Thursday, Propel teachers and other staff voted 236-82 to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).
The drive took 9 months to achieve. Propel enrolls about 4,000 students at 13 schools in Braddock Hills, Hazelwood, Homestead, McKeesport, Pitcairn, Turtle Creek, Munhall, McKees Rocks and the North Side.
They don’t have to be run by elected school boards. They don’t have to manage their business at public meetings. They don’t have to open their budgets to public review. Heck! They don’t even have to spend all the money they get from taxes on their students.
Nor do they have to accept every student in their coverage area. They can cherry pick whichever students they figure are cheapest to educate and those who they predict will have the highest test scores. And they can hide this discrimination behind a lottery or whatever other smoke screen they want because – Hey! The rules don’t apply to them!
Now you have to pay a living wage. You can’t demand people work evenings and weekends without paying them overtime. You have to provide safe working conditions for students and staff. And if you want to cut student services and pocket the difference, the staff is going to have something to say about that – AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN!
How much will union power beat back charter bosses?
Will the worst financial gamblers abandon school privatization because unions make it too difficult to make handfuls of cash? One can hope.
If it happened, the only charters left standing would be those created without profit as their guiding principle. The goal would really have to be doing the best thing for children, not making shadowy figures in the background a truckload of money.
Do such charter schools even exist? Maybe. With staff continuing to unionize, maybe there will be even more of them.
However, even if all of them become altruistic, there still remains a problem.
Most questions on these tests are multiple choice. They limit the possible answers to 4 or 5 choices.
If you’re asking something extremely simple and clear, this is achievable. However, the more complex you get – and by necessity the more subjective the question gets – the more the test taker has to think like the person who wrote the question.
This doesn’t matter so much when you’re asking them to calculate 2+2. But when you’re asking them to determine the meaning behind a literary passage or the importance of a historical event or the cultural significance of a scientific invention – it matters.
Moreover, the idea that the amount of learning children have done in school is a mystery is, itself, a farce.
Of course, most kids have learned less during the pandemic than under normal years.
Schools have been disrupted. Classes have been given remotely, in-person and/or in some hybrid mix of the two. Parents, families, friends have gotten sick, jobs have been lost or put in jeopardy, social interactions have been limited.
You really need a standardized test to tell you that affected learning?
You might as well ask if water’s wet. Or fire’s hot? Or if a starving person is hungry?
Okay. How about looking at the classroom grades students have earned? Look at the amount of learning the teacher has calculated for each student.
After all, most of these kids have been in school to some degree. They have attended some kind of classes. Teachers have done their best to assess what has been learned and to what degree.
Look at teachers’ grades. They will give you 180-some days worth of data.
Look at student attendance. See how often children have been in class. I’m not saying that there aren’t justifiable reasons for missing instruction – there are. But attendance will tell you as lot about how much students have learned.
Ask the parents about their kids. Ask how they think their children are doing. Ask what kind of struggles they’ve gone through this year and how resilient or not their children have been. Ask about the traumas the children have experienced and what solutions they have tried and what kind of help they think they need.
And while you’re at it, make sure to ask the students, themselves. I’m sure they have stories to tell about this year. In fact, many teachers have suggested students keep Covid diaries of what they’ve been going through.
Finally, take a look at the resources each school has. How much do they spend per pupil and how does that compare with surrounding districts? Look at how segregated the school is both in comparison to other districts, other schools in the district and class-by-class within the school. Look at class size, how wide or narrow the curriculum is, how robust the extra curricular activities offered, what kind of counseling and tutoring each school offers. That will tell you a lot about how much learning students have achieved – not just during Covid times but ANYTIME!
If that’s not enough data, I don’t know what to tell you.
There are plenty of measures of student learning this year. Standardized testing is completely unnecessary.
But unfortunately that doesn’t end the stupid.
Now we come to the rationale behind assessing learning in the first place.
Because, after all, one of the most precious resources this year is time. And that’s exactly what these tests will gobble up.
Wasting time on testing is bad in any year, but in a year when school buildings have been closed and learning has been conducted remotely, when we’ve struggled with new technologies and safety precautions, when we’ve seen our friends and neighbors get sick, quarantine and hospitalize… Every second learning is that much more valuable.
DeShaun frowned but got ready anyway. He didn’t want to have to sit outside all day again. There were older kids in the park who got kids like him to run drugs during the day. He could make some money that way, but the only kids he knew who did that got hooked on their own supply. That or arrested.
Heck! He’d been arrested for loitering twice this year already.
“Hurry! Let’s go!” Mom shouted as she handed each child a yogurt and a bag of chips.
The bus was full even at this hour.
DeShaun recognized a bunch of kids who usually went to the daycare.
His best friend, Paul, used to ride the bus, but then his mom got him into the private school in the city. She and his dad had to cash in his entire school voucherAND pay an additional $10,000 a year, but they said it was worth it. Still, DeShaun missed his friend.
Octavia was standing a bit further down the aisle though. She was usually good for a trade. He guessed she’d take his yogurt for some Hot Cheetos.
When they got to the right stop, Mom gave his shoulder a squeeze and told him to watch out for his brother. She’d see him at the end of the day.
He and Marco made it just in time.
He saw Octavia get turned away at the door.
“Dang!” He said. He really wanted those Hot Cheetos.
He wanted to play with the toys in the Reward Room, but no one got in there before lunch.
Marco was crying.
“What’s wrong?” He said.
“I can’t find my iPad.”
“Didn’t you pack it?”
“I think I left it on the charger.”
“You dummy!” DeShaun said and handed Marco his own iPad.
“Take this,” he said. “I can use my phone.”
It had a huge crack on the screen but he could probably read through the jagged edges if he tried hard enough. That probably meant no Reward Room though.
First, he clicked on Edu-Mental. It wanted him to read through some stuff about math and do some problems. He couldn’t really see them but he could hear about them through his earbuds.
Then he didLang-izzy. There was a fun game where you had to shoot all the verbs in these sentences that scrolled across the screen faster and faster. But DeShaun’s timing was off and even though he knew the answers, he couldn’t get a high enough score to get a badge.
He skipped to Sky-ba-Bomb. It had a lot of videos but it was his least favorite. He couldn’t tell which ones were about history and which were advertisements. Plus he got so many pop ups after just a few minutes, he often had to disconnect from the wi-fi or restart his phone.
Oh, what now?
“Miss Lady,” Marco was saying.
The blonde haired new girl came over to him.
“What is it, Sweetie?”
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
She checked her iPad.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Honey. You’ve only been logged on for half an hour. Answer a few more questions and then you can go.”
DeShaun grabbed his shoulder and shook him.
“Why didn’t you go before we left home?”
“I didn’t have-ta go then. I have-ta go NOW!”
He could leave the daycare and go outside. There was even a filthy bathroom at the gas station a few blocks away. But if he left now someone outside was bound to take his spot. And Mom wouldn’t get a refund or nothing.
The blonde was about to walk away when DeShaun stopped her.
“He can take my pass. I’ve been on long enough.”
“That means you won’t get to go until after lunch,” she reminded him.
“I won’t drink anything,” he said.
She shrugged. That seemed to be her main way of communicating with people. She looked barely old enough to be out of daycare, herself.
DeShaun gave Marco his phone and sat there waiting for him to come back.
He remembered back in Mrs. Lemon’s class he could go to the bathroom anytime he wanted. In fact, he’d often wait until her period everyday to go to the bathroom. That way he’d have time to walk halfway around the building and look in all the open doorways and see what everyone was doing.
He could email a question to someone but rarely got an answer back.
When he first started going to daycare, he asked one of the workers a question. There used to be this nice lady, Miss Weathers. She would at least try to answer the kids questions but he thought she got in trouble for doing it and he hadn’t seen her here since.
We can’t offer you equitable resources. We can’t stop judging you with biased standardized tests. We can’t desegregate your schools. We can’t protect you from gun violence. We can’t even give you in-person classes because of a global pandemic the government has given up even trying to control!
And now I’m supposed to say that even the semblance of our democracy is up for grabs?
I started clicking on their names.
I only had a few moments before I had to speak.
I cleared my throat and began welcoming them, one-by-one as always.
And then it was time.
I stared at all these empty black boxes, and began.
“We’ve got to talk about yesterday,” I said.
“Not yesterday in class. That was fine. Everyone did an outstanding job on yesterday’s assignment.
“We have to talk about what happened yesterday in Washington, DC. Does anyone know what that was?”
And I waited.
Eventually I saw a few messages that individuals had their hands raised.
A few kids said that people had charged the Capitol. But that they didn’t know why.
So I explained it to them.
I told them how Trump was refusing to accept the results of the election. That he had lost, but continued to challenge it in the courts. Both Republican and Democratic judges had turned him down saying that he had no proof. So Trump spoke outside of the White House yesterday telling his followers to march on the Capitol, which they did.
At this point I noticed something strange on my screen.
The rows of empty boxes had turned into windows. No more memes or messages or generic names. Most of my kids had turned on their cameras and were meeting my eyes – in some cases – for the first time.
So that’s what Kelsey looks like, I thought. Wow! Marquis is really built. Is that little kid in the grey hoodie really Caulin?
I got flustered and stopped talking, but the students took up the narrative for me.
Some of them mentioned watching videos on-line of the riot. They saw a guy with horns in the President’s chair?
“No, I said. “That was the Vice-President’s chair in the Senate.”
“Wasn’t there someone at someone’s desk?”
“Yes, that was Nancy Pelosi’s desk,” I said. “A rioter broke into her office and put his feet up. She’s the Speaker of the House.”
And so it went on for a few minutes. They brought up things they had seen and I either clarified or supported them.
As a whole, they were wealthy in details but poor in meaning.
Most of the white kids seemed to be taking it ironically. The black and brown kids were more quiet and subdued.
A white boy wrote in the chat that it was “Civil War 2: electric bugaloo.”
I said, “Yes, you’ve hit on an important point. Some of these folks may have been trying to start a new Civil War.”
I tried to put the event in historical context.
I told them how nothing like this had ever happened in my lifetime. That the last time people broke into the Capitol Building like this was during the War of 1812 when the British tried to force the US to become a colony again. However, that was a foreign power invading our country. Wednesday was our own citizens seeking to overturn the results of an election, trying to overwrite the will of the people.
That’s when the first black student spoke up.
“Mr. Singer, why were they waving Confederate flags?”
“Yes! That’s true, Jamal. Many of them DID have Confederate flags and that’s really important.”
Before I could say more I got a series of rapid-fire questions from the same group who had been silent up to this point.
“Why didn’t the police stop them?”
“Why’d they steal stuff? I saw some guy walking away with a podium.”
“Why they so mad?”
I smiled and said that these were all excellent questions.
I asked if any of them knew who George Floyd was.
No one responded.
I told them he was a black guy who was murdered by police when an officer knelt on his neck.
After that happened, there were protests by Black Lives Matter activists and others in several cities including Pittsburgh. The police showed up in riot gear. As these protestors demonstrated almost entirely peacefully – certainly more peacefully than what we saw in DC yesterday – more than 14,000 people were arrested.
“How many people do you think were arrested yesterday?” I asked.
“Didn’t someone die?”
“Yes, a woman was shot in the Capitol and three others died of medical emergencies. How many people were arrested?”
“None,” said a student of color who hadn’t participated before.
“Why none?” I asked.
“Because they was white.”
I told him that he right and wrong. Out of thousands of rioters who broke into the Capitol, thirteen people were arrested. And the reason there were only 13 was because they were white.
I told them that this whole affair needed to be investigated. That we needed to know how and why the police responded the way they did. That we needed to hold the rioters accountable. That we needed to make sure those who instigated this violence were made to pay for it, too.
“Is Trump still President?” Someone asked.
“Yes,” I said. “For about two more weeks. But there are a lot of people who think he should have to step down sooner.”
So we talked about how he could be removed from office. We talked about impeachment and the 25th Amendment. We even talked about how Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook – how he couldn’t post or tweet but still could send a nuclear missile anywhere he wanted.
And then it quieted down.
I asked them if there was anything more they wanted to know or if there was anything else they wanted to say.
They were still.
A few cameras clicked off.
I told them that I was there if anyone needed anything, that their teachers were here if they were feeling anything and wanted someone to talk to.
And then that was it.
I made one of the most abrupt and inelegant transitions in my career and we returned to our normally scheduled lesson.
Did it help any?
I don’t know, but I told them what I could. I told them the truth as I saw it.
There was a time when I would have been more reticent about it.
But the day after domestic terrorists try to steal our system of government isn’t the time to hold back.
As a teacher, sometimes I feel so helpless.
There’s so much I’d like to do for my students.
I want them to get the resources they need. I want to stop the unfair testing, integrate their schools, keep them safe from gun violence and control Covid-19 so we can return to the classroom.
I want to live in a country where majority rule is cherished and protected, where no one thinks the collective will should be trumped by white privilege.
But when all those things are out of reach, I still have one thing left to give.
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From the never ending antics of our clown President to the Coronavirus to the continuing rise of White Supremacy, it seemed you couldn’t go more than a few days without some ridiculous headline assaulting your senses.
As a result, there were a lot of worthy, important articles that fell between the cracks – more so this year than any other.
Before we charge into the New Year, it might be a good idea to spare a look over our shoulders at these vital nuggets many of us may have missed.
On my blog, alone, I’ve found at least five posts that I thought were particularly important but that didn’t get the attention they deserved.
So come with me please through this survey of the top 5 education articles (by me) that you probably missed in 2020:
Description: Kids usually spend about 1,000 hours with their teachers in a single year. During that time we build strong relationships. And though just about everyone will tell you this is important, we’re often talking about different things. Some policymakers insist we prioritize an “instrumental focus” with students using their personal information to get them to behave and do their work. The goal is compliance not autonomy or problem solving. However, increasing evidence is showing the value of a more “reciprocal focus” where students and teachers exchanged information to come to a mutual understanding and shared knowledge. Here the goal is free thought, questioning, and engagement with authority figures. I provide my own personal experience to support the latter approach.
Fun Fact: This post is full of letters my former students wrote to me during the pandemic. They highlight better than any study the value of authentic relationships to both students and their teachers.
Description: The link between standardized testing and segregation is obvious but hardly ever discussed. In short, it goes like this. Even when students from different racial or ethnic groups aren’t physically separated by district boundaries or school buildings, the way we rate and sort these students within the same space causes segregation. This is because our manner of placing kids into classes, itself, is discriminatory, unfairly resulting in more children of color in lower academic tracks and more white kids in advanced placement. If segregation is an evil, so is the standardized testing often used to place kids in remedial, academic or advanced classes.
Fun Fact: It seems to me this has immediate and important policy implications. There are so many reasons to end the failed regime of high stakes testing. This is just another one.
Description: Virtual instruction has been a hot button issue this year in the wake of school closings caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that in-person instruction is more effective has been used as an excuse to keep many schools open when logic, reason and facts would dictate otherwise. However, the kind of in-person instruction being offered in a pandemic is, itself, not as effective as the kind of in-person instruction offered under normal circumstances. Moreover, distance learning is not all bad. It does have some advantages such as it being generally low pressure, more difficult to disrupt class and easier to contact parents. At the same time, it presents unique challenges such as increased student absences, the problem of when and if to keep the camera on and difficulties with special needs students.
Fun Fact: We desperately need an honest accounting of what is going on with real virtual classrooms around the country and how students and teachers are meeting these challenges. If there was more discussion about how to make distance learning better, the education being provided during the pandemic would be so much more effective than spending all our time and effort trying to reopen school buildings regardless of the risks of infection to all involved.
Description: When should teachers praise students and when should they use reprimands? The research is all over the place. Some studies say praise is good but only so much and only in certain circumstances. Others say reprimands are more effective and still others caution against when and how to use them. My own experience has shown that honest praise and thoughtful reprimands are more effective than not.
Fun Fact: This may seem like a simple issue but it highlights the complexities of teaching. Educators are not working with widgets. We’re working with real, live human beings. There is no simple solution that will work every time with every student. Effective teaching takes good judgement and experience. If we ever want to improve our school system, it is vital that we understand that moving forward.
Description: Forty years after the Montgomery bus boycott that was sparked by Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white man, the civil rights icon lent her name to a charter school proposal in 1997. However, the Detroit school that would have been named for her and her late husband, the Raymond and Rosa Parks Academy for Self Development, was never approved. In any case, Charter school advocates like to pretend this mere proposal means Parks was an early champion of charter schools and thus that school privatization is an extension of the civil rights movement. Yet a closer look at the facts shows a sadder story. At the time of the proposal, Parks was suffering from dementia and under the sway of countless corporate consultants who used her name and clout to enact several projects. It ended in a protracted legal battle after her death between her family and the consultants to whom she willed a treasure trove of civil rights artifacts.
Fun Fact: I think this is one of the most important articles I wrote in 2020. It’s not a pretty story, but it’s the truth. The school privatization movement likes to co-opt the language of the civil rights movement while violating the civil rights of students and families with substandard education and pocketing tax dollars as profit that were meant to educate children. The exploitation of Parks in this way is symptomatic of what you’ll see in any inner city charter school where entrepreneurs are getting rich off of the children of color whom they pretend to be serving.
Gadfly’s Other Year End Round Ups
This wasn’t the first year I’ve done a countdown of the year’s greatest hits. I usually write one counting down of my most popular articles and one listing articles that I thought deserved a second look (like this one). Here are all my end of the year articles since I began my blog in 2014:
It was a repudiation of Trump more than a celebration of Biden.
However, now that the dust has cleared and all the states but Georgia, Alaska and North Carolina have been called, I’m starting to have some thoughts about what a Biden administration might actually look like.
And it might not be too bad.
So here are what I see as the five main hurdles coming up for the Biden administration and why we might be cautiously optimistic about their outcomes:
1) Trump Will Fail to Successfully Challenge the Election Results
You don’t know Four Seasons Total Landscaping? It’s a landscape gardeners located between a crematorium and a dildo shop.
That is not the work of people capable of running an effective challenge to a national election.
Yes, there are enough far right justices on the Supreme Court to pull off this Coup d’état. But I don’t think even they would have the guts to do it in light of the world’s acceptance of Biden, the acceptance of many in the GOP and the blatant incompetence of the Trump administration.
I admit that I could be wrong. And I certainly don’t think we should underestimate these neofacists.
Trump is a cornered rat, and that is when rats are at their most dangerous.
Had Medicare For All or the Green New Deal been on the ballot, things might have gone differently – or more emphatically – our way.
But, instead, it was all about getting rid of Trump.
Thankfully, that was enough. But had the party actually offered voters something more – things that are overwhelmingly popular with everyday people but unpopular with party elites and their wealthy backers – the results could have been a landslide in Biden’s favor.
She said that every candidate that co-sponsored Medicare for All in a swing district was reelected. Even Mike Levin, who many thought had committed political suicide by co-sponsoring the Green New Deal, kept his seat.
Supporting progressive policies did not sink anyone’s campaigns. In fact, that’s how insurgent Democrats have been unseating centrists across the nation.
“I’ve been unseating Democrats for two years,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I have been defeating D.C.C.C.-run campaigns for two years. That’s how I got to Congress. That’s how we elected Ayanna Pressley. That’s how Jamaal Bowman won. That’s how Cori Bush won. And so we know about extreme vulnerabilities in how Democrats run campaigns.”
This is a fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic party.
We cannot continue to move to the right and expect the base – which are much further left – to continue to vote for increasingly conservative candidates.
There is already a party for that – it’s the Republicans.
“I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy,” she said. “And that their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare For All is not the enemy. This isn’t even just about winning an argument. It’s that if they keep going after the wrong thing, I mean, they’re just setting up their own obsolescence.”
We will see if the Biden administration learns these lessons or not.
I think there is good reason to be cautiously optimistic here. It is in the party’s own self interest.
But only the future will tell.
4) Biden will Take Steps to Control the Coronavirus
Unlike his predecessor, Biden has been a consistent voice of sanity on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We cannot repair the economy, restore our vitality, or relish life’s most precious moments — hugging a grandchild, birthdays, weddings, graduations, all the moments that matter most to us — until we get this virus under control.”
And true to his word, this appears to be the first thing on his agenda.
Specifically, Biden’s plan calls for empowering scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help set national guidance based on evidence to stop outbreaks, work on a vaccine, testing, contact tracing and other services.
His administration would use the CDC to provide specific guidance — based on the degree of viral spread in a community — for how to open schools and businesses, when to impose restrictions on gathering sizes or when stay-at-home orders may be necessary.
He would create a national “pandemic dashboard” to share this information with the public.
He would make sure that everyone has access to regular, reliable, free testing.
He would hire 100,000 additional public health workers to coordinate with local organizations around the country to perform contact tracing and other health services. These people would help with everything from food insecurity and affordable housing to training school officials about when and how to make it safe to reopen buildings.
He proposes the federal government cover 100% of the cost of Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) coverage for the duration of the crisis for people who get sick from the virus. If someone loses employer-based health insurance, they would still have health insurance through this plan.
He also will push to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, expanding coverage by making more people eligible.
He’d use the Defense Production Act to increase production of masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment so that supply exceeds demand.
I don’t know about you, but to me this seems a breath of fresh air. It is what the federal government should do and what it hasn’t been doing under Trump.
And I see no reason why the Biden administration can’t get it done.
5) Biden Can’t Afford to Re-up Betsy DeVos’ Education Policies
They all supported charter schools, high stakes testing, increased segregation, the school-to-prison pipeline, evaluating teachers on student test scores, targeted disinvestment to schools in poor neighborhoods serving mostly students of color, and more.
Duncan and King were competent at destroying public education while hiding behind neoliberal rhetoric. DeVos was incompetent in every conceivable way and could barely hide her glee at the prospect of destroying public education.
Since Biden’s wife, Jill, was an actual teacher, he has more to lose than previous chief executives if he gets this wrong. He can’t take schools for granted and he can’t appear to be doubling down on the same policies of Trump and DeVos – which to be honest were mostly the same as those of Obama and Bush but on steroids.
Biden promised a public school teacher would be his next education secretary and Politico is already making predictions. The media outlet suggests ex-National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten or Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond.
Frankly, we could do much worse than any of these people. Hammond, in particular, was Obama’s education policy advisor UNTIL he was elected and changed courses to the neoliberal set.
Of all the hurdles coming his way, I have the least hope Biden will overcome this one.
Before this ruling, the Second Amendment was interpreted to be referring only to service in the militia. The Militia Act of 1792 required each able-bodied male citizen to obtain a firearm (“a good musket or firelock”) so he can participate in the “well regulated militia” the Amendment describes.
Just imagine if Barrett gets together with the wingnut Republican majority on the court to reevaluate that ruling!
Imagine how many centuries of slow progress she could overturn by appealing to the common man – of 1776.
Imagine if she and the regressive right examined free speech cases! After all, many of these laws were written during the time of the Adams Administration’s Alien and Sedition Acts which radically cracked down on free expression.
We could expect a rush to return to the mire and muck that many of our enlightenment heroes were trying to escape in the first place.
But originalists like Barrett claim only they can interpret what the language in these laws originally meant. Yet their training is in law, not literacy or antiquity. They’re not linguists or historians. They don’t have some shortcut to what people used to mean by these words. They’re just playing with the language to make it mean what they want it to mean so they can rule however they so choose.
Even if they could figure out the original meaning of the words in these laws, that doesn’t guarantee it would make sense in today’s world. How, for example, do the founding fathers views on medicine have anything to do with today’s healthcare system that didn’t exist in the 1700s and that the founders couldn’t even comprehend? How do the founders views on gun rights relate to today’s firearms when they knew only of muskets and not automatic weapons?
Finally, why should we give preference to antiquated ideas over modern concepts? The laws of yesteryear may have been suited to the days in which they were written. However, if a law cannot grow to encompass the world as it exists, it has no right to continue to exist.
Judges are not supposed to overturn precedent based on lingual folderol. They’re supposed to uphold the law based on logic, reason and sound judgement.
Any judge that disagrees has no place in our courts.
It’s ironic that such degeneration would come from the Republican Party.
Along with students whose input and experiences should not be ignored, it is our collective educator core who have been thrust into this strange experiment. But unlike children, they have the knowledge, maturity, skills and life experience to evaluate it best. And being one of those intrepid individuals, I here offer my thoughts.
After more than four months teaching this way, I’d say these are the top 5 pros and cons of virtual instruction:
1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day
Right off the bat there is something to be said for virtual instruction – it feels more low stakes.
You sleep longer, can more easily access amenities, the bathroom, food and drink.
For one, you sure can’t beat the commute.
Some students admit that they roll out of bed each morning and onto the computer. This is not always optimal for learning in that the mind needs time to wake up and focus itself. However, the fact that one has more choice over how to prepare for school, what to wear, more leeway about breaks and whether to eat or drink in class – all that leads to an increased casual feeling to the day.
Though I certainly don’t roll from my bed to class, the extra sleep I get from not having to drive to the building and the reduced stress of forgoing a commute, traffic, bad weather, etc. are extremely positive.
It helps me be more relaxed and ready to meet my students needs. It makes me a better teacher.
True, a dedicated disruptor can find a way to cause a ruckus. He or she can try to use the chat or even the video camera. They may even have each others cell phone numbers and communicate back and forth that way.
However, few students are aggravated enough to take such measures. I haven’t noticed much beyond simple teasing.
Some of my students put pictures of each other as the backgrounds on their camera screens – but these have always been friends trying to get a laugh. A comment from me and it stops.
If worse comes to worse, I can still remove them from the Zoom meeting and alert the principal or dean of students for disciplinary action.
3) It’s Easier to Communicate with Parents and Students Individually
There are many reasons for this.
In the physical classroom, the most common form of communication is verbal. But digital spaces allow for several other methods.
You can email individual students messages, work, assignments, grades, etc. You can utilize the chat feature to send a private message. You can simply talk to them in the Zoom meeting. You can set up an individual Zoom meeting like office hours to answer questions. You can ask or answer questions about assignments in the stream function of Google Classroom.
All these options allow for students to talk with their teacher one-on-one more easily than in the physical classroom.
Consider this: let’s say a student has a question about the homework after class. In the physical classroom environment, there may be little they can do but wait until the next day. Before last March, I’d had students send me emails, but I never checked them as regularly as I need to now.
In the digital world, students can easily send a message through email or stream at any time. This certainly puts a strain on educators but most questions I receive are during school hours and easily answerable in a timely fashion.
I find that in the virtual classroom, I have the time to communicate with every parent at least once a week – or at least I try. Even in the digital world, some parents are incommunicado.
4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together
As a language arts teacher, this is really important to me.
For more than 15 years, I’ve read texts aloud with my students and asked them to follow along. I tell them to take their index fingers, put them in the text and move along with where we are in the passage.
Few actually do it, and there’s really nothing I can do to make them. Except beg.
In the virtual classroom, I can easily put the text on all their screens, place the cursor under the words and follow with the reader or the audio recording.
Students can try to ignore it, but that’s harder than just following along. It also allows me to point to specific parts of the text.
If a student is reading and struggling with a word, I can point to prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc. to help them. And I’ve honestly seen improvements in some struggling readers fluency.
5) It’s Easier for Students to Work at Their Own Pace
This isn’t really a core value of the physical classroom.
Teachers give assignments, set due dates and students have to get things done in the time frame.
Online it isn’t such a straight line.
Teachers instruct in a Zoom meeting, but students are not required to attend. They can catch up with a video of the meeting if they need or prefer.
And since we all anticipate students may have issues throughout the day with connectivity, the technology, home responsibilities, distractions, etc. teachers haven’t been so firm on those due dates.
I freely give extensions and tell my students that assignments can still be made up for full credit well past the deadline. It’s about getting the work done, not so much about when.
I find myself explaining assignments more often than usual, but it’s somehow not as annoying as it sometimes is in the physical classroom.
No matter how you look at it, there are an alarming number of students absent throughout the day.
For my own classes, this was much worse in the spring when we first went online. Starting in September, more students have been attending regularly.
However, there are two important points to be made.
First, there are some students who do not attend the live Zoom meetings but instead watch the videos and do the assignments. Their work is not worse than those who attend – in fact, it is sometimes much better.
I suppose it’s possible students in the Zoom meetings could feed information to those not attending, but with the videos and the ability to communicate with me at will, it’s almost more work to cheat.
In my classes, about 20% are regularly absent. Of those, 10-15% are not participating much at all.
That’s about the same as I would expect to see in the physical classroom.
We need to identify these students and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. But that’s always been true.
2) The Camera Conundrum
To turn your camera off or not? That is the question.
Zoom meetings can be an awfully lonely place for teachers when every student has their camera off.
The general consensus is that we should allow them this freedom. It encourages them to attend the Zoom meetings on their own terms and avoid the stress of seeing themselves constantly on their own screens. It allows them to avoid the fear of being judged for their surroundings.
Allowing them this latitude certainly does increase attendance and create a more positive attitude. But the teacher is in a worse position to monitor student engagement.
Most days I feel like a medium at a seance asking if so-and-so is here. Give me a sign.
I try to pose questions to get students involved – even more than I would in the physical classroom – and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
There are times when I yearn just to be able to look at my students again and see what they’re doing. Because I know some of them are not paying attention.
Some are texting on their cell phones. Some are playing video games on another screen. Some are talking with brothers, sisters, friends or parents in their house.
There’s not much I can do except try to keep my classes as engaging as possible. Most of the time, I think it works.
But not always.
3) It’s Harder to Monitor/Push Students with Special Needs
This is nearly impossible for a student with his or her camera off. I can try verbal queues, but students don’t always answer. I can ask them to turn on their cameras if that has been added to their IEPs, but they rarely comply. And if they do, they just point the camera at the ceiling or otherwise away from their faces.
The human contact of actually being present in a physical space has many advantages – especially for students with special needs.
I try my hardest and do everything I can to help them. But I feel that some of them are falling through the cracks – at least more than they would be in a physical classroom.
4) Technological Issues
Even under the best of circumstances, there are always technological issues.
Students do their assignments and their devices don’t save the work. Their batteries run low. They haven’t downloaded the proper apps. They’re using the wrong emails to access a google form.
The list is endless.
Thankfully, my district has a help desk students can access. But teachers need to be aware and permissive about technology issues. We have to air on the side of letting them get away with something rather than being too strict.
And the technology issues aren’t limited to the students.
One Friday I found the wi/fi in my home was down. I had class in 30 minutes and had to find someway to connect online to teach.
In his infamous Fox News interview with Chris Wallace, he seemed to be saying that the U.S. had just as many new cases now as it did in May. However, since there were fewer tests done in May and more are being done now, it only appears that the infection is spreading when it actually is not.
It’s pure bullshit.
How would he know how many cases existed in May other than through testing?
“If we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come. Not only will vulnerable students fall behind, but we will be abandoning the important, bipartisan reforms of the past two decades at a critical moment.”
However, this is a rather strange thing to say if you think about it.
But since students are tested all year long by their teachers, they earn end of the year marks, pass on to the next grade or are held back, graduate or not – there are a multitude of measures of student learning – measures that take in an entire year of academic progress in context.
Waiving standardized testing would not make it impossible to tell who learned what. In fact, waiving the tests in the spring did not leave teachers clueless about the students in their classes today.
We still know which students are falling behind because we interact with them, give them assignments, teacher created assessments, etc. And when it comes to vulnerability, standardized tests show us nothing unless we read between the lines.
Students from poorer households tend to score lower on standardized tests. Kids who attend schools with fewer resources and larger class sizes tend to score lower. Minority children tend to score lower.
Standardized testing does nothing to achieve this goal nor is there much help from the “bipartisan reforms of the past two decades.”
After all, which reforms exactly do you think DeVos is referring to?
It’s not hard to imagine since her letter was endorsed by far right and neoliberal organizations such as the Center for American Progress, the National Urban League, the Education Trust and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Scott, who serves as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement:
“There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic is having severe consequences for students’ growth and achievement, particularly for our most vulnerable students. We cannot begin to address these consequences, unless we fully understand them.”’
Murray, the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, said:
“Especially when it comes to the disparities that harm so many students of color, students with disabilities and students whose families have low incomes, we’ve got to have data that shows us where we’re falling short so we can better support those students.”
How does a single test score from a corporation like Pearson show you more than a year’s worth of academic assessments from a school?
In short, Trump and DeVos are two peas in a pod committed to avoiding accountability for themselves but determined to destroy public services like public schools based on bogus accountability measures like standardized testing.
Hopefully the American public will boot them both out on their asses in November so that rational leadership in the Department of Education and elsewhere will do what should have been done years ago – waive standardized testing for this year and every year that follows – Coronavirus or not.
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The $660 billion federal initiative was intended to help businesses keep employees on the payroll and off unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. The loans will be forgiven if businesses meet certain conditions such as retaining or rehiring employees.
Since Imagine writes the Environmental Charter’s operating budget, the management company ends up paying itself for a number of services.
After the school gets funding from state, federal and community taxes (this year including bailouts from PPP and the CARES act), it pays 12 percent back to Imagine. This came to $406,000 in 2009, according to an independent financial audit.
The school also pays Imagine on a $250,000 loan that the charter operating company took out to launch the program. Payments come out to about $2,500 per month over 20 years with an interest rate of 10.524 percent.
The charter also pays Imagine rent on its building which was purchased in 2006 by Schoolhouse Finance – Imagine’s real estate arm – for $3 million.
Like the Environmental Charter, this so-called nonprofit hires a management company. In this case, it’s the infamous K12 Incorporated – a nationwide cyber charter network with a record of academic failure and financial shenanigans.
In 2016, the company reached a $168.5 million settlement with the state of California. The state claimed K12 had reported incorrect student attendance records and otherwise lied about its academic programs. The company ended up settling with the state for $2.5 million with an additional $6 million to cover the state’s investigation and K12 voided $160 million in credits it had given to the affiliated schools to cover the cost of their contracts.
Hill House offers a blended model with in-person teachers and virtual classes somewhat different than most K12 schools.
Penn Hills School Board – a duly elected body, not government appointees – outlined criticisms of the charter that do not put the entrepreneurial venture in a positive light.
Penn Hills School Board said the charter had failed to produce current student rosters, failed in record management, failed to accurately maintain student tuition payments, improperly billed the school district for special education students, failed to maintain and develop Individual Education Plans (IEPs), had poor academic growth and is under a Department of Education Corrective Action Plan setting forth 31 areas of needed improvement.
Finally, the charter school sucks away necessary funding from the authentic public school. The Penn Hills School District paid Imagine about $3 million in 2014-15. Costs increased to $12 million a year and continue to rise.
Nina Rees, executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) has spoken out of both sides of her mouth on the issue. She has insisted that charter schools be regarded as public schools and eligible for emergency aid – all the while advising charter schools also to apply for federal rescue funds for small businesses devastated by the pandemic.
Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, did not mince words.
“Once again, the charter sector, through the lobbying efforts of Nina Rees…worked behind the scenes to gain fiscal advantage for the privately operated schools they claim are public schools.”
ProPublica has put all the information into an easy to use search engine. Just enter a zip code and it will display all the businesses located there that received PPP loans.
This includes high tuition private prep schools like Sewickley Academy and Shady Side Academy both of which got $2 – $5 million, Winchester Thurston School which got $1 million – $2 million, and the charter schools listed above.