The Internet is NOT the Best Place for Kids to Learn After the Coronavirus Pandemic

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If the Coronavirus quarantine has taught educators one thing, it’s this.

 

Online learning is not better than in-person schooling.

 

After all these years of corporations throwing apps at us and well-meaning administrators providing us with devices and philanthrocapitalists pumping billions of dollars into ed tech first academic schemes, we can all see now that the emperor has no clothes.

 

When schools nationwide are closed to stop the spread of a global pandemic and learning is restricted to whatever teachers can cobble together on sites like Google Classroom and ZOOM, we can all see the Imperial scepter blowing in the wind.

 

The problem is that this is only clear to parents, students and teachers.

 

The people who get to make ed policy decisions are as blind as ever – as witnessed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tone deaf insistence that his state reimagine schools with the help of billionaire school saboteur Bill Gates.

 

But the rest of us – you know, those grounded in reality – can see the problems with remote learning staring us in the face.

 

Most importantly, the Internet is not a conducive environment for learning.

 

I don’t mean that learning can’t take place there.

 

You could learn in a fox hole while being shelled by enemy forces. But if your content extends to something more complex than “Duck” or other survival tactics, this may not be the best place to learn it. After all, environment plays a key role in knowledge acquisition.

 

Moreover, different people learn things better in different circumstances. And, contrary to our current education policies that view children as stakeholders or consumers, they are in fact people.

 

There are some children who learn better online than in a brick and mortar classroom. But these kids are few and far between.

 

In general, the younger the child (both physically and psychologically), the more important it is that he or she be given the opportunity to learn in an actual classroom.

 

Why?

 

It really comes down to who controls the environment.

 

In a classroom, the teacher decides most everything about the physical space and what possibilities there will be. She places the books, hangs the posters, sets the lighting, displays student work, etc.

 

In a virtual environment, the space is defined to a small degree by the teacher, but it is mostly determined by the ed tech provider and the open world of the Internet.

 

In short, teachers have much more control over physical classrooms and can remove distractions.

 

Online, educators have very little control over this.

 

LINE OF SIGHT

 
For instance, in my physical classroom, if I wanted to see what a student was doing, all I had to do is walk up to him and look.

 

I controlled what I see, and hiding things from me was difficult.

 

Online, if I want to see what a student is doing (let’s say on a video communications platform like ZOOM), I have little control over what I see. The student is in control of the camera. If it is pointing at the student or placed so as to hide certain behavior or even if the camera is currently on or not is not in my control. Students are empowered to hide anything they want, and there’s not much I can do about it.

 

When teaching online, I’ve had students texting on cell phones, playing video games on computers, having side conversations with friends in their bedrooms, playing with pets – and trying to hide this with the way they display themselves on camera.

 

I’ve had kids mysteriously turn off the camera or point it away from their faces until I ask them to switch it back on or swivel it back to themselves.

 

DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?

 
When I first started teaching online a few weeks ago, one of the most powerful tools at my disposal seemed to be the mute button.

 

If several kids weren’t hearing me because of side chatter, I could simply mute everyone and fill the blessed silence with instruction.

 

However, I soon discovered that this is deceptive.

 

Just because you don’t hear the students, doesn’t mean they aren’t talking. Some kids use the online chat stream to continue side chatter. Others forgo that entirely for text and Facebook messaging.

 

What’s worse, it’s often hard for the teacher to even know whether anything she said is actually being heard.

 

TOO MUCH CHOICE

 
One of the great strengths of online learning is that it gives students an incredible amount of choice. But that is also its greatest weakness.

 

I can give assignments through a file sharing site like Google Classroom and let students complete it at their own pace.

 

The problem is that kids (especially young kids) need their pace monitored.

 

You can’t give them too much time to get something done because many will procrastinate through the deadline.

 

In my physical classroom, I would often give an assignment and then provide at least some time for them to start it. The idea was that even if they don’t finish it with me, they are more likely to complete something they already began.

 

However, online it is completely up to them when to do an assignment. They are responsible for their own time management – and that’s a skill we, as educators, struggle to teach them.

 

As a result, most students don’t get these assignments done on time – if at all.

 

Even when they do the work, I’m bombarded by a slew of submissions around midnight or the early hours of the AM.

 

HOW TO ASK A QUESTION YOU DON’T KNOW YOU HAVE

 

 

Then there’s the question of… well… questions.

 

In my brick and mortar classroom, if a child was unsure of something, all she had to do was raise her hand and ask. Online, there are multiple ways to communicate with me – kids can send me an email, message me or verbally ask me something during a video chat.

 

The problem is that sometimes they don’t know they’re confused.

 

In my physical classroom, since all students are working on an assignment together in that same time and space, I can go from desk to desk and see how they’re progressing.

 

If they’re getting something wrong, I can correct it in real time. I can give suggestions and encouragement even before the work is done.

 

Online, I’m mostly limited to commenting on the final project. If a student didn’t understand the directions – and didn’t even understand that he didn’t understand the directions – I don’t know until the work is done.

 

This presents a problem. Do I explain the error and ask him to to do the work all over again? Or do I explain the error but accept the work for what it is?

 

I’ll admit, I usually do the later.

 

STUDENTS M.I.A.

 

 

Which brings me to mysterious absences.

 

I don’t mean kids who don’t show up to video conferences – though there are many of those.

 

I mean kids who for all intents and purposes appear to be there in ZOOM and then suddenly disappear never to return that day.

 

They could have a device or Internet issue. And if this happens every once in a while, it’s understandable. But what about kids who do this all the time?

 

If your iPad isn’t charged one day, I guess things happen. But if it isn’t charged everyday, that’s a problem. Your problem – one you need to solve.

 

I know every district is different in this regard, but my school provides every student with devices and even WiFi if necessary. Even in the physical classroom, using devices always came with a chorus of whines about them not being charged.

 

Once again, we’re putting this responsibility on students and families. In the days before distance learning, we could question whether that was fair. In the Coronavirus dystopia, we have little choice but to do it.

 

However, this brave new world even makes an issue out of bathroom breaks.

 

In the brick and mortar classroom, kids would ask to go to the restroom and then be sent one at a time. Online some kids just turn off their camera or leave it idling on an empty seat or the ceiling. It is next to impossible to tell whether these breaks are genuine or even to estimate their duration.

 

Some students are gone for the majority of the meeting. In a world where video conferences are few and far between, is it so much to ask that you use the restroom BEFORE going to ZOOM?

 

INVADERS

 
But let’s not forget unwanted guests.

 

These platforms require students to know a dedicated Web address and sometimes a password to get in.

 

Yet these are children. They sometimes share these security measures with people who were not invited.

 

Even in my physical classroom, sometimes students not on my roster would try to get in to talk with a friend or even just sit in on my amazing lessons. I could stop them at the door and send them on their way.

 

Online, some sites like ZOOM give me similar power, and others like Kahoot (a game based learning platform) do not. Even when every person entering has to be approved by me, all I see is the name they’ve given their device. If an enterprising stranger wanted to rename their device to that of one of my students, I probably wouldn’t catch it until they were in.

 

There have been several times when someone with one of my students’ names got into a ZOOM meeting, but either refused or couldn’t turn on their camera. I had no choice but to boot them out.

 

On some sites like Kahoot, there is no video. I had no idea who was signing in – I just saw the name they input.

 

So sometimes I had two students with the same name. Or I had let’s say 8 kids in the class but 9 kids were signing on to Kahoot.

 

It’s maddening!

 

ASSESSMENTS AND CHEATING

 
Now let’s talk tests.

 

I don’t like tests. I think they can too easily become cruel games of “guess what the testmaker was thinking.”

 

But they are a necessary evil to judge what information students have learned. Moreover, a creative teacher can design them to reduce the regurgitation of facts and increase critical analysis backed by facts.

 

In a physical classroom, teachers can monitor students during test taking. Online, they can’t. So there’s always a question of cheating.

 

Every scrap of information in human history is available somewhere online. If students try hard enough, they can find the answer to any question with a deft Google search.

 

However, to be honest I don’t think I’ve had too much trouble with this as yet. My students either don’t care enough to cheat, cannot figure out how to do so effectively or have too much self respect.

 

Or maybe I just haven’t caught them.

 

In the physical classroom, I had several students try to pass off others work – essays or poems – as their own. But I haven’t assigned anything so ambitious through distance learning yet.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 
Perhaps that’s why it drives me nuts when policymakers and media types make statements about what an overwhelming success this has all been.

 

Teachers and districts have tried their best. Students and families are giving their all. But this experiment does not demonstrate why we should all embrace distance learning once the Coronavirus pandemic is under control.

 

It shows why we MUST return to the brick and mortar classroom as soon as it is safe to do so.

 

Reimagining school will not require more ed tech.

 

It may require much less.

 

Kids need to be in the presence of physical human beings in a real environment with their peers to maximize their learning.

 

We need smaller classes, equitable funding, desegregation, social justice, wide curriculum, and an end to high stakes testing, school privatization, science denial and anti-intellectualism.

 

But more than anything, we need policymakers who are willing to listen to and include the people on the ground when making decisions that affect us all.


 

 

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Adventures in Online Teaching: Reinventing the Wheel for a Handful of Students

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Today in our ZOOM meeting, one of my students tried to get one over on me.

 

I sat at the bureau in my guest bedroom, surveying a gallery of 7th grade faces lined up in little boxes on my laptop like the opening scene of the Brady Bunch.

 

Lilly was lying on her bed face up, almost definitely scrolling on her cell phone.

 

Pha’rrel was eating a cookie as he tried to fit his overgrown curls under a gray hoodie.

 

And Jimmy was smiling at me with the cheesiest close up you ever saw in your life.

 

The smile was so wide. The eyes were so glassy. The face was so still.

 

“Jimmy, did you put up a picture of yourself on your camera!?” I asked.

 

Somewhere miles away he laughed, apologized and took it down.

 

If we were back in the classroom, I probably would have come down on him.

 

He used to sit in the back of the room, face buried in his iPad, ear buds plugged into his brain and his work done in the most careless but high-speed fashion possible.

 

About once a week I had to take away some device just so his Internet-rattled mind could pay attention.

 

What am I to do now? Those apps and devices are the only thing connecting him to even the most rudimentary schooling.

 

He still wants to appear to be paying attention, appear to be done with whatever useless crap I am having him do so he can play Fortnite, watch YouTube videos or text – all behind a digital mask of innocent concentration.

 

So I moved on.

 

We read a passage together and I noticed Melanie had her eyes closed.

 

Not just that. She was in her comfy sweats, cuddled under the covers with a kitten curled under her elbow purring away.

 

“Melanie?” I say.

 

No response.

 

“Melanie, did you hear what we just read?”

 

Nothing.

 

She’d do that in class sometimes, too. She’d be zonked out, her head plastered to the desk in a puddle of quickly congealing drool. Sometimes it was pretty hard to wake her.

 

I remember conferencing with her and her mom trying to find out if there was anything wrong – but, no, she was simply misusing the privilege of picking her own bedtime.

 

How was I to keep her awake online? I couldn’t shake the desk, rattle her papers or even let my voice naturally get louder as it gained proximity.

 

I had to let her sleep.

 

Oh and what’s this? Was that Teddy finally joining the ZOOM Meeting 20 minutes in?

 

I clicked to let him join and immediately it was clear that he was missing something important.

 

“Teddy? Is that you?” I said.

 

“Yeah, hey, Mr. Singer.”

 

“Ted, you forget something?”

 

“Wha?”

 

“Ted, your shirt?”

 

He looks down at his naked torso.

 

“Oh, I haven’t gotten dressed yet.”

 

“Uh, we can see that, Buddy. Why don’t you turn your iPad around and put on a shirt and pants? Okay?”

 

These are just some of the hurdles you face as an online teacher.

 

Ever since the Coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools across the country, teachers like me have been asked to finish up the year with students via the Internet.

 

It’s not been exactly a smooth transition.

 

Getting kids attention is not an easy task under the best of circumstances. Online it’s nearly a Herculean labor.

 

Strangely the episodes related above aren’t even close to the worst of it.

 

More than students’ attempts to message each other through the lesson or the constant screaming in the background at some kids homes or the vacant stares of the child with ADHD whose IEP calls for teacher proximity and eye contact, but how do you do that from across town? – more than all of that is the silence.

 

The empty, deafening silence of the majority of kids who don’t even show up.

 

I’ve been doing this for three weeks now and I average about 40% participation.

 

Some days a class might be almost full. Another day there might be two kids.

 

I know it’s not necessarily the children or the parents’ fault.

 

We’re in the middle of a global catastrophe. Family members are sick, kids are scared, and many don’t have experience with Internet, the devices or certainly the learning platforms we’re using.

 

Districts can give out iPads and mobile hot spots, but not familiarity with technology, not a quiet place to work, not a safe and secure learning environment.

 

When a parent tells me her child is having trouble with something, I excuse him. I get it.

 

When a student tells me she doesn’t understand how to do something, I don’t penalize her. I try to fix the problem and ask her to give it another shot.

 

But when you’ve been tasked with creating almost entirely new curriculum on the fly for several different classes– and you do – it’s anticlimactic that so few kids show up to see it.

 

I almost don’t mind it when someone’s cat swaggers in front of the screen and flaunts its butthole for all to see.

 

That’s just life in the age of distance learning.

 

But when I design all these assignments and teach all these classes, I wish more students showed up.

 

My district doesn’t require me to do all this.

 

I could have just thrown a few worksheets up on Google Classroom and called it a day.

 

That’s kind of what administrators want, I think. Just review previously taught skills. Make it look like we’re doing something. And we’ll close the academic gaps next year.

 

But when the world shut down, my 8th graders were getting ready to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” You don’t really expect me to skip over that, do you?

 

My 7th graders were getting ready to read a gripping mystery story, “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg. You don’t really think I’m going to substitute that with grammar and vocabulary worksheets? Huh?

 

So I narrowed it all down to essentials.

 

I could have assigned my students to read the texts on their own and then made them write reader response journals. But I don’t think any but my most self-motivated students would have done it and even they would have lost a lot without being able to discuss it.

 

So I put a few assignments on Google Classroom, but most are through live ZOOM Meetings where the students and I talk through the texts together.

 

The 8th graders read the play version of “Anne Frank” together with me, and it’s actually going pretty well.

 

I’m able to display the text on the screen and move the cursor under what they’re reading.

 

I’ve even seen some reluctant readers improve right before my eyes.

 

I’ve always suggested that students put their index fingers under the words as they read, but few do it. Using ZOOM like this forces them to follow my advice.

 

Of course, the class is a tiny fraction of what it would be in person.

 

If we were still in the school building, I’m positive they’d be learning more. We’d be able to discuss more. I’d have a better read of the room. They would be less capable of hiding behind the technology.

 

But there is real life-long learning taking place.

 

It’s my most successful group.

 

My 7th graders are a different story.

 

They are the kind of class you have to explode a stick of dynamite under to get them to notice what’s right before their eyes.

 

And more of them actually show up. Yet much of what we’re reading seems lost on them.

 

They are much more dedicated to being present in body if not in spirit – and barring an exorcism, I’m unsure how to reach many of them through fiber optic cables.

 

Then we have my Creative Writing class – basically a journaling course taught to a different group of students every few weeks.

 

It’s particularly challenging because I’ve met very few of them in person before the school closed.

 

However the course also lends itself best to this distance learning format.

 

Back in the school building, I used to give students a prompt every day, explain it and then have them write. I’d go from desk-to-desk as they worked and give feedback. Once they were all done, we’d share the writings aloud.

 

Now online, I just give the prompts via Google Classroom, provide instruction or attach video links and leave them to it. Then I comment on what they produce.

 

The problem is it’s my least attended class. I have a handful of students who do all the work, but most have done nothing. And this is a traditional work-at-your-own-pace cyber class.

 

I’ve had much more difficulty planning the other courses. Everything had to be reinvented. You want to read along with students, you need (1) a platform where you can all talk (2) an online text, (3) a way students can catch up, (4) a way to hand in written work, (5) a way to give tests without allowing students to cheat or do the work together.

 

It’s been challenging especially because sometimes one online solution will simply disappear.

 

For example, the e-text I was using for 7th grade was taken down overnight. One day it was available. The next it was gone. So I had to scramble to find a way to make it work.

 

That kind of thing happens all the time.

 

And speaking of time, when I’m not in a ZOOM Meeting with students or programming next week’s lessons, I have to wait for assignments to come in. Back in the classroom, they used to be handed in mostly all at the same time. I could grade them and move on.

 

In cyber-land, they trickle in piecemeal. I’m NEVER done teaching. It could be 1 am and my phone dings that an assignment, comment or question was turned in. I could wait until later, but usually I trudge over to the computer and see what needs my attention.

 

Which brings me to the final challenge – managing my home and teacher-life.

 

I’m not just an educator. I’m a parent.

 

I don’t teach my daughter. I don’t assign her lessons or work. But I have to oversee what her teacher wants her to do and make sure it gets done – and done correctly.

 

I’ll tell her to go in the dinning room and do three BrainPop assignments, or sign on to Edmentum and finish this diagnostic test, etc.

 

She’s generally pretty good about things, but if I don’t watch her, she’ll play Mario Party on her Nintendo all day long.

 

With the wife working from home, too, I usually give her the living room, my daughter is someplace else or her room, and I’m in the office.

 

On the one hand, it’s nice to be busy, and the good moments where I connect with students are just as magical as in person.

 

But most of the time, I feel lost at sea, depressed about the news and unable to concentrate or sleep the night through.

 

I’ve resigned myself to this life for the next six weeks when school will end for the academic year.

 

Perhaps the summer will be better. Maybe we’ll be able to go out and life will get somewhat back to normal.

 

However, I am not blind to the possibility that I’ll have to pick up again online in August and September.

 

School could start up with distance learning in 2020-21. Or we could have to quickly rush back to the Internet after a second wave of COVID-19 crashes upon us.

 

I keep thinking of the opening of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”:

 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

 
The fact that life and schooling will be different after this crisis ends is both encouraging and terrifying.

 

There’s so much we could fix and finally get right.

 

But from what I see us doing as the crisis unfolds, my hope dwindles with each passing day.

 

Stay safe and stay optimistic.

 

But let’s not stay cyber.


 

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You Can’t Have My Students’ Lives to Restart Your Economy

 

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It’s okay if a few children die to start up the economy.

 

That is literally the opinion being offered by media influencers and policymakers as Coronavirus social distancing efforts continue passed the 30-day mark.

 

In the midst of a global pandemic, we’ve closed down all nonessential businesses while people self quarantine at home waiting for the curve of infection to plateau and then drop off. Medical experts tell us this is the only way to ensure there are enough ventilators and hospital beds for those who get sick.

 

As it is, more than 700,000 Americans have tested positive for COVID-19 and 38,000 have died – more than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the Oklahoma City bombing – combined. In fact, the United States has the highest number of Coronavirus deaths in the world.

 

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Yet there is a concerted effort by the Trump Administration and plutocrats everywhere to get business back up and running. And to do that, they need the schools to reopen so parents can return to work.

 

They literally want to reopen schools as soon as possible – even if it isn’t 100% safe.

 

And if that means students, teachers and parents die, at least their sacrifices will have been worth it.

 

“Schools are a very appetizing opportunity,” said Dr. Mehmet Oz as a guest on Fox News’ Sean Hannity show.

 
“I just saw a nice piece in [British medical journal] The Lancet arguing the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3%, in terms of total mortality. Any, you know, any life is a life lost, but … that might be a tradeoff some folks would consider.”

 
Dr. Oz walked back the comment after popular backlash, but I believed him the first time. Many people would find that acceptable.

 

Dr. Phil McGraw (who unlike Dr. Oz is not a licensed doctor) said the following on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle:

 

“The fact of the matter is, the longer this lockdown goes on, the more vulnerable people get. And it’s like there’s a tipping point. There’s a point at which people start having enough problems in lockdown that it will actually create more destruction and actually more deaths across time than the actual virus will itself.”

 

He then compared coronavirus deaths to deaths from smoking, swimming pools and car crashes – which critics pointed out result from mostly voluntary behavior.

 

Once again, Dr. Phil walked back his comments after public outrage. And once again, I saw where he was coming from – because it’s clear where these celebrity talking heads are getting their information.

 

You find the same opinion tucked into many otherwise informative articles about the virus and education.

 

Education Next published a piece by Walton Family Foundation advisor and American Enterprise Institute fellow John Bailey with this precious little nugget tucked in its middle:

 

“Currently, the public health benefits of school closures and home quarantining outweigh the costs. But at what point does that equation flip? When do the economic, societal, and educational costs outweigh the public health benefits of these aggressive social distancing actions?”

 

The rich need the poor to get back to work. And they’re willing to put our lives on the line to do it.

 

What’s worse, they’re willing to put our children’s lives on the line.

 

I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to risk my daughter’s life so that the stock market can open back up.

 

As a public school teacher, I’m not willing to bet my students lives so that the airlines and cruise industry can get back in the green.

 

Nor am I willing to gamble with my own life even if it means the NBA, NFL and MLB can start playing games and Hollywood can start premiering first run movies again.

 

There’s still so much we don’t know about COVID-19.

 

Initial reports concluded that older people were more susceptible to it, but as infections have played out worldwide, we’ve seen that 40% of patients are between 20-50 years of age. Children seem mostly asymptomatic. However, many immunologists suspect they are acting as carriers spreading the virus to the older people with whom they come into contact.

 
Children have a more difficult time with the constant hand washing and separating themselves at least 6 feet apart recommended by health experts. This is one of the justifications for closing schools in the first place. If we reopen schools too quickly, it could jumpstart another wave of infections.

 

In fact, that’s exactly what the Imperial College of London found in its own modeling study on likely U.S. and U.K. outcomes.

 

School closures can be effective to help suppress the transmission rates and flatten the curve, the report concluded, IF CONTINUED OVER FIVE MONTHS.

 

That’s a long time. But it gets worse.

 

In the absences of mass vaccinations – which may be as much as two years away – the study found the virus is likely to rebound for a second and third wave.

 

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So when would it be safe to reopen schools?

 

Honestly, no one really knows.

 
Former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb released a more optimistic answer in the “National Coronavirus Response: Roadmap to Reopening.”

 

The report maintains the need to continue social distancing including school closures until cases peak and we see sustained declines in new cases for 14 days.

 

That seems to be a fair minimum standard.

 

However, we are not there yet. The death toll continues to rise in the US and may continue to do so for some time yet.

 

Despite the science, every state has a different date in mind for when schools will reopen.

 

Since the beginning of April,a total of 21 state departments of education (including Pennsylvania’s) have decided to keep schools closed for the remainder of the academic year until at least August or September. Six states plus Washington, D.C., still have plans to reopen their schools before the end of the month.

 

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Beyond the question of WHEN to reopen schools is the even more complicated one of HOW or IF.

 

President and chief executive of the National Association of State Boards of Education Robert Hull said administrators across the country are asking not how – but if – schools will reopen in the fall.

 

“Everybody says we hope we return to normal,” Hull said. “It’s not going to return to normal anytime soon because the new normal is going to be different.”

 

Multiple possibilities are being considered.

 

A major factor will be how well districts can test incoming students for infection.

 

The best solution would be quick and cheap Coronavirus screenings. If we could mass produce such tests and distribute them to schools or have the results be a precondition to coming to school, things might be able to run pretty much as normal.

 

If US schools all had digital thermometers (as they do in Singapore), students temperatures could be taken before letting them in to the building. Anyone running a fever could be sent home.

 

Some policymakers are even considering spot checking students throughout the day with thermometers and using video cameras to trace the path of any students running a temperature to tell who they may have come into contact with before being identified. However, this seems pretty disruptive to me and – especially in the younger grades – might terrify students and make them conversely feel less safe in school because of the very efforts done to ensure their safety.

 

In all likelihood, policymakers see to think schools will probably have to run while engaging in some sort of social distancing. And that’s not easy. Nearly everything from the way the academic day is organized to the maturity level of most students goes against this need.

 

One thought provoking proposal is reducing class size to no more than 10 students.

 

This would also have educational benefits allowing teachers the ability to give more one-on-one instruction. However, most classes are double or triple this size now. Few school buildings are large enough to double or triple the number of classrooms needed at the same time.

 

One solution to this is that children could attend on alternate days or on a half day basis – one group in the morning, another in the afternoon. The drawback is that this would reduce the hours students are in class. Lessons would either have to be cut down to essentials or some part of assignments may have to go online.

 

This might also narrow the curriculum so that the arts, music, and other subjects would be eliminated. Gym classes would probably have to be cancelled and lunches might have to be in the classroom, itself, instead of allowing large groups of students to congregate in the cafeteria.

 

Just ensuring that students aren’t all in the hallway at the same time would be a challenge. Class dismissals might be staggered or perhaps the teachers would move from room-to-room while the students stay put.

 

Moreover, the simple act of busing students to-and-from school is likewise complicated. If students sit further apart on the bus, that means each district needs either more buses at the same time or double the time to transport students at arrival and dismissal.

 

None of this would be cheap. It could necessitate more money on transportation, support staff and teachers. In a country where education budgets haven’t yet recovered from the Great Recession of George W. Bush, reopening schools safely would require an influx of cash.

 

But without it, the economy cannot get back under way.

 

When schools closed in March, many districts switched to some kind of distance learning. Teachers put assignments on-line and even teach through Internet meeting sites like ZOOM. Continuing this in some form – for part or all of the day – is also being considered. However, it causes as many problems as it solves.

 

Parents need to be able to get back to work. Many can’t stay at home taking care of their children indefinitely. And they can’t leave their kids to their own devices while trying to learn via computer, device or app.

 

Moreover, these cyber schooling efforts come with educational drawbacks. Just about every educational expert acknowledges that learning in-person is preferable. Students with special needs are particularly at risk because many of their individual education plans (IEPs) cannot be met remotely. And even though efforts have been made to help impoverished students gain access to the necessary technology and Internet access, the problem has by no means been universally solved. Not to mention privacy concerns with student data being pirated by unscrupulous ed tech companies.

 

Another issue is high stakes standardized testing.

 

With the Coronavirus crisis, the tests were cancelled this year – and no one has really missed them.

 

If lessons have to be cut to essentials, standardized testing and the need for endless test prep should be the first things to go. In fact, students, educators, parents and college professors will tell you how useless these assessments are. They reflect basic economic inequalities and enforce them by tying education funding to the test scores.

 

Poor kids score badly and rich kids score well, so the funding becomes a reward for the privileged and a punishment for the underprivileged.

 

That’s why it’s laughable when Hull laments “issues of equity” including how to measure what students are learning and how to help those who have fallen behind.

 

Equity is a matter of funding and opportunities – not test scores. Regardless of the problems with reopening schools, we could solve a long standing issue by erasing high stakes testing from the academic map.

 

But that’s been the elephant in the classroom for a long time.

 

Economic interests have trumped academic ones for decades.

 

Will we continue to value money over children? Will we pave the post-Coronavirus future over the bodies of sick children and adults?

 

Like any crisis, COVID-19 is another opportunity to get things right.

 

Here’s hoping we have our priorities straight this time.

 

Here’s hoping schools stay closed until we’re certain reopening them won’t endanger students, teachers and the community.

 


 

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How Did America’s Schools Cope with Spanish Flu vs. Coronavirus?

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They say history repeats itself.

 

And if you’ve read any accounts of the bygone days of yesteryear, the current crisis certainly appears like a rerun.

 

Look at all the closed businesses, frightened people venturing out wearing face masks or self quarantined in their homes. It sure looks a lot like 1918.

 

The Spanish Flu epidemic that swept the nation a little more than a century ago bares more than a passing resemblance to COVID-19, the coronavirus. And the ways we are trying to cope with the situation are in many cases modeled on what worked a hundred years ago.

 

For instance, when our ancestors enacted social distancing policies to flatten the curve of infection, their infrastructures were better able to save lives. When they didn’t enact such policies, death tolls were greater.

 

That’s one of the major reasons many of us today are shut in our homes waiting this whole thing out. We want to give the hospitals a chance to deal with the cases that come in without people all getting sick at once and making a run on ventilators.

 

However, history has less to say about how we handle things like education.

 

After all, our forebears didn’t have as unified a response.

 

In general, closing schools was better to stop the spread of disease than keeping them open.

 

But what about actual academics? How did our progenitors make up missed work?

 

There-in lies a tale.

 

America’s school system seems to have met the crisis in three separate ways.

 

They either closed entirely, remained open or forced teachers to educate at a distance.

 

Wait. Educate at a distance? In 1918?

 

Yep.

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

PITTSBURGH

 
Let’s begin in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 
City officials didn’t take the matter seriously enough and as a result, Pittsburgh ended up with the highest death rate of any major city in the country. The Spanish Flu killed at least 4,500 people – a smaller total than cities like Philadelphia, but it represented more than 1 in every 100 residents. Nearly 24,000 people sought treatment at local hospitals.

 

According to reports made to the city health department, things got so bad that at the epidemic’s worst, someone in Pittsburgh got the flu every 70 seconds and someone died from it every 10 minutes.

 

This resulted in a casket shortage across Western Pennsylvania as far away as Greensburg. Even in distant Ligonier, signs were posted along Lincoln Highway warning motorists, “You stop at your own peril.”

 

City officials were at least partly to blame.

 

Though local colleges and universities such as the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne, and Carnegie Tech all closed their doors near the start of the outbreak, city public schools initially were kept open.

 

In early October, State Health Commissioner B. Franklin Royer made the decision not to close public schools, though Pittsburgh school administrators decided that anyone who was coughing or sneezing should be sent home.

 

However, as Kenneth White put it in his 1985 article “Pittsburgh in the Great Epidemic of 1918”:

 

“Enterprising students quickly discovered that a pinch of snuff or pepper, inhaled in school, provided a sure passport to freedom.”

 
By October 22, city council reviewed a report that 27,357 children – about one-third of the student body – were absent from school. Of this number, council knew of 6,070 students who had the flu and 53 who had died. In addition, many parents kept their children home for fear they’d get sick.

 

Only then were city schools closed – about three weeks after the epidemic took hold in the area.

 

Some surrounding districts like Ben Avon had closed schools as early as October 5. But many had followed the city’s example and suffered similar consequences.

 

Pittsburgh schools reopened on November 18. Though the Spanish Flu was not completely gone, it came back in two more waves through the area – however, neither was as devastating as the first crash.

 

I can find nothing specific about how surviving students made up missed academic work. Only that they missed 19 school days of class during the closure.

 

NEW YORK CITY

 

New York City reacted in a similar fashion as Pittsburgh but with different results.

 

While Pittsburgh’s mortality rate was nearly 1 in 100, New York’s was 4.7 per 1,000. City officials recorded approximately 30,000 deaths out of a population of roughly 5.6 million resulting from influenza or pneumonia.

 

However, just like Pittsburgh, New York kept its schools open.

 

In an October 5th New York Times article, Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland explained his logic behind the controversial decision to keep students in class:

 

“New York is a great cosmopolitan city and in some homes there is careless disregard for modern sanitation… In schools the children are under the constant guardianship of the medical inspectors. This work is part of our system of disease control. If the schools were closed at least 1,000,000 would be sent to their homes and become 1,000,000 possibilities for the disease. Furthermore, there would be nobody to take special notice of their condition.”

 

In short, Copeland figured the schools could do a better job of ensuring children’s safety than their parents.

 

In class, teachers were expected to give each student a daily medical inspection and report the results to the school nurse and/or medical professionals.

 

According to Francesco Aimone in “The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in New York City: A Review of the Public Health Response”:

 

“School nurses and medical inspectors were instructed to follow up on teacher inspections and conduct home visits on absentee students to determine whether “… they or members of their family are sick, that physical examinations be carefully made, and that dry sweeping [in their home] be discontinued and ventilation sufficient.”

 
Many disagreed with Copeland’s decision including the Red Cross of Long Island.

 

Former Health Commissioner Dr. S.S. Goldwater put the blame squarely on the teachers who inspected students with “almost criminal laxity” and found the follow-up inspections “lamentably weak.”

 

CHICAGO

 

However, a similar strategy in Chicago didn’t repeat New York’s success.

 

Keeping schools open in the Windy City more closely emulated the situation in Pittsburgh.

 

According to a timeline of preventive measures published in the American Journal of Public Health by Chicago’s Health Commissioner Dr. John Dill Robertson, city schools weren’t closed because officials didn’t think children were getting sick more than adults. They thought it would be better to keep students indoors where they could be watched for symptoms.

 

However, children ended up dying from the flu in Chicago at a higher rate than their parents.

 

Like in Pittsburgh, any student who coughed or sneezed was immediately sent home – though eventually this also came with a mandatory home quarantine.

 

SMALLER TOWNS

 
Officials were more sensible in smaller towns like Adrian and Tecumseh, Michigan.

 

In both municipalities all schools were closed by the end of October when the epidemic began there.

 

By Dec. 12 there was a plan to reopen, however that was revised as the death toll continued to rise. Schools ultimately remained closed until January 1919.

 

Schools made up the missing days of class by extending the remaining year.
They stayed open for 30 minutes beyond their usual dismissal time and held half-day sessions on Saturdays.

 

Another small town that wasn’t taking chances was Pontiac, Illinois.

 

Not only did officials close the schools, they ended up using them as field hospitals for the sick.

 

Moreover, when classes were cancelled, school age children were forbidden from leaving their homes unless they had to run an errand. Anyone with the flu was immediately quarantined in his or her home.

 

Schools were closed on October 15 for what was originally supposed to be just five weeks. However, when the second wave of the flu hit, the closure was extended.

 

Things got so bad that from December 3rd through January 1st, school buildings were used as a hospital to treat those with the flu.

 

By early January, the worst had passed and schools were reopened. Beginning on January 10, 1919, the high school held an extra session on Saturday to help make up some of the missed class work.

 

This seems to be the general pattern. Larger cities tried to push on and keep things as normal as possible – with usually disastrous results. Smaller towns took more serious precautions and limited the death toll.

 

LAKELAND, FLORIDA

 

And then there’s Lakeland, Florida.

 
Leave it to this district in Polk County to be the oddball.

 

On Oct. 10, the schools were officially closed. But not really.

 

Superintendent of Lakeland Schools Charles Jones and Polk County Board of Public Instruction Superintendent John Moore ordered teachers to continue to report to work so they could help any students who needed remediation.
Jones wrote in the local Ledger newspaper:

 

“While the teachers will meet at the school building each day for the purpose of assisting any child who is deficient in certain subjects or all subjects, yet I want it understood that the pupils may see the teachers at their homes any time for instruction.”

 

Such instruction could be given over the telephone, if necessary, he added.

 

Moore took the matter a step further saying in a resolution published in the paper that teachers who failed to report to school or help students could have their pay docked.

 

Much of this proto-distance learning involved communication in the local paper.

 

Its pages included assignments from teachers to students and even teachers home phone numbers if students needed help.
 Examples of these assignments included reading passages from Shakespeare to drawing a map of North America.

 

IMPLICATIONS

 

The strangest thing about this incomplete survey of school responses is how much our current system is acting like Lakeland, Florida.

 

Almost all present day schools are closed with students supposedly self quarantined at home. This helps flatten the curve and minimize the chances of infection.

 

However, instead of waiting for the crisis to pass before addressing any academic deficiencies, many districts are requiring distance learning.

 

Teachers are being made to go in to school buildings or work from home creating online courses from scratch with little to no training.

 

True, this doesn’t expose educators to an added risk of catching the virus, themselves, but it does seem a bit mercenary.

 

We’re in a public health crisis where thousands of people are getting sick and dying. And the thing ourschool administrators are most concerned about is continued academic performance. They’d rather keep going with whatever quality of instruction can be provided in slapdash fashion than wait until it can be provided in the best possible circumstances.

 

They’d rather risk leaving behind those students without Internet access or whose special needs can’t be met online. Anything rather than extending the school year?

 

It’s interesting to compare today’s solutions to those of yesteryear.

 

Why didn’t more districts in 1918 try to make teachers instruct students through the newspaper and over the phone? Why didn’t more districts make teachers go to school buildings and even students homes during an epidemic?

 

Are we really doing the right thing by emulating those solutions?


 

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The Coronavirus Could Be A Big Moneymaker for EdTech Companies

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There is a special place in Hell for people who cash in on tragedy.

 

But that place is reserved for the super rich – and that’s all that matters in Donald Trump’s America.

 

Federal officials are urging schools to prepare for possible disruptions due to the coronavirus – a disease that originated in China last month and has affected more than 77,000 people worldwide (of which more than 2,600 have died).

 

Only 14 people have been infected in the U.S., and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) writes on its Website that the “immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low” for the average American – especially those who have not traveled recently to Wuhan, the surrounding Hubei Province or elsewhere in mainland China.

 

However, this is certainly scary news for anyone – especially parents, teachers and students.

 

In fact, federal officials singled out schools at a press conference on Tuesday about possible responses to the disease if it gets worse on these shores.

 

Nancy Messonnier, a director at the CDC, said:

 

“You should ask your children’s schools about their plans for school dismissals or school closures. Ask about plans for teleschool.”

 

To which every teacher in America responded, “Teleschool!?”

 

So we’re worried about this disease which is somewhat more deadly than the fluNOT primarily because of the risk to students’ health or lives; NOT because of the risk of it going undiagnosed due to the disincentive of rising healthcare costs; NOT because we’re woefully unprepared due to Trump firing the entire U.S. pandemic response team two years ago and then not replacing them!

 

No! We’re concerned mostly because KIDS MIGHT MISS SCHOOL!!!!

 
But, hey, no worries because the Trump administration figures this new and unpredictable disease which typically causes symptoms like fever, cough and shortness of breath can be circumvented with… cyber school?

 
Limit kids exposure by letting them stay at home and do their lessons on the computer.

 

And if they have an online management system where teachers give virtual assignments and kids turn them in through the cloud, even better!

 

Thank you, education technology firms! You have saved American education. Again.

 

What a pile of crap!

 

Let’s get one thing clear. This suggestion has nothing to do with student well being. It is a blatant attempt to turn a potential pandemic into a cash cow.

 

 

EdTech already is a multi-billion dollar industry. If we successfully tie navigation of disasters with this sector, profits could potentially climb through the roof!

 

As it stands now, technology companies are lined up outside our schools pretending to provide the best the 21st Century has to offer to solve every school issue from excessive tardiness to lack of motivation to academic decline.

 

And now they’re offering the cure to the coronavirus – or at least the cure to any pedagogical delay that might result from school closures – either precautionary or due to an outbreak.

 

First of all, if schools close because of this disease, students will be scared. They aren’t going to be able to focus on academics.

 

Kids would need love and understanding – not more homework.

 

Second, not all kids have Internet access at home. Many of our most underprivileged children need to go to a public place like a library to get online. So if we require students to submit assignments this way during a closure, we’re forcing them to increase their chances of infection at a public place or get behind in their work. Not exactly fair.

 

Third, the kind of lessons you can provide through “teleschool” are subpar at best.

 

This is the automated checkout counter of school. It is the robocall customer service of education.

 

Most children need real live human beings to achieve their best. That’s why you just can’t give a kid a math book and – Voilà – they know how to reduce fractions!

 

Sure, they can try to muddle through a computer program or do virtual work and submit it online. But how is that really different from the bad old days when the most checked out educators would disseminate a worksheet to the class and then hide behind a newspaper at their desks?

 

This is the kind of curriculum we used to criticize teachers for and that very few modern day educators could get away with in our modern public school system – UNLESS they do it behind a computer and/or software package.

 

This is not being “future ready” or “innovative.” It is the worst practices of the past repackaged so a bunch of suits at the corporate offices can cash in.

 

Finally, it opens students up to severe privacy concerns. In 2018 the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) warned that EdTech solutions like these often put student security at risk.

 

Much of this software asks for and saves student inputs which can be compromised or actively sold to third parties.

 
These are “adaptive, personalized learning experiences” or “administrative platforms for tracking academics, disciplinary issues, student information systems, and classroom management programs.”

 
Pedophiles could use this data to find and abduct children. Criminals could use it to blackmail them. It could even be sold to unscrupulous corporations or exploited by other children to bully and harass classmates.

 

And, in fact, such things have happened.

 
While it may be frustrating to makeup missed schools days, doing so doesn’t have the same risks and – eventually – provides kids with the same quality of education that they miss.

 
It just doesn’t offer opportunities for corporations to make big bucks.

 

Advocates claim online tools like Class Dojo and Apple Classroom provide unique opportunities that have never been available before for such teleschooling.

 

However, we’ve always been able to do this stuff – just not so easily on a computer.

 

Schools have always been able to send workbooks home with students full of drill and kill assignments. They just rarely did so because we all knew the quality of such workbooks was mediocre at best.

 

Compared with a flesh-and-blood teacher and the interpersonal interactions of school, this was poor return on the community’s investment in their children.

 

Teleschooling is pretty much the same thing just with flashier bells and whistles.

 

It’s no wonder that this is the kind of solution we get from an administration that thinks Betsy Devos should head the Department of Education.

 

Why would we trust the same people who can’t figure out how to contain the coronavirus to solve its impact on education?

 

 

Sadly in an age when the human genome has been successfully mapped and bio-weapons are a real tool at the disposal of unscrupulous governments, one can only be skeptical of a mysterious new virus that suddenly shows up in a country like China experiencing massive pro-democracy protests. That’s one way to get disaffected citizens off the streets.

 

And now the same disease has come to our shores on the eve of the 2020 Presidential election. You’ll forgive me for admiring what could be the most effective means of  voter suppression in modern politics!

 

This may be an unlikely scenario – especially given the degree of secrecy and competence it would require – but if history has taught us anything, it’s that the powerful will stop at nothing to keep their power.

 

Beyond mere financial gain, some may hope that teleschooling in the wake of predictable disasters could dumb down our children’s education just enough to deprive them of that lesson, themselves.

 

The best way to stop skepticism is to undercut the education of the next generation.

 


 

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Blaming Schools for Student Absences is Like Denouncing Doctors for Disease

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If something is wrong with children, it must be the school’s fault.

 

Right?

 

If kids can’t read, write and do ‘rithmetic, the teachers must not have taught ’em right.

 

It couldn’t have anything to do with home life, generational poverty, economic inequality and systemic racism.

 

Except that it almost always does.

 

Inextricably.

 
The fact is children who don’t live in safe, loving homes have much greater difficulty concentrating and caring about academics. Kids with impoverished parents are much more likely to go to underfunded schools and sit in classrooms that are racially segregated.

 

None of that is under the control of teachers or schools, but a focus on high stakes standardized testing, school privatization and dangerously unregulated ed tech hides the problem.

 
It’s not that teachers don’t teach. Inequality, prejudice and privatization – these are the root causes and the reason we do nothing about them generation after generation is that we have an easy scapegoat in the public schools in general and public school teachers in particular.

 
Take student absences.

 

It’s a huge problem.

 

When kids don’t show up to school, they learn less. It’s a simple concept.

 

Yet just four years ago when we had a chance to rewrite the federal law governing public education to actually DO SOMETHING about the problems we’re facing, we dropped the ball. Again!

 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include five indicators measuring school performance: four based on academic achievement, and a fifth, “non-academic” measure of student success.

 

Most states have adopted chronic student absenteeism as this “fifth indicator.”

 

So we take those five indicators, weight them and combine them together to get overall school scores that are used to sort and rank educational institutions. That way we can prioritize funding to the highest performers and withhold it from the lowest.

 

It’s the same supply side nonsense we’ve been doing for years with a few numbers moved around and given a different name.

 

Schools overflowing with resources serving rich white kids get a sticker. Schools starving for resources serving poor brown kids get a kick.

 

And somehow that’s supposed to help things get better.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Absenteeism is important.

 

Nearly 8 million students missed 15 or more days of school in 2015-16 — an increase from the 6.8 million who missed the same amount in 2013-14, when the federal Department of Education began tracking the data. And there’s a mountain of research that links chronic absenteeism with poor academic performance, delayed graduation, and increased dropout rates.

 

But putting it all on neighborhood schools and local districts is a huge abrogation of responsibility.

 

By and large, public schools do not cause students to be absent. Nor do they have the resources to ensure these students start attending.

 

But we’ve found someone to blame and that’s really all this whole exercise was about in the first place.

 

It’s like denouncing your doctor for your disease. It won’t cure you, but it might make you feel justified as you die.

 

The reasons students are chronically absent have little to do with individual schools.

 

According to Attendance Works, a non-profit focusing on ways to improve student attendance, the main causes of chronic absences are:

 

•Chronic disease or lack of health care and/or dental care.

 

•The need to care for siblings or other family members.

 

•Unmet basic needs: transportation, housing, food, clothing, etc.

 

•Trauma.

 

•Feeling unsafe getting to school.

 

•Academic or social struggles.

 

•Being teased or bullied.

 

•Poor school climate or unsafe schools.

 

•Parents had negative school experience.

 

•Lack of engaging and relevant instruction.

 

•Peer pressure to be with peers out of school vs. in school.

 

•No meaningful relationships with adults in school.

 

•High suspension rates and disproportionate school discipline.

 

Certainly some of these things are under the control of school directors, administrators, and teachers.

 

Schools can and should provide safe ways for students to get to and from school. They should work to reduce bullying and make school a welcoming place for all children. They should provide engaging instruction, fair discipline policies and reach out to parents and the community.

 

But most schools are already doing that – or certainly trying to do that within the confines of their budgets.

 

My own Western Pennsylvania district has been flagged by the Commonwealth for increasing chronic absences. In the state, this is defined as students with 10 or more unexcused absences. We’ve been put on an improvement plan – which basically means an employee at the state Department of Education wagging his finger and telling us to get better or else.

 

However, the overarching problem and solution are easy to see. We are a district without busing.

 

The high school and middle school sit on top of a hill. Students who live in the poorer sections of town at the bottom of the hill have to walk or take public transportation daily to get to school.

 

It’s no wonder that some of them don’t do that every day and stay home instead.

 

However, we serve a mostly impoverished population. Decades ago, school directors decided it would be more cost effective to save money on busing so they could provide greater services for students. Yet as the economy has continued to stagnate and funding has become even more hard to come by, attendance has worsened.

 

So what are we to do? Cut services and add buses?

 

Doing so would mean we’d have to bus students to local charter schools as well, increasing the burden on taxpayers and the amount of muscle and bone we’d have to cut from our own academic programs.

 

It’s all very well and good to have the federal government tell us that attendance is important – but where is the help to improve it?

 

As with everything else in education, we get threats and the promise of economic sanctions but nothing in the way of assistance, aide or intervention.

 

We could be working together to try to solve this and other social issues. We could pool resources and construct social programs to help parents get jobs, set up stable homes, fund robust systems of public transportation, and a host of social services for students and their families such as tutoring, counseling, child care, and continuing education classes. We could end discriminatory policies such as school segregation, school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.

 

But doing so would mean abandoning the blame game and nothing has worked better to shield the rich from paying their fair share than pointing fingers at the less privileged and those who dedicate their lives to help them.

 

In truth, the problems with public schools are rarely the teachers.

 

It’s that society has written them off and refuses to take responsibility for its own role in supporting the next generation.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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