Why B.C. students need rigorous education with integrity, not just grades and credentials, during COVID-19.

Public schools exist for one outcome: A well-educated citizenry. This enables democracy, empowers people, and sustains communities.

The provision of equitable public education is the purpose for the system, which ensures that power within a society is distributed fairly and allows people to defend their rights and support their community. To do this, schools provide safe places for students, help students in need, support student health and well-being, and provide programs for students that remove barriers so that everyone is included.

A democracy must include and respect everyone in the provision of education, not only the elite. That’s why defending the integrity of public education should be our top priority, both as a profession and as a democratic and inclusive society – especially during a public health crisis. Every student deserves (and needs) high expectations, rigorous instruction, and meaningful assessment and evaluation of their mastery of the curricular content (plus: all the supports necessary to make this all possible).

During COVID-19 we cannot lose sight of how the policy of providing public education for all students, on an equitable basis, is supposed to work and why this matters. Public education, like journalism, the legal system, and free and fair elections, is a cornerstone institution of any democracy. In support of the aim to provide all students with a public education, the government puts in place certain measures (outlined in detail below).

Public health policy during the pandemic exists to keep everyone safe. Public education policy exists to sustain democracy and help students be powerful members of a democratic society. Achieving both of these goals, both safety and education, at every stage of COVID-19, should be a paramount goal of society; from both the public education perspective and the public health perspective.

How the Policy of Public Education for All Works (on a Regular, Non-Crisis Basis)

The B.C. government funds the vast majority of schools in the province through public school districts – located within almost every B.C. community. In addition, some students receive public education through programs run by First Nations. Some students receive private education through publicly subsidized independent schools. Combined, all of these programs reflect commitments by federal, provincial, and First Nation governments to support education – for all children in B.C.

Provincial and First Nation governments make public education universally accessible through their public schools. Additionally, the B.C. government requires all children to attend school. Alternatives for students who need them, and certain accommodations and other inclusion programs, are also funded and supported by the various governments in the province. Mandatory schooling, plus public schools with alternatives, adaptations, and accommodations (based on need), is the foundation for universal and equitable education in B.C.

Governments in B.C. invest public funds to pay and operate schools, which includes funds for hiring educators to provide the actual education. Governments also recognize teachers’ professional autonomy in the provision of education – putting the vast majority of educational decision making at the level that is closest to actual students.

In addition, the B.C. government adopts a provincial curriculum and directs teachers in its systems to teach it. It also directs public-school teachers to assess the learning of students in their classes. Teachers the report student progress, based on mastery of the curriculum, performance standards, and each teacher’s own evaluation of every individual student in their class or course.

This is a highly personalized system – built on the fundamental relationship between teacher and student, connections between families, communities, and schools, and the foundational aim of providing all students with a public education. Public education is efficient, effective, and essential. The system works remarkably well, given the complexity of the task of providing equitable public education for all students in B.C, even though it could also do much better still.

Student Learning is Recognized in Graduation or Program Completion

Student learning is also recognized with a credential, which for most students is a high school diploma upon graduation. The credential is a means to an end. The end being the education that the credential represents. A high school diploma is a reflection of having learned and experienced literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, community-building, and core scientific, artistic, and social studies curricular content areas.

The achievement of this level of learning means more than having the diploma to get into the next door – be that employment, trade school, college, or university. It also means that you have attained certain skills and knowledge, providing you with certain power and knowledge in your role as a member of a well-educated citizenry.

The credential of a high school diploma has meaning on its own. It is a key to move beyond certain barriers, barriers that could otherwise stand in the way of further education and opportunity. But more importantly, is what the credential is meant to represent: That you are prepared and ready for more advanced education and training.

Empty credentials may open doors, but without the means to walk past the door. Given that empty credentials don’t come with needed skills and knowledge, they do little on their own to help students actually attain higher learning. That is why integrity in education matters so much to students in the system, especially for those students who face the most in terms of systemic barriers in their way.

Barriers like systemic racism, colonialism, and poverty are erected in two forms: One barrier is education denied. Students facing this barrier may attend school but may not be provided with a rigorous education in return for their efforts. The other barrier is denial of a credential. Students facing this barrier may be educated (or not) but are systematically denied the opportunity to complete secondary education and receive a diploma. These students have the skills and knowledge, but not the credential.

The combination of the above two barriers can lead to no education, no credential. But it can also lead to no education, yes credential. Either combination denies access to power in society. It is a barrier that stands in the way of justice. It is a promise denied.

Focusing on graduation rates, the attainment of diplomas, without focusing on the provision of equitable public education as well, denies too many students of their right to an education. Passing students who are not reaching grade-level performance, and for whom other alternatives are available, is one form of systemic marginalization. It is an unjust denial of opportunity and is a misappropriation of the public education system.

At this Stage in COVID-19: Bring Back Reporting Requirements, Integrity in Grades, and Equitable Access to Education

The temporary suspension (or changes in requirements) on report student progress during COVID-19 happened in the first weeks of the pandemic here in B.C. This measure were put in place during emergency remote teaching, which cannot continue – especially not if the societal goal of providing all students with equitable public education is to continue.

For the vast majority of students, the present system (the pre-pandemic system) works. This system is built on in-person instruction, classroom teacher-student relationship, mandatory participation, and grades based on performance standards.

For some students, alternatives to these approaches are required. But for the vast majority of students the current (pre-pandemic) system works well. The emergency of last spring is now over. And it’s more important than ever that we go back to what works, adapted to be safe during COVID-19 and with accommodations for the students who need them.

Obviously, the promise of public education was not fully realized, especially no on an equitable basis for all students in B.C. We can and must do better. But now is the not the time to dismantle, or even tinker, with the public-school system in its form leading up to the pandemic. Our priority now must be to continue the provision of education to all B.C. students (as we did, for the most part, pre-pandemic) and to make sure that students and educators are safe.

This includes adapting schools to COVID-19 for ensuring student and educator safety. And it includes providing accommodations for students – based on meeting needs and achieving equity. There will be tempting calls to “take advantage” of COVID-19, but the risk to this is that oversight and engagement will be low during the surrounding crisis. All attention should therefore be focused on adapting the pre-pandemic system to COVID-19. When COVID-19 is over we can then get back to transforming the system as a whole.

Key to getting public schools back on track is to focus on the integrity of teaching, learning, and reporting of student progress. If the curriculum is to be scaled back, then this must be made explicit and the costs to student learning should be known. Lost teaching and learning time for most students, especially students with limited resources available for at-home learning, should be clear and visible.

Pandemic or not, we cannot continue to pass students for simply being enrolled in a class or course. Actual learning, not credentialing, should be our sole focus as a public education system. Rather than ask how to pass students who could not attend school (due to limited access during COVID-19), we should ask: How do we fully support students’ education, even during COVID-19? And how do we do this safely?