“Instead of resetting priorities and learning from experiences during the pandemic, some schools are moving backwards to the pre-pandemic status quo that prevents many students and families from having equal access to educational opportunities.”

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

A scene from the first day of school in September 2020 at Manhattan’s P.S. 188.

School disruptions due to the pandemic over the last couple of years brought equity and justice to the forefront of education policy-making decisions. Students of color at high poverty schools, special education students, and emergent bilinguals had the most interrupted schooling compared to their white, monolingual peers—worsening gaps in opportunity to learn.

Researcher Gloria Ladson Billings describes students as facing “four pandemics”: COVID-19, racism, economic insecurity, and a declining environment. She calls for schools to have a post-pandemic “education reset” that interrogates and changes the policies and practices that created the inequitable outcomes in the first place.

However, instead of resetting priorities and learning from experiences during the pandemic, some schools are moving backwards to the pre-pandemic status quo that prevents many students and families from having equal access to educational opportunities.

In this piece, we outline four ways that New York City schools can do a necessary reset for educational justice.

1. Stop the Meritocracy Myth in Education 

During the pandemic, admission decisions to top schools or academic programs became much less likely to be based on narrow measures of academic ability, like standardized test scores or grades. In many urban school systems, academic criteria was replaced with lottery systems, which was also part of an overall strategy to improve socio-economic status (SES) integration across schools.

Yet in New York City, the current mayor and school chancellor are not only walking back efforts to integrate schools, they are also bringing notions of “merit” back to public school admissions next year. The chancellor said, “this process, I think, will ensure more top-tier students, students who achieve, will get into the schools of their choice…students who work hard deserve to be rewarded for that.”

Implying that test scores or grades identify the students who work hardest or who have the most innate talent perpetuates the myth that education systems are meritocratic. The use of words ‘top-tier’ disregards the evidence that differences in test scores and other academic outcomes are largely a product of racial and SES inequities in society. This is why schools must stop the meritocratic myth from showing up in policy and practice.

2. Stop Catering to What the Small Minority of Ultra-Advantaged White Parents Want

Faced with declining enrollments during the pandemic, urban school systems like New York, Boston, Fairfax County Virginia, and San Francisco, are under pressure from advantaged parent groups to bring back high stakes tests for selective school admissions, threatening the flight of middle-class parents.

District leaders must stop allowing this small minority of ultra-advantaged parents to dictate educational policy in ways that advantage their own children while disadvantaging the larger share of the nation’s students. The narrative that advantaged families fled public schools as a result of COVID-19 admissions policy changes are misleading. There is also evidence from a recent Pew research study that what most U.S. parents want in this moment is more social-emotional learning for their children, not more competitive admissions that can lead to increased stress and anxiety.

3. Recognize Students’ Identities and Strengths

When students are labeled “gifted,” “special ed,” or “non-native English speaker” based on test scores, they are put into a box. These labels and boxes relate to stereotypes and discrimination that ultimately shape students’ educational and occupational trajectories in ways that may be entirely inconsistent with their potential as young students.

Although they are supposed to be objective markers of academic ability, school labels are subjective and reflect social inequalities outside of schools. In the U.S., test scores are in largest part a product of students’ socioeconomic status, and a student’s race is a key determinant of their SES. School labels mask students’ identities and strengths in different subject areas. 

4. Place Students in Mixed Ability Classes

Relatedly, educators must stop using narrow measures of ability to determine access to “advanced” academic placements. Instead, elementary schools in particular should move “toward designs that encourage inclusion and integration of all children in mixed-ability classrooms” because these students are better prepared for advanced and high level academic programs in middle school, high school, and beyond.

Based on evolving special education and gifted education models, research points to the benefits of placing students from racially, SES, and academically diverse backgrounds in regular classrooms as much as possible and providing enrichment opportunities to all. Students learn more than academics when placed in integrated settings vs. homogeneous ones, including intergroup understandings, acceptance, and responsiveness to the needs of students from less advantaged backgrounds.

There are already promising examples of these types of school settings that adhere to this educational philosophy of inclusion and integration. For example, schools and districts across the country recently phased out segregated gifted programs and replaced them with schoolwide programs—project-based STEM, wellness, or antiracist talent development programs—aimed at benefitting all students. A Los Angeles high school seeks to increase racial equity by replacing honors high school classes with mixed ability courses. All students have unique talents and gifts that the school system must recognize and support.

School leaders and policymakers in New York City have a choice to make. They can build on students’ strengths and ensure equal access to educational opportunities through school choice lottery systems designed for racial and socio-economic integration and untracked classes. Or they can continue to use test scores to stratify students into segregated schools or rigid academic tracks.

We say it’s about time for an education reset. This reset means not rushing back to a school system that systematically fails historically marginalized and/or disenfranchised, low-income students, and students of color. It means moving forward to a future where schools strive to disrupt racial and SES inequities, promote greater diversity and integration, as well as improve opportunities and outcomes for all students.

Allison Roda is an associate professor of education at Molloy University. Dara Shifrer is an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University.