where the first legal challenge to segregation in the United States was raised and shut down in favor of “separate but equal” schools and where, years later, the effort to integrate the city’s school system through busing was met with violent protests. It is, in other words, a case study in the apparent contradiction between a citizenry with among the highest average years of schooling internationally by the age of 25 and one that still experiences some of the highest levels of inequality and lowest levels of social mobility in the Global North.

Read entire article at The Nation