The Urgency of Educational Equity Now: A Conversation with John King and Karen Pittman

CASEL CARES is an initiative from CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) that connects individuals and communities with experts to address how Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) can be most helpful in today’s circumstances. It is important to recognize that the most vulnerable students are at particular risk during this time.

As part of the CASEL CARES webinar series, the Education Trust’s John King and the Forum’s Karen Pittman recently offered reflections on existing inequities in education that have been exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic and other recent events.

On this page you’ll find the session recording along with selected passages, an interactive transcript, and additional resources.

Introducing the Readiness Projects and Addressing the Difficult Events of Recent Weeks

Karen Pittman teed up the conversation by introducing the Readiness Projects, a new initiative from the Forum for Youth Investment, the National Urban League, and the American Institutes for Research to devote their time, resources, and perspectives to stimulate equity-driven solutions and policies.

Karen also discussed the difficult recent events taking place in Minneapolis and other communities around the country in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd. Learning is truly social and emotional, and young people are clearly seeing and experiencing these events through that lens.  It will be essential as we begin to reopen school to have honest and frank dialogues about these incidents. Karen stated that there’s a clear need to “really acknowledge the fact that our young people are learning and losing so much because of active racism in this country, that if we don’t bring that reality and that conversation into our reopening plans, we’re going to miss the boat.”

John King reflected on his time as Secretary of Education, and a visit to Saint Paul, Minnesota to the school where Philando Castile worked in the cafeteria. He explores the parallels between that time and now, and made the insightful comment that “I think about this moment and what social emotional learning requires to do it well, one has to integrate and center issues of racial equity and talk about how these issues affect the life in the community, life in the school.”


Preparing for the Summer and the 2020-21 School Year

In the second part of the conversation, King asked Pittman “When you think about what folks need to do to prepare for next school year or even community-based organizations that are supporting young people over this summer, what kinds of questions should they be thinking about?”

Pittman’s response touches on a number of critical issues, including the importance of thinking about robust equity, going beyond academic skills to think about social and emotional skills, dealing with trauma and adversity, and bringing a social justice lens to this work. We are at a time when we can reimagine what education looks like. Pittman remarked that  “If there was ever a time to get very clear about what each of those means and how we really shape not just how we teach, what we teach to young people, this is the time.”

King discussed the essential role of relationships in education, especially those between teachers and students. There is concern about this difficult time especially for adolescents, who may already have a fragile relationship with their school and connections. King pointed out that “…we made tremendous progress over the last decade in terms of graduation rates from high school. But I’m worried we may lose ground because there are kids who may not come back or kids who may come back and find the adjustment to school, particularly with all the challenges the fall will bring, difficult and they may leave.”

Access, Engagement, and Assessment

In the last segment of the conversation, Pittman tees up the idea that this moment in our nation provides the opportunity to think differently about data and assessment. She asks King, “What are your feelings about when, how, and what we should be assessing as young people come back to school?”

King responded by addressing some current inequities we’re seeing, including very uneven access to internet access and device access. “So we have to ask hard questions at the district and community level about access, because, really, the Internet now is the schoolhouse door. If we’re not providing Internet access, we are barring the schoolhouse door for young people. ”

In terms of assessment, esp. in this digital age, there needs to be “assessment of attendance, participation, project completion, engagement. If everyone’s on the Zoom call, but the only one talking for 45 minutes is the teacher, that’s not engagement.”

In the fall, there will need to be an assessment of where kids are, in order to target learning needs, especially for students with disabilities and English language learners, who districts have struggled to provide effective distance learning supports for.

King suggests that asking people how they’re doing is a start, and mentioned some initial polling of parents that uncovered high levels of stress in this difficult time, as well as clear needs. “People said I really wish I had direct contact with my child’s teacher. 85% or more of parents wanted that. Less than half have received that. Many parents said they wanted tech support, navigating the technology and all the devices and platforms and so forth, but they weren’t getting it from their school. Many parents wanted access to mental health supports and often weren’t getting it.”

Pittman brought up the work of Turnaround for Children and the SoLD Alliance to delve into the neuroscience behind learning. Pittman remarked that “It really does boil down to every young person has the potential, if they’re in an environment that supports it. If you’re not, you’re not going to show that potential. So we’ve got so many examples of it’s not that I have to teach you social, emotional, and cognitive skills. It’s that I have to create a setting in which you feel you have sufficient relationships, you feel safe and belonging, you feel that you’re getting those appropriate supports about assessing your assets and needs so you’re getting what you need. You’ve got some content that you’re engaging with that is rigorous and relevant and is going to challenge you to use your skills to move forward. Then you’ve got people who are recognizing those skills for their value and helping build them.”