Our country faces multiple crises: a global pandemic; an economy in which the most vulnerable among us bear the brunt of economic hardship; a climate changing at a pace unseen in human history; a crumbling infrastructure; and a lack of consensus on addressing – or even acknowledging – the impact of generations of exclusion and discrimination based on race. More than testing our souls, these interrelated challenges threaten, separately and collectively, our national security.
Now is the time to redefine – or refine – the meaning of national security. The security of our nation cannot be measured only by our military might, our no-fly lists, or our ability to influence international events and international markets. For the United States to lead and thrive in the next generation, our security must be defined by the degree of equity, resiliency, and economic and social mobility in our country.
I propose that we start with education. A robust, rigorous, responsive, and inclusive education system is foundational to tackling climate change, economic and social mobility, infrastructure resiliency, health inequities, and many other threats to the commonweal. Surmounting these challenges and building a stronger and more resilient country will require the collective knowledge, ingenuity, skills, and energy of all Americans – not just a select few.
Yet our educational system was never designed to serve our communities of color, and the current reality of our dual pandemics of battling COVID-19 and our recononing with 400 years of racial injustice shines a bright light on the ways in which the system fails our most vulnerable learners each day. Without an education system that prepares all of our country’s children and youth to actively participate, lead, and define how our society will confront and surmount these challenges, our national security is at risk.
In the last 11 months, public education as we know it has been turned on its head and upside down. When schools shuttered last spring, over 55 million children were learning – or attempting to learn – outside of the walls of a school. The path forward must be one of re-thinking educational excellence and equity, and we must move with alacrity. Our children have no time to lose.
Reconnect Children and Families to Schools
Currently, approximately 53% of school-aged children are still learning from home. Since the start of the pandemic, studies estimate that up to three million children have gone missing from our schools. This fall, many of our youngest learners and their families chose not to enroll in school, and millions of women have been forced out of the workforce as a result of the pandemic and a shuttering of in-person learning for their children. COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities makes reconnecting students and families to schools – and the supports that they can provide – even more urgent. We must develop community-driven solutions to reconnect children and families to schools – where schools, working in partnership with families and community organizations, can identify unmet and often unseen needs. These entities must then work in partnership to address those needs, so that students and families can benefit from a coordinated support system.
Technological solutions, like those developed by ProUnitas, can link students, families, schools, and community support systems. These solutions – driven by data and focused on student needs – are scalable and replicable, provided that schools and community supports are committed to working in concert with one another. Investment in data-driven, child-centered solutions like this in every community are necessary as we seek to rethink how we connect children and families to support. Scaling these kinds of solutions can create more connected, efficient and resilient communities and be a part of the solution to bridge the persistent gaps between schools and families.
Re-Think Teaching and Learning to Build 21st Century Orientations and Capabilities
Our children face, and will continue to face, challenges that can only be overcome with knowledge, skills, and mindsets that will enable them to be the creative, flexible, and learning systems-level thinkers that our world needs. It is not enough for our children to be literate, numerate, and curious. We have to create learning environments that help them build the knowledge, social and emotional competencies, and skills to build relationships across lines of difference, seek out novel solutions to persistent challenges and be able to translate and apply their knowledge and learnings from one setting into another.
As we begin to emerge from this pandemic and start the process of “getting back to normal” – we must resist the urge to return to the broken educational system that has failed so many children, particularly BIPOC children and those growing up in low-income communities. Over the last 11 months, many of our children (and the adults in their lives) have seen that they can learn in new and different ways – be it online, through projects, with peers, or with elders in their communities. And, our children have witnessed the power of organizing and marching and voting to bring about change in their communities and in our country. As we begin the process of re-thinking teaching and learning, we must listen to our students and their families – to understand what they want for themselves and for their future – that should be our north star. Schools must become more flexible, more student-centered with rigorous, relevant, and culturally responsive curriculum, and we must use data in new and creative ways to ensure that all students have access to the learning opportunities and environments that will foster engagement, belonging, and success.
As we begin to emerge from the collective grief and challenges that our country bears in the wake of the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice, I am hopeful because we have an opportunity – indeed a responsibility – to transform our country. We have what may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity – to articulate that which truly makes us strong: our collective ability to create an educational system that allows for all of our country’s children to learn, lead, and thrive. Let’s get to work, we have no time to spare.
Anne Mahle is the Senior Vice President of Public Partnerships at Teach For America, where she leads its government affairs, national community alliances, federal and state funding, and public policy work. A 1992 Teach For America corps member, Anne taught a bilingual fourth grade class in the Rio Grande Valley before joining the staff of Teach For America in 1994 as the Executive Director of our Seattle region. From 1995-1998, Anne headed up Teach For America’s math and science initiative. In 2004, Anne returned to the staff of Teach For America as a managing Director of Recruitment, where she managed teams of recruitment directors until 2007, when she began leading Teach For America’s on-campus recruitment efforts across the country.
During her six-year hiatus from Teach For America, Anne received her JD at the University of
California, Berkeley, where she was awarded the Brian M. Sax Prize for Excellence in Clinical
Advocacy for her work in the International Human Rights Law Clinic. Upon graduation from Berkeley, Anne practiced law at the Minneapolis firm of Faegre & Benson. She litigated
cases in state and federal court on behalf of private and pro-bono clients.
Anne has served on the board of directors for the Center for Victims of Torture, Educators for Excellence – Minnesota, TEACH.org, and Eco Education. She is an Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow at The Aspen Institute. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband David and daughters Anat and Esther.