Being a parent during a global pandemic means having to make difficult decisions.
The most pressing of which seems to be: from which Coronavirus spawned horror should I shield my child?
As schools slowly reopened in my neck of the woods, it was basically a choice between in-person instruction or remote learning.
Do I allow my child the benefits of a living, breathing teacher but risk the COVID-19 incubator of a physical classroom environment – or do I keep her safe at home but parked in front of a computer all day?
It’s not an easy call.
On the other hand, I don’t want her to get sick or become a Typhoid Mary bringing the disease into our house and infecting the rest of the family.
In any sane country, I wouldn’t have to make such a choice. Where infection rates are moderate to high, schools should be closed and all instruction virtual.
In the absence of strong, sane leadership, each school district is its own fiefdom marching to the beat of its own discordant drum.
Even in Western Pennsylvania, my neighborhood school is leaving it up to parents whether to potentially endanger their children or not.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We could refuse to take chances. We could keep all students online and that would increase our academic options.
After all, there is more than one way to do remote learning.
We could ask the district’s classroom teachers to design instruction tailor made to their students but merely delivered online.
Or we could use a prepackaged platform to deliver that instruction.
To me, it’s obvious which is better.
One maximizes academic outcomes by making the virtual experience as much like the in-person experience as possible with multiple daily interactions between teachers and students. The other delegates the responsibility of educating to a corporation with minimal social interaction between students and educators.
The teacher led option is the way to go, but it only works at most districts if they give up the myth that they can make in-person instruction feasible during a pandemic that has already infected more than 7 million people in this country and killed 200,000 and counting.
In districts like mine where community leaders and even some school directors are committed to keeping the buildings open so that they can justify keeping open restaurants, bars and other establishments, there is a disincentive to even allow this third option. If the public chooses it, the local economy might suffer.
So they’re committed to giving people a choice – just not THAT choice.
If they can only choose between canned cyber curriculum or fresh but dangerous in-person models, they’re betting parents will choose the latter.
And in many cases they are. But a significant number are not.
In the McKeesport Area School District (MASD), where I’ve lived most of my life, nearly a third of the parents have chosen distance learning for their children instead of a half day hybrid model. One would think that would free up enough classroom teachers to offer synchronous, authentic instruction. Students could have lessons from a certified district employee with years of experience instructing children of that age, grade and subject matter. Kids and teachers could develop trusting and caring relationships and work together to create the best possible learning environment.
Some local districts are actually doing that.
But not McKeesport.
Instead the district is using its existent on-line credit recovery program for all virtual students.
The platform is Calvert Learning, a product of the ed tech giant Edmentum.
This multi-million dollar global company (it was sold for $143 million in 2010) is best known for creating Study Island and other standardized test prep based learning platforms.
The problem is it was never meant to be used as the sole provider of coursework for thousands of students in a single district.
In fact, the specific Edmentum product being used by MASD – Calvert Learning – was originally intended for home school students.
It was created for K-8th grade, but when added to Edmentum’s Coursework platform, the company claims to be able to offer credit recovery – I mean academic classes – for K-12 and beyond.
As a parent who has spent countless hours helping his daughter navigate it, let me tell you – it’s a mess.
The instruction and assignments it provides are developmentally inappropriate, assesses things it hasn’t taught, and are filled with grammatical and spelling errors. Moreover, the pace it prescribes violates the guidelines Edmentum gives to parents about how much time students should spend on-line.
According to “A Parent Guide: Supporting Your Child During Virtual Learning,” provided by Edmentum, cyber students should limit their time online. Elementary students should spend not more than 1-2 hours a day, middle school students 2-3 hours, and high school students 3-4 hours.
My 6th grade daughter typically spends 7-8 hours a day just to barely get things done – and that’s not counting 2-3 hours on the weekends.
I’ve seen her struggle through passages that are written far above her reading level.
For example, she completed a unit on characterization where she was required to read O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.”
I know the story well, because as a middle school teacher, I’ve taught it to my 7th grade students from time-to-time. However, the version I’ve used is not the original that O. Henry wrote. It is brought down to the level of a middle schooler and unnecessary attitudes of the time are downplayed.
In the original, one of the characters, Sam, uses big words to show how smart he is. The version I use still has him do that but reduces its frequency so that middle schoolers can understand him. After all, 6th graders shouldn’t have to wrestle with “philoprogenitiveness,” “chawbacon” and “whiskerando” just to grasp a pretty basic plot.
Moreover, the story was published in 1907. The original text throws out numerous instances of casual racism against Native Americans that serve no point in the story. Does my daughter really need to be subjected to dehumanizing native peoples as mere “red skins” just to get a lesson on characterization?
Clearly this unit was not developed with child psychologists, practicing middle school Language Arts teachers or even people of color in the room.
If that weren’t bad enough, the questions are full of grammatical errors and typos.
One question about homophones asks students to consider this sentence:
“Select the correct answer.
Is the boxed word used correctly?
I’d like a PEACE of pie for desert?”
Students were asked if “PEACE” is correct – Yes or No. They should know that PIECE is actually the right word.
However, the question made no mention of the misuse of “desert” when the authors clearly meant “dessert.”
That’s the kind of thing that really confuses a student trying to make her way through a program all by herself.
On many assessments, she is asked things that were never taught in the section that was meant to be assessed. I know this is status quo on standardized tests, but is it fair to ask this of a child navigating an online program without even a living teacher to offer support and guidance?
In a social studies assessment on Neolithic peoples, many of the questions had nothing to do with the subject matter. They asked students to infer something based on a passage and none of the multiple choices were entirely correct. You had to pick the option that was least incorrect.
This is some crappy academics being pawned off on parents and students.
And it’s not cheap.
MASD paid $146,302.25 for 40 licenses to Calvert, Exact Path K-5, Courseware for 6-12 and other online services. When hundreds of additional parents asked for their students to be put on the cyber program, the district purchased 500 more licenses from Calvert for a bundled rate of $112,500. That’s $225 per license. Normally they are $450 per license.
Imagine if we put our tax dollars and our teachers to educating these students instead of seeding our responsibility to a corporation for hire.
And we could do it, too.
I work at Steel Valley School District.
Unlike MASD, we began the year with a 100% virtual program for all students. We conduct fully synchronous classes online designed entirely by the classroom teachers. And we post materials on Google Classroom so that students who miss the live Zoom meetings can watch videos of the lesson and do the work.
I’m not saying it hasn’t been difficult or that it’s without problems. Nor is such an endeavor better than in-person learning in a safe environment.
But the teacher-led remote model is the best that can be provided under the circumstances.
Districts that throw students to the whims of corporate educators for hire are shirking their duties.
They should face the realities of the world we live in.
If Coronavirus infections are significant in your county, you should not be offering in-person schooling. You should be offering the best remote option available – and that’s the teacher-led cyber option.
If only my home district knew it.
Meanwhile, my daughter has to struggle through with the cold comfort that at least she won’t get sick jumping through the hoops her school board is too partisan to eliminate for her.
I’m right next to her at the dining room table feeling guilty for putting her through this.
But what else could I do?
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