Ep 7: Improving Education for Everyone

Eric Schmidt
October 6, 2020
46
 MIN
Listen this episode on your favorite platform!
October 6, 2020
46
 MIN

Ep 7: Improving Education for Everyone

How can we make education more fair, efficient, and accessible for everyone?

Founder and Chairman of Ashoka University, Ashish Dawan, discusses the evolving educational landscape in India and how technology is enabling more personalized learning. Then, economics professor, Dania Francis, dives into the American system and how we can start to address the racial and economic barriers holding back so many students.

Episode Transcript

Dr Dania Francis (00:00):

One of the things that I think we're going to see, unfortunately, is that black and Hispanic children are likely experiencing worse trauma during the pandemic. They're less likely to be shielded from some of these effects, and that can impede their ability to learn. Especially since their families then tend to have less resources available to adequately address that trauma.

Eric (00:18):

1.6 billion. That's the number of children and young people across 192 countries affected by school and university closures since the end of the last school year. This fall, schools around the world are grappling with the difficult decision to reopen or keep their students at home. I don't think any of us have fully grasped how catastrophic this could be. One estimate by the Brookings Institution put the total loss of earnings by current students over their work life at $10 trillion, because of a loss of schooling.

Eric (00:50):

On this episode of Reimagine, we'll look at education in the age of accelerated remote learning. COVID has forced us to adopt learning technology faster than we ever expected. An entire generation of students are going to school amid an education upheaval. We all have a lot to learn. Our first guest is Ashish Dhawan who is here to help us understand these dynamics as well as the role that education technology will play in the future that we hope anyway. Ashish is a pioneer in business and education. He's the founder and chairman of Central Square Foundation, a non-profit that's dedicated to improving the quality of education for children in India. He also serves as chairman of a Ashoka University, a prestigious liberal arts university in India. Before venturing into the world of education, Ashish ran one of India's leading private equity funds. And I may privately say that he's considered one of the great founders of private equity in India.

Eric (01:45):

We'll be drawing on his expertise in both of these realms today. Ashish, thank you so much for being here with me.

Ashish (01:50):

Thank you, Eric, for having me.

Eric (01:52):

As you know, India has these fantastic universities. Many of the people in Silicon Valley that I've worked with graduated from one of the IITs or similar universities. All of the major tech companies have large, large operations in India because of that. And yet there's an extraordinary divergence or difference between educational ability in different regions, different states of India, and obviously the wealth and poverty exacerbates all of that. You have this extraordinary middle class and you have this pipeline of [inaudible 00:02:25] talent, and yet the problem seemed to just be worse and worse and worse.

Eric (02:29):

Is your view that if we just educate people, it will sort itself out? Do you have a stronger view than that? It may be that just education solves most of the problems in India.

Ashish (02:41):

Yeah, I don't think it's just education, but I think education is one of the key levers. Let me put it in context. If you look at the Indian school education system, I would say that 5% get a good education. People like myself, we're very lucky. Where the household effects were good and I went to a good school. Another 20% get a mediocre education. Then 75% just get a terrible education. Which is why you see, by third grade, 73% of kids can't read second grade text. And by fifth grade, 55% of children, can't read second grade text. So really, if by third or fifth grade you can't read, you're shutout from the world of knowledge forever, because the curriculum very quickly switches from learning to read to reading to learn.

Ashish (03:33):

I think whilst India has great talent at the top and the numbers are so large that even the top 1% or 5% are noticeable. I think what we don't see is ... what you see is the tip of the iceberg. And really underneath, there's that 75% who are perpetually left behind and the COVID crisis only made it worse for them.

Eric (03:58):

So how do we hack away at this? I mean, one answer, and many, many countries globally have worked on literacy. When I was young, a vast majority of the world was in fact illiterate. Now there's a pretty high literacy rate globally. It's significantly improved in India over that period. What are the tools? I would always answer, "Well, just get everybody online and get them online education." But it must be more complicated than that.

Ashish (04:27):

Yeah, so I'll come to online a bit later, but I think first and foremost is just a recognition that early literacy and numeracy are the number one priority in terms of solving the education crisis. Learning breaks down early and so we need to go upstream to fix a leaky pipe. I think getting the political machinery, getting folks to realize that it's a number one priority, getting the funding behind it and putting it into mission mode is critical.

Ashish (05:02):

We at Central Square Foundation have been doing precisely that over the last two or three years. There was a lucky break in that India put forth a new education policy. These come out every two or three decades. In that new education policy, it's clearly called out that foundation numeracy and literacy is the number one priority for India in education. And that we need to work on it in mission mode over the next five years.

Ashish (05:32):

Very interestingly, India subsequently made an announcement of a national mission for early numeracy and literacy that'll be launched in December of this year. It's a five-year mission. So exactly like you said, I think the first thing is to recognize that the early grades are important. Primary school is critical.

Ashish (05:53):

I think the second one is data. We need to know where we are. We need to define goals. The prime minister needs to come behind it. And every teacher and every parent needs to understand those goals. We need to simplify it. Children need to read X words per minute in second grade, and Y words per minute in third grade. Very easy goals for people to understand. So goal setting and alignment, I think is critical.

Ashish (06:18):

We've studied system reform globally. There are many countries that have improved early literacy and numeracy over the last many decades. We believe that's the number one priority for India. I think tech fits in, in that if you look at assessment, for instance, it's much easier to measure and track children, if you do it using technology. Now with every teacher having a smart phone, we could send her a daily message with her lesson plan and with activity sheet and worksheet that she could use in the classroom.

Ashish (06:52):

So apart from continuous professional development and doing TPD in a blended format, I think there's the opportunity to transact with the teacher on a regular basis. Thanks to COVID, teachers have been interacting with parents and students on a daily basis through WhatsApp. That infrastructure is getting built. And so thinking about how, now, we can get into the home and start to get parents involved with their children's learning using technology.

Ashish (07:22):

I think we're just starting to scratch the surface with technology. I think it will be a combination of offline and online. I don't think online will do everything. I mean, the teacher's role is critical, but I think also just a lot of the foundation numeracy and literacy needs to be delivered in the classroom and the technology can be a great enabler for teachers and also for students and parents.

Eric (07:44):

Do you see a partnership or a way of using that extraordinary talent your nation has, change education in a way that's both consistent with the huge need you're describing, but also modernizes it?

Ashish (07:56):

Yeah, I see a big opportunity. In that sense, COVID is a blessing in disguise. Thanks to COVID, the government has woken up to education technology. I mean, earlier, it was more about putting devices into a classroom, often a computer lab that wasn't used and teachers weren't adequately trained. I think with COVID, there's a recognition that, whilst India has 500 million smartphones, so it's only a sub-40% penetration rate. If you look at the household level, the penetration rate is actually much higher. It's closer to 75%.

Ashish (08:33):

I.e. More than 75% of households have a smartphone. It could be a father, it could be the father and mother who have a smartphone. You know, getting kids homework on the phone, so doing assessment, getting them videos to learn, personalizing learning. We have lots of data now. We have this system called [inaudible 00:08:56] where every textbook, every lesson has a QR code and behind the QR code is a lesson plan and a video and some assessment questions. And so the digital exhaust from that, which is in the public domain, obviously anonymized for personal identity, is extremely valuable in understanding where learning is breaking down and that sort of public good is extremely valuable to the nation and to businesses.

Ashish (09:25):

So I see a great opportunity for the entrepreneurial energy of India business enterprise to collaborate coming out of post-COVID to help solve this crisis on a number of fronts. I think one is, in terms of adaptive, personalized learning, we've got smartphones, we know children ... We did a survey that found that kids within the poorest households get access to their parent's smartphone for about an hour a day. It's currently being used largely for entertainment, but if we can educate the parents that there's a learning opportunity here, it can be used for learning resources.

Ashish (10:04):

We've been testing a number of initiatives there and have had quite a bit of success. Google, as you know, launched a product called Bolo out of India, which is a reading assistant, which has now gone global, as read along. I see a great opportunity in terms of using the mobile phone to get personalized, adaptive learning apps to children and parents. There's also a means to sort of reach out to them regularly using WhatsApp, because parents are using WhatsApp, kids are using WhatsApp on a daily basis. If we can get them bits of learning or ... You know, one of the states in India has just developed an assessment bot, where children through this COVID phase are being assessed. Five questions a day. So they understand where the kids are. It's a bot that's sort of doing this. WhatsApp bot.

Eric (10:57):

It's interesting that you've just told me that India has two things that are not broadly available in the United States. One is a license-free set of textbooks around learning that is all digital in one form or another. The second one is a series of assessment bots that can track against that. It seems to me that if you have both, generally free curriculum, and you have some way of assessing, it should be relatively easy to connect all the dots with the right platforms to do precisely what you're describing on smartphones. Is that correct?

Ashish (11:31):

Yeah, I think so. I mean, we are very interested in the science of learning. Basically using the data to really deeply understand how children learn, not just in the aggregate, but groups of children learn differently. I think with the digital exhaust, with the data, there's a real opportunity to do that. There's the opportunity to do a lot of AB testing with products, to see what really works and to get a fairly quick turnaround time. So I'm very, very excited. I-

Ashish (12:03):

Fairly quick turn around time. And so I'm very, very excited. I think you're right. I think the whole science of learning has really opened up with assessment data, and there's really the opportunity of personalized learning for children. And, given the availability of smart phones, there's no reason why we can't figure out sort of engagement modes that allowed us to do this at scale.

Eric (12:22):

Is it possible for India to leapfrog the now-accepted sort of doctrine of learning in the West, which you're familiar with, because you went through it, both in India and then when you came to America, by going straight to personalized adaptive learning on smartphones, and skipping many of the things that we all have gone through, literally by measuring what works, adaptively changing, and actually causing the students to accelerate faster than they would have otherwise done?

Ashish (12:51):

So I still think we need some building blocks, and we're still early days in terms of building the evidence and understanding the channels through which to distribute, and how to drive engagement and habitual use. But I think, at small scale, we've seen very positive results. I think the real challenge is in terms of how we can get this to millions, or hundreds of millions, of learners in the next five years. And I'm quite bullish that India can leapfrog. I mean, we're at such a low base right now that these tools can really help supercharge learning and driving improvement in learning. One or two examples where RCTs have been done, the first product actually we worked closely with was a product called Mindspark, that was evaluated by J-PAL. And in a four month pilot, it led to a 0.6 sigma improvement in learning outcomes. So it just shows you the potential. And, again, it's off of a very, very low base. And so I think it's very much possible to do this at scale, but it's going to take time.

Eric (13:59):

RCT stands for Randomized Control Trial, and it's a term that's seldom used in education. Ashish Jaiswal has been one of the great innovators in India. And I think he'll go down in history as one of the great people to bring education forward in India. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ashish (14:18):

Thank you, Eric. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

Eric (14:22):

Education inequality is an enormous problem with significant economic and moral consequences. McKinsey, for example, estimated if black and Hispanic student achievement gap had been closed in 2009, the US GDP 11 years later, 2020, would have been between 426 billion and 705 billion higher. The AI and machine learning revolution gives us a chance to finally fix the problems we've been having in education. We have no idea how people learn best, and now using AI and machine learning, we can build systems that will sign for this group, they learn in eight minute segments, in this group, they learn in textbooks, in this learn, they learn by games.

Eric (15:03):

We don't know yet. I have no idea why we can't answer the basic question, how do people learn best? My instinct, by the way, is that there's no single formula. That there are some kids for which it's better just to sit and study, and there's some kids for which that's exactly the worst thing. One friend of mine told me that the correct answer is eight-minute videos. And of course, his dataset was MIT Physics students, who are surely not representative of the average student in the world. So let's try to figure out what the average student, right, is the cohort that we really care about, how do they learn best, and how do we get them better educated? Joining us now is Dr Dania Francis. Dr Francis is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where she researches racial and social economic disparities in education, wealth and labor markets.

Eric (15:51):

Black and brown communities in the United States have been battered by the pandemic, facing higher rates of lost wages, hospitalizations and deaths, compared to white communities. But what about education? Now that school is back in session, how are parents and students of color navigating the pandemic and remote learning? How can we harness this crisis to strengthen educational outcomes for everyone? I'm very concerned about the impact of this on education, in general, and people who are disadvantaged, in particular.

Eric (16:20):

Dr Francis, you're here to help us think through these questions. You've done a great deal of research on this. Welcome.

Dr Dania Francis (16:25):

Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Eric (16:27):

So it's interesting that, in studying your work, you're an academic who works at the intersection of economics and education. How does your knowledge of economics inform your research on education or vice versa?

Dr Dania Francis (16:39):

That's a good question. Typically, I think the topics in education fall under two sub-fields of economics really. Within the sub-field of Public Economics and Public Finance, we study things like school funding and privatization and choice, and even the extent to which education is a public good, right? And then within the sub-field of Labor Economics, we treat education as an investment in your human potential, your productivity, your knowledge, all the things that would benefit you, and hopefully also society in the labor market. And so my knowledge of, what I would call mainstream neoclassical economics, informs those topics. But as someone who studies racial inequality and stratification, I often operate outside of mainstream neoclassical economics, and I look at questions of how wealth and power provide access to education, and really the best education, right? Which in turn can lead to more wealth and power. And so in that way, I think I may be a little different than the typical economist who studies education, in the sense of framing it in terms of access and wealth and privilege.

Eric (17:53):

And therein lies your gift. A more general economics question first. We've spent the last 20 years understanding that there's increasing returns to education. If you look at the last 20 or 30 years in the United States as a whole, the people who got college education, and so forth, did far better in the labor market than people who were not college educated. Is that generally true still? Is it likely to continue to be true? And then we'll talk about the specifics of racial preference, and things like that.

Dr Dania Francis (18:19):

Yeah. So it is still generally true that, on average, someone with a college degree typically will earn more over their lifetime than someone with a high school diploma. But one of the things that complicates that picture, is that the cost of college, right? The cost of college has been rising somewhat astronomically in a way that college graduates are saddled with debt in a way that they have not been before. Right? So I think that, and I would say, I would couple that with the great recession, and now this pandemic-related recession, is really making the labor market challenging, both for college grads and for those with less education. But challenging in a way that, you go and you spend all this money for this college degree and you don't necessarily have the earnings potential that you might have had pre the pandemic recession and pre the great recession. In a nutshell, yes, it's still better, I think in a sense, to have a college degree on average, but rising debt is really bringing that into question.

Eric (19:33):

Is this rising debt, which was not present when I was going to college, is this rising debt another way in which the privileged keep themselves ahead of the underprivileged? Because they, with their privilege, can clearly afford it.

Dr Dania Francis (19:45):

Oh, absolutely. Right? So this is one of the main things that I look at when I look at wealth and wealth gaps, is intergenerational transmission of wealth, right? And so a lot of times when we think about that phrase, we think about, if somebody passes away and they leave money to their children or grandchildren. But another way that people transmit their wealth intergenerationally is through paying for their children's college education, so that when they come out of college, they don't have that amount of debt, right? Or at least less. Through putting down payments on a house for them in a nice neighborhood, so their grandchildren can be in a good school district. Right? So these are ways that wealth is transmitted intergenerationally outside of estates and bequests and things like that, that we don't necessarily think of as much, but that certainly reinforces the privileges that those with wealth have over those who don't have wealth.

Eric (20:43):

So someone showed me a study, which estimated that only 30% of American workers could work from home. And in the world that I live in, an awful lot of people can work from home. Obviously, that's a part of a relative elite compared to the average person. The consequence of the pandemic is some people are unhappy, but they're going to be okay, and some people are desperate. And this desperate-ness seems to be concentrated on the people who serve us. People who are minorities of one kind or another, and an awful lot of women. And it appears that we're going to lose some of the good progress that was made in a difficult and unequal society. Can you quantify how much of a loss of progress we're going to get? Do you have a sense of how bad this is? Does it take a year to recover? Five years to recover? Does it ever recover?

Dr Dania Francis (21:35):

That's a really good question. That's a tough question. So some terms ways I can put this in. One of the things that we see... I think it was a study from Economic Policy Institute, where they were looking at what the effects might be of the discontinuation of this $600 extra pandemic unemployment assistance. And, by their calculations, that assistance going away would affect consumption to the tune of an additional 5.1 million jobs being lost. Right? So just that alone has reverberations in the economy, because if people don't have money, they're not spending, they're not consuming. Our economy is almost 70% based on consumption. Right? And so then we have, not only those immediate effects on people not having money to make ends meet, businesses not benefiting from that consumption, but then those support industries that support those benefits, it rippling out. Right?

Dr Dania Francis (22:37):

So big waves, that if we do not do something to address it, will become bigger. Right? So that's my way of saying, it depends on what we do. The answer depends, right? If we enact policy now that helps individual Americans suffering, I think we can minimize some of the damage that's to come. But if we continue to go back and forth in our really sort of divided partisan system, then my thinking is that we have a long road ahead of us for recovery.

Eric (23:16):

Before the pandemic, we actually did a pretty good job of generating jobs. The problem is that the vast majority of those jobs were service jobs and relatively low wage jobs. And they were, of course, the first to go. And I don't know how to quantify the impact of the travel industry, the retail industry, restaurants, and so forth, but these are all people where the PPP has run out, and it's not at all obvious what their new jobs will be. We add on top of that, what is clearly racial preference, bias, discrimination, and there's no dispute over this.

Eric (23:50):

What's interesting is you did a paper where you actually looked at systemic, I guess I'll use the word racism, that school counselors were less likely to recommend black female students for AP calculus, and they rated them as being the least prepared. How is this okay? And how does this happen?

Eric (24:03):

They rated them as being the least prepared.

Dr Dania Francis (24:03):

Yeah.

Eric (24:03):

How is this okay? And how does this happen?

Dr Dania Francis (24:04):

There's additional barriers to entry that black girls are facing in school, such that even when they're trying their best and they've got a really strong academic profile that there's additional barriers they're facing to be encouraged to go into AP calculus, which is a gateway to STEM fields. Within education, there's not just counselors recommending students for advanced placement, but this goes into gifted education. We have the processes by which there's some subjectivity that can go into gifted identification. I will say one interesting thing is that, with those blinded reviews, it's quite possible that school counselors, especially those who are maybe particularly social justice oriented, may use the identification that racial or gender identification or even socioeconomic status identification of a student to be corrective and to say, "Oh, well this is a student who I know was disadvantaged and so maybe their transcript is a little worse, but I think that they would do well."

Dr Dania Francis (25:11):

So we weren't necessarily sure right off the bat, whether or not a blinded review would result in more, for example, black women or black men being recommended. So sometimes that type of discretion is helpful, but it's not helpful if bias is creeping in. I think it's interesting. You brought up the machine learning and AI, because one of the recommendations that we thought of as a result of our study was, maybe there could be a backstop where a computer system says, looks at everything after the courses are all decided in a school and says, "Oh, look, here's this student who looks a lot like all the other students in advanced placement calculus and she's not in there." Maybe as a counselor, you want to circle back around to her and ask, right?

Eric (25:56):

One of the things that computers are quite good at is they can find people that you don't know that appear, at least on paper, to be very similar to you and they can do exactly that kind of assortative contest and competition. It's interesting that you also studied this as part of the impact of the pandemic on racial inequality, wrote a paper about this in August.

Dr Dania Francis (26:17):

That's right.

Eric (26:17):

And basically you go into this connection between wealth and educational opportunity and in particular, the remote learning impact on, I think, largely black students. Take us what that life is like versus the life, as we perceive it. How much harder is it?

Dr Dania Francis (26:31):

Yeah, I mean, so one of the things that we know from some of the data that are already coming out, the census has a really good survey that they've been running, the Household Poll Survey, where from around April and for about 12 weeks, they surveyed families in the US, on average 90,000 families a week, some weeks more, some weeks less. And they were asking them questions related to the pandemic. And so that's the data we were able to use and one of the things they were asking was, did you experience pandemic related job loss? Did you have to either miss a rent or mortgage payment or do some forbearing or deferral? And they asked also about remote learning and internet access and reliable internet devices.

Dr Dania Francis (27:22):

And so, one of the things that we see from this data overall is that black and Hispanic households have suffered more. They've suffered more from the virus, from a health standpoint, and they're suffering from the recession more than white households. They've had larger death tolls. There's more widespread unemployment. And these worse health outcomes are also, worse health and economic outcomes, are also posing this additional financial and mental health toll. One of the things that I think we're going to see, unfortunately, is that black and Hispanic children are likely experiencing worse trauma during the pandemic. They're less likely to be shielded from some of these effects. And that can impede their ability to learn, especially since their families then tend to have less resources available to adequately address that trauma.

Eric (28:11):

As part of our New York Commission, we've been hearing testimony about people who are on the lower end of the income distribution. And part of the problem with learning from home is there is no place to learn from home and there's also not a broadband connection and there's also not a computer for everybody. There's a computer for one, or maybe there's a phone, or maybe they're borrowing something. It's very hard for me to see how a student can get through that, even the strongest and most motivated student, let alone the average kid that's sort of distracted. What is your opinion about the impact of this in standardized testing? Is there evidence that standardized testing carries forward these biases? Is there evidence that it's gender and race neutral?

Dr Dania Francis (28:53):

Yeah. So, from what we know pre-pandemic, there are historically large and persistent racial and socioeconomic, and we're talking ethnicity, ethnic gaps in test scores. A lot of the racial gaps can be explained by differences in socioeconomic status, but there's still some gap that remains. And so I think that one of the things we're going to see is if we return to standardized testing as usual after this pandemic, I think we're going to see those gaps widen. I think there was more disruption in the course of the education of low income, minoritized communities, and that typically manifests within test scores. So, definitely I think they're going to widen. I think that if we continue to base decisions off of these test scores, then that's just going to compound the magnitude of the differences that the minoritized children are facing.

Eric (30:00):

So when you study this, you come across some interesting results, but one of the polls that I read said that the... It was a USC poll, that the lower income families are more likely to think schools should stay closed for the entire year. Do you have an opinion as to what's going on in this? It doesn't make sense to me.

Dr Dania Francis (30:19):

Yeah. Right, it is interesting. So, I think that there's complicated dynamics going on there. Right? So as you mentioned earlier, many families who were low income pre-pandemic suffered job loss and unemployment during the pandemic. And so, on the one hand, a lot of those families now have maybe a parent or relative who's at home and maybe more able to be there as a support for remote learning. On the other hand, what we also ended up seeing was that those low income families where members kept their job and were employed, were, as you said, likely to be employed in low wage service industries where there is even more health-related danger, more danger related to exposure.

Dr Dania Francis (31:16):

And so I think that, in both cases, in the case where families experienced that job loss and may have somebody there at home, they understand the dangers of the pandemic and they're like, "Hey, if we are safer at home and we have someone, for better or worse, who is home now, maybe this is a better opportunity or option for us." But on the other hand, those who maintain their jobs, like I said have a really deep understanding of the dangers that are out there. They're experiencing them. They might've had COVID infections in their family and really recognize, this is not something we want to deal with if we don't have to. And so, if it's possible, let's stay home.

Eric (31:57):

They're more aware of the real dangers. It seems to me that we're, as a country, taking our most valuable possession, which is our children, and putting them into schools without having any concept of the level of danger we're subjecting them to. Because we don't have rapid testing and because the test positivity rate is high in some parts of the country, there's a real possibility of children being vectors. In Europe, they've been able to open the schools with appropriate safeguards and kids are back at school and we want the kids back at school. And I think part of it is because the infection rate in Europe is so much lower, although they're concerned about it growing, the numbers are quite a bit lower. So I worry that the combination of poor leadership in America, the fact that we do not have rapid testing so we don't actually know, could lead to exactly the scenario that these parents were concerned about.

Dr Dania Francis (32:49):

Yeah, that's right. I mean, I hate to look in the rear view, but it's something that we have to do, because we squandered our opportunity to address this early on. We shut down in a lot of places in order to give us the opportunity to get this pandemic under control, but we didn't do it in a widespread, federally managed way. And so, a lot of the pandemic related recession that came from that shutdown, I would say was squandered. Because now here we are in a position where we've still got high numbers, people are still unsure about going out and being safe, people are unsure about wanting their children to go back to school. And so even if we opened everything up, you can open everything up, but if people feel unsafe, they're not going to go.

Dr Dania Francis (33:40):

So I think two things there. One, our economy is rebounding slower because of it, because we squandered that opportunity. Two, we can't get people back to work if we still got the children at home and we can't force people to send their children to school if they feel it's unsafe. So, I would love to be in this situation that Europe is in, but frankly we just don't have the pandemic under control enough in all places to make that rational.

Eric (34:09):

What do we have to do as a country? I'm very concerned that the pandemic is worsening the situation, literally worsening inequality in a country that's had a history of inequality and it will take a decade to recover.

Dr Dania Francis (34:23):

Yeah. I think we have to take this as an opportunity, to take this as an opportunity to really look at our school systems, look at the processes within our school systems, really do an internal look and examine what are the ways that our school systems reproduce inequality, right? Reproduce inequality on the lines of income, on the lines of race, on lines of gender. And so, this is a perfect opportunity to do this because I think people, what the pandemic has done and what the switch to remote has done and what the focus, starting in this summer on racial inequality in the US has done is really laid bare that there are structural inequalities that I think we need to address.

Dr Dania Francis (35:11):

And so I think that what some of my research shows, and what the pandemic has laid bare to us, is that it's not something cultural within black children, that there are these structures that, even if we "fixed" everything that people said was wrong with what black children were doing, they would still face these barriers and we would still see these achievement and opportunity gaps. So I think that it's time for some gazing into the school systems. What do we need? We need more equitable funding. We need the federal government to step in there, because even though many states are under court mandates to do more to equalize their spending and resources across school districts, there are still huge gaps where low income, rural, and urban districts are often under-resourced compared to wealthier suburbs.

Dr Dania Francis (36:03):

Districts are often under-resourced compared to wealthier suburbs, right? That's still happening. It's almost impossible to argue that education provides access and equality for all when we've got these huge resource gaps, right? And then I think we also need to... This is really important. I think we really need to address racial biases in school discipline, right? That's a huge thing. There's a culture of punishment and a huge part of that punishment is suspensions and exclusion, right? If children aren't in school, they've been suspended from school, they're not learning, right?

Dr Dania Francis (36:34):

And so one of the things that I fear will be made worse by the pandemic is that when kids get back to school, we already discussed how many black and Hispanic kids are going to have experienced more difficulties during the pandemic, experience more trauma and that may possibly manifest in their behavior when they get back to school. And so if we don't address the fact that they were already disproportionately punished before COVID, when they come back at a time when they maybe need even more empathy and understanding and less biased behavioral policing, I think it will just exacerbate those behavioral punishments.

Eric (37:16):

This issue of funding has been around for a long time. In America, much of the funding for schools comes from property taxes and county taxes, which are highly variant. And the wealthy areas have much more money. You'll hear that a wealthy area has the best schools in the nation, right? That's one of the reasons why the property values go up, the property taxes go up and so forth. It's another form of exclusion. And yet also in the pandemic, the states are largely bankrupt. They're running huge deficits. So there's no extra money. The federal government is going to have to fund to make that gap in your vision.

Eric (37:50):

Some of your recommendations don't require money. They're a change in attitude. You mentioned punishment, you manage treatment, you manage the expectations, you manage the way high school counselors work to refer people to the right place and avoid bias in the channeling. Can you imagine a list of best practices that was enforced by the federal government, across all of the schools to try to avoid some of this? Are there other ideas like that, tools and software and testing and measurement to see where the biases really are in these things that don't require money?

Dr Dania Francis (38:24):

So, an interesting thing is that the data are out there, right? And so school districts collect all kinds of administrative data on students and a lot of researchers are given access to that data and that type of access and transparency helps evaluators help the school districts, right? Just like you're saying machine learning and this sort of, "Hey, look, this is what we find when we look at differences in gifted recommendation. This is what we find when we see who's taking advanced placement courses and who's not." So I think that more reliance on what the data are telling us, especially being evidence-based instead of what, again, sometimes is this more anecdotal and gut-based reaction of, well, maybe it's culture, right? And by that, I mean the culture of the students, right?

Dr Dania Francis (39:20):

And so saying more of, "Well, what can we do?" That to me gets all of us off the hook by saying it's not something that we can do that we can change. It's something that the students need to change. So I think we need to change that mindset like you were saying at first and be willing to look more at our processes. And then a really important thing is we need to diversify all of our educational inputs. And when I say educational inputs, I mean, everything that goes into teaching children in school. Our teacher workforce, our textbooks, our curricula, right? The technology we use, our teaching styles that we employ. I think that doing things the old sort of cookie cutter way doesn't work for all of our children, right?

Dr Dania Francis (40:07):

And so when I say diversify, I don't just mean on race and gender lines; I mean really thinking about changing the culture of schools so that... When you think of the success stories of schools that you've heard of, right? When you think of success stories of schools, the children they're outside, they're learning through play, they're hands on, they're able to manipulate things. They've got wiggle chairs. They're not told they have to sit still and be quiet, right? We need to value education across the spectrum that much that we can provide that type of education to all kids.

Dr Dania Francis (40:44):

But the other part is that, I think that one thing we can do a better job of in our teacher training is classroom management, right? So we teach teachers a lot of things, we teach them about curriculum. We even now are doing a lot more with culturally competent education and things like that, but in a lot of cases, we then send teachers out and either they're good at classroom management. And then that's the part where we think, "Oh, they're just a natural at this. They've got all this charisma," but really it turns out they're just really good at classroom management. And so it looks like they're a natural. Teachers want to be present for these kids, but helping them and giving them the tools so that they can.

Eric (41:27):

This is of course why they went into teaching, which is a great profession.

Dr Dania Francis (41:30):

Right. Exactly.

Eric (41:32):

Dr. Francis, thank you for your research. Thank you for pushing this so hard. This problem has been with us for a long time. I'd like to see it addressed in our generation. Thank you so much.

Dr Dania Francis (41:43):

Thank you. Thank you for having me. And this is I think a really important conversation and I'm glad we were able to do this.

Eric (41:50):

So where are we now? COVID has derailed education around the world and amplified many of the inequities that already existed in school systems and in our societies. If we don't come together to end the public health crisis causing the educational crisis, we could feel the educational aftershock of the pandemic for literally decades. At the same time, we need to re-imagine education to make it more effective and more accessible for everyone. This means creatively and critically rethinking everything from how education is funded to how online learning platforms are instrumented.

Eric (42:21):

COVID has caused a crisis in learning. We need to turn that crisis into an opportunity. Everything that's happened, that's good to us has happened because of the educational opportunities we had. I worry that there's a whole bunch of people, especially in developing countries and especially among minorities who do not have those opportunities and are unlikely to get it. And those opportunities are straightforward. They're things like access to testing, access to education, access to a classroom. But there's also intangibles. The fact that people are encouraged to compete. That people are encouraged to be better themselves. That people are encouraged to get out of their village or their town or their city or their state, and become a bigger and better player in the world. So there's a combination of access to education, but also the encouragement and motivation to do so that I think will produce fantastic leaders in 20 or 30 years.

Eric (43:14):

I'm playing the long game. I want our leaders to be infinitely smarter because I know the world will be infinitely more complex. I defy you to argue against more education in the world. More education means less violence, more peace, better economic growth, probably better civic engagement. And in any case, it's the morally correct thing to do.

Eric (43:35):

What I hope we can do because of technology and measurement, is we can actually measure learning outcomes and then figure out where the non-performing groups are. Figure out why. I also think that the work from home, learn from home is going to accelerate opportunities around online learning and online education. And if we do it right, we'll get enough data to actually figure out what works and what doesn't. We're engaged because of the pandemic and a mass experiment of remote learning. We might as well see if we can make it excellent. So we need to measure, we need to evaluate, and we need to address the shortcomings, especially when it comes to children who are disadvantaged from minorities, people who are being mistreated, et cetera. It's not okay.

Eric (44:15):

On the next episode of Re-imagine, we'll discuss the future of cities and public spaces with epidemiologist, Michael Schmidt, architect, Joel Sanders, and city planning expert, Alice Charles.