Attractive Filipino woman in graduation robe and cap sits on steps with her young daughter after graduation. They are looking at each other affectionately and holding hands.

We’re In Danger of “Reforming” Education For the People Who Don’t Need It – Rather Than The People Who Do

As the coronavirus puts the already teetering business models of higher education under massive strain, there are more and more calls to re-invent college.  

That’s a worthy goal.  But if we’re not careful, we may just end up perpetuating long standing problems.  We may end up “fixing” education for the people who don’t need it to be fixed, rather than the people who do.

A recent study showed that during the coronavirus, black, latinx, and immigrant women have lost work at three times the rate of white men in California.  Many of their jobs have just disappeared, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll come back even in an economic recovery … whenever that is.  

So obviously this is one of the populations most in need of re-skilling and career-based education, right?  Of course.  But … guess what?  These are also among the populations hurt most by the traditional college financial aid systems, and the coronavirus is enhancing those inequities.  

Nor is it just the financial aid system:  it’s well established that marginalized populations drop out of college at higher rates, especially when someone is the first person in their family to go to college, or a single parent.  

All of which tells us that the people most at risk from the economic impact of the coronavirus, who need education and re-skilling the most, are also the ones who have been most often let down by the education system.  

They are kept down in ways that are entrenched across multiple systems.

But if we reinvent the education system, we’ll fix all that right?  Won’t we?

Well, that depends.  Because when most people think about rebuilding the education system, they look to turn it into a series of tech platforms.  And … how’s the tech industry’s record on diversity?  On hiring?  On fundraising?  On creating products that support the needs of minorities and marginalized people?  

How has that traditionally gone?

The wealthy and demographic majorities have always been well served by the education system, and tech companies have more often than not been built for wealthy and white men, by wealthy and white men.  Now we are looking to the education system and the tech industry to reinvent education.  

Which doesn’t mean it won’t work, only that there’s a big potential problem if, while they’re reinventing education, tech companies and educational institutions stay in their comfort zones.  They might mean well, but they will likely recreate the problems they suffered from in the first place, and create systems that – like existing tech systems, like existing educational systems, work best for the people who need the least help.

The need is for education to support a diverse population, but history suggests that if the education system and tech industry do what they feel comfortable with, they’ll “reform” it in ways that meet the needs of the people who need reform least.

There’s no simple answer to this conundrum, but there are a lot of complicated ones.  Representation counts – we need diversity in the room when decisions are made.  Focus counts:  the needs of the people who need reform most must be kept front and center at all times.  Testing and measurement counts:  we need to measure how these systems are impacting students and make sure the outcomes are equitable.  Teaching counts:  the quality of teachers, and their ability to engage with students, matters.  It’s a lot to keep in mind.  

But it’s the difference between genuinely fixing longstanding problems and paying lip service to solutions.  

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