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:
State Governors must have a different definition of safety than the rest of us.
The message was signed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Delaware Governor John Carney, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.
Only Baker is a Republican. The rest are all Democrats.
“Medical research as well as the data from Northeastern states, from across the country, and from around the world make clear that in-person learning is safe when the appropriate protections are in place, even in communities with high transmission rates.”
This is just not true.
It is based not on research by epidemiologists, not on studies conducted by doctors, scientists or pharmacologists.
She wrote her dissertation explaining that there were less women in China not because of the one child policy and traditional attitudes toward girl children, but instead because Hepatitis B skewed sex ratios.
Oster is not a serious academic. She is someone who constantly says something controversial to court the media and public opinion.
She is a contrarian, an attention seeker, a celebutante – the economist version of someone who shouts “fire” in a crowded movie theater and then sells fire extinguishers to those rushing for the exits.
Since providing this cover story, various county departments of health have claimed that contact tracing rarely indicates students or teachers catch the virus at school. However, these conclusions are based on voluntary anecdotes, not hard data. At the local level, there is often a lot of pressure to find the cause of an outbreak somewhere else when childcare is at stake or administrative coercion involved.
“In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low-income families. There is also growing evidence that the more time children spend outside of school increases the risk of mental health harm and affects their ability to truly learn.”
Talk about overstating the issue!
So kids can’t learn if their instruction is interrupted? It’s a good thing we never take any time off school, say during the summer months.
But it’s the callousness with which these governors paper over health concerns that really sounds like Oster, herself.
“There are people who would say if even one teacher acquires COVID at a school and dies, then it would not have been worth it to open schools,” Oster said. “I think that argument is complicated because people are going to suffer tremendously from schools being closed, but that is a tricky calculus.”
What kind of mental health issues do children experience whose teachers die suddenly and preventably? How do kids suffer with the loss of a loved one knowing full well that they may have inadvertently been the cause of that person’s death?
We cannot make bold statements of certainly about its effects without being deeply dishonest. There’s a lot we don’t know about it and how it affects people. And in light of that uncertainty it makes more sense to be extra cautious than reckless.
It’s high time our government passed a new round of Covid relief. We need to pay people to stay home so they don’t spread the virus. We need mortgage protection, universal healthcare and a host of services to help people weather the storm.
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.
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.
“We’re not in the situation of New Zealand or Singapore or Korea where a new case is rapidly identified and all the contacts are traced and people are isolated who are sick and people who are exposed are quarantined and they can keep things under control,” she said. “We have way too much virus across the country for that right now, so it’s very discouraging.”
Nearly every other comparable country kept that downward trend. But not us.
The United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Canada…
Not to mention resources. All the books and papers and lessons were back in the classroom – difficult to digitize. Teachers had to figure out how to do everything from scratch with little to no training at the drop of a hat. (And guess what – not much has changed in the subsequent weeks.)
So for 12 months, there will be no state cuts to basic and special education or block grant programs for K-12 schools. Nor will there be state cuts to pre-kindergarten programs or colleges and universities receiving state funding such as community colleges.
That’s really good news in such uncertain times.
School directors can get their own financial houses in order for 2020-2021 without wondering whether the state is going to pull the rug out from under them.
The federal government pays about 10% of the cost across the board. The problem in Pennsylvania is that the state isn’t meeting its obligations thereby forcing local neighborhoods to shoulder most of the costs.
In rich neighborhoods, the local tax base can pick up the slack. In middle class neighborhoods, they can try. But poor communities end up relying more on the state to help or else their kids (who already have greater needs growing up in poverty) have to do without.
Those with greater problems are not given more money to deal with them. Instead, the money is being divided nearly evenly.
If you think that’s fair, imagine dividing $10 so a rich person, a middle class person and a poor person could get lunch. They’d each get $3 and change. The poor person can eat off the dollar menu at a fast food restaurant. The middle class person can use it to pay for tip at a sit-down restaurant. And the rich person can light his cigar with it on the way to a fine dining establishment.
In the case of theCOVID-19 stimulus money, each school district will get a minimum of $120,000 while each intermediate unit, career and technical center, charter school, regional charter school and cyber charter school gets $90,000. If there is any money left over, those funds will be distributed to school districts based on 2018-19 average daily membership.
However, why should cyber charter schools receive this money at all? They don’t have any extra costs for transitioning to distance learning. That is their stock and trade already. Moreover, they don’t have buildings that need deep cleaning or remodeling. This money is a no strings gift to such enterprises while other educational institutions go wanting.
Moreover, brick and mortar charter schools almost always serve smaller student populations than authentic public schools. Why should they receive a flat $90,000? Wouldn’t it be better to given them a portion of this money based on the number of students they serve and the degree of poverty these kids live in?
In fact, wouldn’t it make more sense to do the same among authentic public school districts, too? Why should a rich district where almost everyone already has wi-fi and personal technology devices get the same as a poor one where these services are much less widespread? Why should the state give the wealthy as much help as those who can’t meet their basic obligations to children without it?
It’s not like the Commonwealth doesn’t already have a measure to allocate funding more fairly. The legislature passed a bipartisan Basic Education Funding formula that we could have used to ensured districts would have received funding proportionate to the needs of their students.
The fact that the legislature neglected to use it here shows too many in the Republican majority are not committed to equity. In fact, they revel in being able to bring unnecessary money to their wealthier districts.
THE COMING STORM
These measures from the state legislature are a start at addressing the financial impact of the Coronavirus crisis.
In Pennsylvania, districts anticipate $850 million to $1 billion in revenue shortfalls.
That could result in massive teacher layoffs and cuts to student services just as the cost to provide schooling increases with additional difficulties of life during a worldwide pandemic.
The state legislature can’t fix the problem alone.
The $13.5 billion in CARES Act stimulus provided to states is a fraction of the $79 billion that the federal government provided during the Great Recession. U.S. Congress needs to step up federal aide to protect our children and ensure their educations aren’t forfeit for economic woes they played no part in causing.
Now I’m oversimplifying a bit since you can only use the EITC for up to $750,000 a year, but it’s still a sweet deal for those who take advantage of it.
Meanwhile, this is less money for the rest of us to pay for much needed services. We lost $124 million in 2018-19, alone, to this program. Yet the legislature still voted to increase the program by $25 million last year.
We cannot afford to give away hundreds of millions of dollars annually to private and parochial schools while our authentic public schools which serve more than 90% of our children are underfunded.
In late March, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that her department would streamline the paperwork for states to request a waiver allowing them not to give high stakes testing this year and that the government wouldn’t use this year’s testing data in future school accountability ratings.
“Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations. Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.”
How did we get here?
Well, imagine a world where this didn’t happen.
Before DeVos made her statement, some states like Colorado and Texas had already eliminated testing requirements without waiting for a response from DeVos.
That’s why nearly all high stakes testing requires proctors – people whose job it is to set up, monitor and secure the testing environment. They make sure test takers don’t cheat, but they also are responsible for ensuring no information about specific test questions leaves the assessment environment.
This is true for standardized assessments at the K-12 level as well as college and certification tests.
I had to sign in, empty my pockets including giving over my cell phone, and submit to being observed by the proctors and video surveillance. I even had to sign out and back in when I needed to use the restroom.
With physical classrooms closed, there was simply no way effectively to do this.
DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH, COPY OR REPRODUCE MATERIALS FROM THIS ASSESSMENT IN ANY MANNER. All material contained in this assessment is secure and copyrighted material owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Copying of material in any manner, including the taking of a photograph, is a violation of the federal Copyright Act. Penalties for violations of the Copyright Act may include the cost of replacing the compromised test item(s) or a fine of no less than $750 up to $30,000 for a single violation. 17 U.S.C. $ 101 et seq
So the first act of testing is a threat of legal consequences and possible fines.
In the commonwealth, we also force kids to abide by a specific code of conduct for test takers. They must enter a quasi-legal relationship before they are even permitted to begin.
Much of this code is common sense. Get a good night’s sleep. Fill in bubbles completely using a number two pencil.
But some of it is deeply disturbing.
For example, students are told to “report any suspected cheating to your teacher or principal.”
They have to agree to be an informer or snitch to a government agency. My students aren’t old enough to vote or even drive a car, but they are directed to collaborate with the government against their classmates.
-talk with others about questions on the test during or after the test.
-take notes about the test to share with others.
Students are compelled into a legalistic vow that they won’t break this code. On the test, itself, we make them fill in a bubble next to the following statement:
By marking this bubble I verify that I understand the “Code of Conduct for Test Takers” that my Test Administrator went over with me.
As a test administrator, I am not allowed to move on until all students have filled in that bubble.
Technically, we are not making them promise TO ABIDE by the code of test takers. Perhaps we lack that legal authority. We are, however, making them swear they understand it. Thus we remove ignorance as an excuse for noncompliance.
As a proctor, I have to sign a similar statement that I understand the “Ethical Standards of Test Administration.” Again, much of this is common sense, but it includes such statements as:
-Discuss, disseminate or otherwise reveal contents of the test to anyone.
-Assist in, direct, aid, counsel, encourage, or fail to report any of the actions prohibited in this section.
So even teachers technically are not allowed to discuss the test and should report students or colleagues seen doing so.
Those individuals who divulge test questions, falsify student scores, or compromise the integrity of the state assessment system in any manner will be subject to professional disciplinary action under the Professional Educator Discipline Act, 24 P.S. $ 2070. 1a et seq, including a private reprimand, a public reprimand, a suspension of their teaching certificate(s), a revocation of their teaching certificate(s), and/or a suspension or prohibition from being employed by a charter school. [emphasis added]
If students were allowed to take these tests unsupervised at home, all of this legal protection would disappear.
The corporations would be much more exposed and defenseless.
Paradoxically, it’s sold as a reduction in testing, but really it’s about changing the paradigm.
It’s a scheme that ed tech corporations privately call stealth assessments. Students take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’re asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers make it look like a game.
This safeguards the tests because kids aren’t aware of being tested. Constant micro-assessments blend in with test prep curriculum until there is little to no difference between the two. Academics gets dumbed down to the level of multiple choice and critical thinking is redefined as asking “What does the questioner want me to think?”
Yet the results could still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.
But that’s just how it is used in schools today.
The potential is to make this a replacement for physical schools.
It’s a disaster capitalism reform tailor made for the Coronavirus age, but not yet ready for large scale implementation.
Reading a book or an article gives you a badge. Answering a series of multiple-choice questions on a reading earns you more badges. And if you’ve completed a certain task satisfactorily, you can even earn a badge by teaching that same material to others.
It’s the low wage gig economy applied to education. Children would bounce from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!
And as an added benefit, the badge structure creates a market where investors can bet and profit off of who gains badges and to what degree on the model of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin!
This is where we would be today if the legal framework were in place and the technology were widespread, adequate and capable of safeguarding corporate intellectual property without the need for test proctors.
In the short term, this is good news.
As long as the pandemic keeps school buildings closed or keeps them running at less than capacity, the chances of mandating high stakes testing during the crisis goes down.
On the flip side that’s detrimental to student learning in the here and now, but it does offer hope for the future. It at least opens the door to cancelling high stakes testing in 2020-21 like we did this year. And the longer we keep those tests at bay, the greater likelihood they will go away for good.
However, the people at the testing corporations are far from stupid. They know that each year we forgo the tests proves how unnecessary they are.
A coalition of six neoliberal organizations warned against cancelling the tests nationwide in March.
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.
“Melanie, did you hear what we just read?”
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.
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?
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Districts are jumping at the chance. They’re encouraging teachers to use apps, services and software that have never been tried before locally in an attempt to abide by continuity of education guidelines written by departments of education.
“That’s right. Absolutely free. But if you want some more, next time I’ll have to charge you a little something…”
So when the pandemic is over and classes eventually are reopened, a great deal of the technology that schools used to get through the crisis will no longer be on the house.
Continuing to use them will require an additional fee, and if districts end up budgeting for them, the money has to come from somewhere. So that means fewer books, field trips, tutors, classroom aides, and – yes – teachers.
When classes resume, we can’t simply go back to normal. Nothing can ever be normal again. Normal is what got us into this mess – a society ill equipped to meet this pandemic – ill equipped to take care of its citizens, provide basic resources, equity and put people before profits.
The post coronavirus world must be one of universal healthcare, a social safety net for all and a robust, fully funded system of public education. We cannot allow it to be a dystopian world of edu-tech vulture capitalism where the economics of street corner drug pushers is used to dictate how public money is spent.
These applications collect a torrent of data on students. So do teachers, in fact, to calculate grades. However, if an educator were to share this information with outsiders, she could be sued. But if a corporation did the same thing, it falls into a legal no man’s land.
The FBI warned schools and parents that widespread collection of student data involved in these applications could cause safety concerns if the information is compromised or exploited.
The Bureau was concerned about ed tech services because many are “adaptive, personalized learning experiences” or “administrative platforms for tracking academics, disciplinary issues, student information systems, and classroom management programs.”
For instance, imagine how much more effective the hiring process would be if businesses had access to applicants school attendance records. Imagine if businesses had an applicant’s entire academic record.
Employers could buy vast amounts of data and use algorithms to sort through it looking for red flags without fully comprehending what was being compiled. Imagine an applicant being turned down for a job because of low middle school attendance but not being able to explain that this was due to a legitimate illness.
There are reasons we protect people’s privacy. You shouldn’t have to explain your score on a 1st grade spelling test the rest of your life or have the need for special education services damage your credit rating.
Yet all of these things are possible when student data is up for grabs.
No one is protecting our children from this kind of mercantile future – one which will only be exacerbated if we allow educational technologies to become common place after the current crisis.
Hardly any attention is being paid to how these technologies can be used for harms unrelated to business and industry.
Tablets, laptops or monitoring devices such as cameras or microphones could be exploitable by tech savvy criminals – especially since many ed tech programs allow remote-access capabilities without the user even being aware of what is happening.
Pedophiles could use this data to find and abduct children. Criminals could use it to blackmail them. Other children could use it to bully and harass classmates.
How did we let ed tech get so out of control? Like so many problems of the pre-coronavirus world, money was allowed to dictate policy.
Global venture capital investments in ed tech finished 14 times higher by the end of the decade than they started. Investments went from $500 million in 2010 to $7 billion in 2019. And insiders expect that to triple in the next decade to more than $87 billion.
The two biggest spenders by far are China and the US.
Yet enthusiasm for such technologies are not nearly as prevalent among educators.
Parent Blogger Alison McDowell has studied these issues in more depth than nearly anyone else. She warns that adaptive applications become the gatekeeper of children’s educations. They only allow students to move on once they’ve demonstrated mastery on a previous academic standard – or at least once they’ve been able to guess which one answer a programmer thought correct:
“The “personalized learning” model conditions students to view themselves as independent operators, free agents attempting to navigate a precarious gig economy alone. Screen-based isolation and an emphasis on data-driven metrics steadily erode children’s innate tendencies to creative cooperation. Which is ultimately better for society, an algorithm that learns each student in a classroom and delivers a pre-determined reading selection that they review and are quizzed on online, or a human teacher who selects an all class reading in which there is lively debate? The first scenario forecloses creative thought in service of data generation and reinforces there is but one correct answer. The second opens up chances for students to gain new insights while limiting opportunities for digital surveillance.”
Ed tech may allow us to stumble forward during the coronavirus quarantine, but it is not a central part of a healthy education system.