Online learning exposes enduring educational inequalities, sparks efforts for reform

Throughout the summer, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has brought a lot to the forefront of the public eye about systemic inequity, from police brutality to health care. One enduring topic that has come and gone when discussing inequity is education, which is affected by historic practices of redlining across the nation.

     For Sara Siqueira, a junior studying cognitive brain science, attending a BLM protest in her hometown of Piedmont, Calif., sparked a desire to affect change in her larger community of Oakland. 

“Our town, Piedmont, is filled with very affluent and privileged white people,” she said.  “[It] acts as a bubble surrounded by Oakland … We attended a Black Lives Matter march in our town and found ourselves wondering what role our town played in the BLM movement,” Siqueira said.

  Siqueira and a few friends hoped to address some of these inequities by founding a nonprofit focused on uplifting existing foundations, such as the Black Organizing Project, Planting Justice and The Oakland REACH.

“We had an ambitious goal of setting up a fundraising event to call the Piedmont community to action and hold our town accountable as well as connect them with amazing existing organizations in Oakland. We really wanted to work with organizations and foundations because they understand the needs in the community,” Siqueira said.

The aptly named POPS, or Piedmont for Oakland Public Schools, symbolizes popping the bubble of Piedmont, which has the option to pick and choose when to associate with Oakland. While she acknowledged the name POPS has some savior complex connotations, Siqueira emphasized that by donating to Oakland causes, the people of Piedmont are investing in the broader community.

“When it is hip and cool to live by Oakland, people take advantage. But the fact that Piedmont is a separate town means that it can hoard resources. We wanted to address the fact that the existence of Piedmont is harming the communities around us,” Siqueira said.

When asked about the most important thing to consider when attempting to address huge issues such as systemic education inequity, Siqueira discussed the idea of diversity in predominantly white institutions.

“I think when people approach issues of equity and racism, there is a huge push for

diversity. That is great, but it has to go deeper than that. For example, at Tufts, it is important to have staff and faculty who look like you,” Siqueira said. “Yes, you can have a diverse school, but the inequities and discrimination will still exist unless you work to solve the culture and systems of the school … You need to think about how you can change policy, hiring practices and how you can ensure that you are retaining faculty or students of color or underrepresented backgrounds.”

The first of two large fundraiser events that POPS organized this summer was focused on removing police presence from schools. One organization the group worked with, the Black Organizing Project, has pressured the Oakland School District for years to remove police from its schools, which was unanimously approved by the school board this summer. The second fundraising event was focused on the inequities that accompany distance learning. The money raised was dedicated to covering technology costs and mini-grants for teachers and school administrators in Oakland-area public schools.

“Education reform should not be a top-down process created by lawmakers and academics”

Linda Beardsley, professor of education

Just like everything else, COVID-19 has forced teachers and professors to adapt to an online format. In the spring, disparities emerged among affluent and low-income school districts in students’ access to internet and computers. A Los Angeles Times survey of California schools in August found that while 87% of students attending higher-income schools had access to a computer when they were sent home, only 51% of students at lower-income districts had access. Linda Beardsley, a senior lecturer in the education department, discussed the inequities that distance learning has brought to the surface.

“Zoom and distance learning has shined a light on a lot of systemic issues and disparities in funding,” Beardsley said.

Education reform starts with the K-12 public schools, however, Beardsley believes that higher education can have a huge effect.

“One of the reasons I left the Department of Education and came [to Tufts] is I really believed that universities and colleges have a real role to play, especially in the preparation of future teachers,” Beardsley said. 

When asked about the impact that higher education can have on the future of K-12 public schooling, Beardsley mentioned the push for standardization by colleges and universities.

“One reason we have become so standardized, through frameworks, is that public schools are playing to what colleges and universities want. The best partnership is one between higher education and public K-12 schools,” Beardsley said.

Prior to her time at Tufts, Beardsley worked in the Massachusetts Department of Education on the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, which mandated the creation of curriculum frameworks as an attempt to provide equity across the state’s public schools. Beardsley emphasized that these curriculum frameworks were designed to be flexible for each district based on its own students’ needs. 

“Each district was required to be within these guidelines, however, they could decide what those guidelines meant for their students.” Beardsley said. “Our focus was deciding upon common standards and goals for teaching … that still allows for local possibilities and differences.”

Both Beardsley and Mindy Duggan, a sophomore studying child study and human development, emphasized the importance of including teachers in education reforms.

“Education reform should not be a top-down process created by lawmakers and academics,” Beardsley said. “We had policymakers who did not understand that we needed the perspective of the students, teachers, school administrators in creating curriculums for the K-12 public school systems.”

Duggan focuses on inequities in special education programs in public schools. For one of her classes, Educating the Exceptional Child, she learned about the Americans with Disabilities Act, a document that details the protections offered to those with disabilities in the United States. 

“Access to this information [in the Americans with Disabilities Act] could help a lot of students and parents, but a law can’t help you if you don’t know it exists,” Duggan said. “Increasing accessibility of this legislation can have such an impact.”

Currently, Duggan is taking a course called Education for Peace and Justice. The education major she is considering places courses in three separate categories to encourage students to take classes that they may not have picked of their own volition. 

“For me, I would take classes just focusing on special education, however, the categories have forced me to step out of my comfort zone and take a class like Education for Peace and Justice,”  Duggan said. “This class has been eye-opening because this is turning my view to gender, race and ethnic inequalities in the school system.”

Duggan emphasized the important steps that the education department is taking to create informed future teachers and administrators. By placing classes into categories, the department is educating students on as many aspects of teaching as possible. 

“I think these categories are preparing education majors for all situations that they may encounter as teachers or administrators,” Duggan said.

One category the education department requires for its major is “Teaching and Learning,” which allows students to gain in-person teaching experience with public school teachers and students. Duggan was originally enrolled in a course called Observing Theory Action, which would have fulfilled this requirement. Due to COVID-19, however, the structure of this class had to adapt quickly.

“In normal times, you visit a classroom at a public high school once a week. Because of COVID, this class has kind of morphed into looking at the history and administration of high schools from the outside,” Duggan said.

Duggan ended up dropping this course, hoping to take it during a semester where she could interact with other students in person. She expressed concern for the students who were not able to postpone this requirement.

“For students who are not able to put it off for another semester, I feel that there will be a lack of teaching experience. Zoom is not the same as being in a room with a student,” Duggan said.


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