The reason? The state Constitution guarantees a “thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth” – and cake for rich kids while poor kids get crumbs just isn’t thorough or efficient or meets the needs of the Commonwealth.
The problem is that the state funds schools based heavily on local taxes – so rich neighborhoods can afford to pile on the monetary support while poor ones do the best they can but fall far short of their wealthier counterparts.
Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer, a Republican, ruled that this was discrimination. In short:
“…the Pennsylvania Constitution imposes upon Respondents an obligation to provide a system of public education that does not discriminate against students based on the level of income and value of taxable property in their school districts…
The disparity among school districts with high property values and incomes and school districts with low property values and incomes is not justified by any compelling government interest nor is it rationally related to any legitimate government objective…
[Therefore] Petitioners and students attending low wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of law.”
Unfortunately, no mention was made in the nearly 800-page ruling of exactly how to fix the problem.
The trial began in November 2021 and lasted more than three months. You’d think the judge had time to toss off a line or two about what to do next, maybe that it’s up to the state to take up the slack or something.
Which leaves room for right wing creeps like the Commonwealth Foundation to crawl out from under a rock and give their own nonsense solution.
Benefield wrote a response to the ruling praising it for leaving the legislature and executive branch to find a solution, rather than “mandating more money to a broken system.”
Um, Benefield? Buddy? It’s broken mostly because we haven’t paid to keep it in good repair.
But he goes on…
“The only way to ensure that ‘every student receives a meaningful opportunity’ is for education funding to follow the child. Students that are trapped in their zip-code assigned school — especially in low-income and minority communities — often have no alternatives when their academic or social needs are unmet.”
So the solution to not having enough money is more choice!?
I can’t afford to buy breakfast. Having a choice between raisin bran and pancakes won’t make a difference. I CAN’T AFFORD EITHER ONE!!!!
If every district received fair funding, it wouldn’t matter what your zip code is anymore. That’s the whole freaking point!
But look for neofacists and libertools to start spouting this kind of rhetoric at every turn now that they can’t hide behind the old excuse that it’s somehow fair to steal poor kids lunch money and give it to rich kids.
The next step is not entirely clear.
Some think it likely that the state will appeal the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
“The record is very, very clear that local school districts are not adequately resourced,” she said. “I think it would be extremely difficult to be successful on appeal.”
Judge Jubilerer wrote in her ruling that she hoped everyone would work together now to find a solution:
“The Court is in uncharted territory with this landmark case. Therefore, it seems only reasonable to allow Respondents, comprised of the Executive and Legislative branches of government and administrative agencies with expertise in the field of education, the first opportunity, in conjunction with Petitioners, to devise a plan to address the constitutional deficiencies identified herein.”
It may sound naive, but it’s happened in other states – specifically New York and New Jersey.
A suit filed in 2014 in New York argued that the state never fully funded a 2007 Foundation Aid program. The program was supposed to consider district wealth and student need in order to create an equitable distribution of state funding.
The Empire State settled in 2021 and is now required to phase-in full funding of Foundation Aid by the 2024 budget.
New Jersey tackled the issue way back in 1981. A state court ruled officials had to provide adequate K-12 foundational funding, universal preschool and at-risk programs.
This made New Jersey the first state to mandate early education. The state also undertook the most extensive construction program in the country to improve the quality of school buildings in impoverished neighborhoods, according to the Education Law Center.
Could such sweeping reforms be coming to the Keystone state?
“For years, we have defunded our public schools at the expense of our students,” said state Sen. Lindsey Williams (D- 38th district), who is the minority chair of the PA Senate education committee. “[The ruling] is game-changing for our students across the Commonwealth.”
Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee, said the state can afford a big boost in aid to the poorest schools right now because we have billions of surplus dollars in the bank.
This is exactly what is needed.
During the trial, plaintiffs presented evidence that schools are underfunded by $4.6 billion, an estimate that they said does not account for gaps in spending on special education, school buildings and other facilities.
Some organizations like PA Schools Work are calling on legislators to act now by adding approximately $4 billion in Basic Education Funding. They even suggest the increase be at the rate of one billion per year over the next four years to make it more feasible. Finally, they propose this money be distributed through the Fair Funding Formula and the Level Up supplement so that it is more equitably distributed to districts in need.
To make matters even more complicated, the state uses an “outdated” formula to calculate how to allocate school funding.
The legislature developed a new formula based on enrollment numbers and how much it costs to educate students who are living in poverty, English language learners, or have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). However, a large chunk of money isn’t distributed using that new formula.
The way I see it, the Commonwealth has a lot of education funding issues to fix.
Hopefully, this ruling finally means we’ve stopped arguing over whether a problem exists and can start focusing on how to solve it.
That, itself, would be a huge victory!
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“Teachers, we are operating on a lockdown. Please keep your doors locked until we tell you it has been lifted.”
Before me a sea of wide eyes and scared faces.
I slowly walked toward the door continuing the lesson I had been giving before the announcement. The door was already shut and secured but I nonchalantly turned the extra deadbolt.
“Click!” it sounded like a gunshot across the suddenly silent room.
I continued talking while making my way back to the blackboard pretending that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
That’s just life in the classroom these days.
According to Eduction Week, there have been 38 school shootings in the US this year resulting in injuries or deaths. That’s up from 34 last year and the highest it’s been since the media source began tracking such things in 2018.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were only 10 such shootings in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018.
That comes to a total of 130 school shootings in the last five years.
“Mr. Singer, can I go to the bathroom?” DeVon asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re still under lockdown. I’ll write you a pass as soon as it’s lifted.”
It seems like nowhere is safe.
Three of this year’s shootings were in my home state of Pennsylvania.
Every few years we do this. Teachers huddle in classrooms and try to react to a shooting scenario. We either barricade ourselves in our classrooms or try to find an escape route. We help train police and local medical personnel.
At this years training, teachers were given a talk by a law enforcement “expert” who regaled us with his time working as a Blackwater mercenary in Afghanistan. He told us how difficult it was to make decisions under fire but that sometimes you had to make the hard decisions.
“Some of you teachers have kids in wheelchairs in your classrooms. You think you’re going to get your whole class out of the building and to safety!? You have to ask yourself, how are you going to get that kid in the wheelchair out? What are you going to do if a child flips out or is too scared to move? I know it’s not nice to think about, but sometimes you have to make decisions that will save the most people – not necessarily everyone.”
It made me want to vomit. But he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.
I like to believe I’d pick the child up out of his wheelchair, throw him over my shoulder and carry him to safety. I hope I could calm down a child having a panic attack and whisk her out of the building.
In fact, it’s one of the main reasons given for the American colonies fighting a war with Great Britain. No taxation without representation.
And most charter schools are guilty of it.
But not all!
There are charter schools run by elected school boards. They either choose this management system though it is not required by their charter or their charter explicitly requires it – like any other taxpayer funded school.
Does this excuse these charter schools from the same inequities as their more privileged brethren?
And this is an important point.
How does a charter school open in the first place?
Most authentic public schools were started many years ago by the communities where they operate.
Community members got together, agreed they needed a school, elected board members to manage it, collected tax money, etc.
Charter schools are much newer inventions that come about differently.
The operator then goes to the state, community or usually school district where they propose to open the charter (it depends on the state charter law) and puts forward a proposal. Then the state, community or board decides to approve or deny that proposal.
However, nearly every charter school law does not give local communities an unlimited right of refusal. After all, if they did, there would be hardly any charter schools in existence.
Think about it.
When an authentic public school district decides to open a charter school inside its borders, it is agreeing to give a portion of the tax dollars it already receives to the charter school. It is agreeing to run its existing schools on less money so the charter can open up.
Why would any authentic public school do this? Only if it saw a real need for a new school and did not want to open a new school, itself. That’s a pretty rare situation.
However, nearly every charter school law gives very narrow reasons that new charter applications can be refused. So most of the time, the district has no choice but to approve these proposals. And if a district does refuse, the matter often goes to a state charter approval board which almost always reverses the decision. The community says no – state functionaries say yes.
So even when one of these so-called good charter schools managed by an elected school board opens up, it does so by overruling the decisions of the community it serves.
Charter schools create burdens for their communities. They siphon tax dollars from the existent public schools without reducing costs by much at all. So the authentic public school board is forced to make a hard decision – cut services for students and run with their reduced tax revenue or increase taxes to make up the difference.
Charter schools equal higher taxes in districts that can afford it and a reduction in educational quality in those districts that can’t.
This is a situation the community did not ask for. The community did not demand a new charter school. A handful of charter operators did to enroll a handful of students.
And if anyone does find a yellowed document for one of these schools labeled “charter,” best to tear it up. You don’t need it since your charter school has no need of special agreements.
Keep in mind, this is long before we get into the specifics of how charter schools can (and often do) exploit children and communities.
If the very existence of your school is predicated on the existence of a charter agreement, that is inequitable.
It does not need to follow all of the rules that authentic public schools must.
These are rules about being accountable for how you spend tax dollars, having minimum academic standards, hiring qualified staff, etc.
If there really are some rules that charter schools should be freed from obeying, why not just free all taxpayer funded schools from these rules? You don’t need a special agreement. You need to renegotiate the state school code.
Otherwise, this is giving special treatment to some schools rather than others.
That is the point.
Charter schools – ALL CHARTER SCHOOLS – are inequitable by definition and design.
The Covid-19 pandemic on top of years of corporate sabotage and propaganda have obscured what public education really means and why it is absolutely necessary to the functioning of our society and any possibility of social, racial or economic justice.
Let’s begin by looking at how the current disaster exacerbated an already difficult situation and then consider why we should care enough to fix the mess.
The Pandemic Effect
Public schools got a bloody nose from the Coronavirus crisis.
In fact, it was the failure of federal, state and even local municipal governments that often made public schools the de facto legislators of last resort. And this is something they were never meant to be.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And finding replacements has been difficult. Nationwide, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available.
This has left us with a weakened system suffering from more problems than before the pandemic hit.
Why Are Public Schools Important?
Because of what they are and what they represent.
We hear about public education so often – usually in deprecating terms – that we forget exactly what the term signifies.
It is a school where any child can go to get an education.
You don’t have to pay tuition. You don’t have to have a special ability or qualification. You don’t have to be neurotypical, a certain race, ethnicity, belong to a certain faith or socioeconomic status. If you’re living in the US – even if you’re here illegally – you get to go there.
That may seem simple, but it is vitally important and really quite special.
Not all nations have robust systems of public education like we do in the US.
This country has a commitment to every single child regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, lunch or even if they have a home.
Perhaps even more significant is our commitment to children with special needs.
We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In some nations these students are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the only countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year.
In every authentic public school in the United States these students are included. In math, reading, science and social studies, they benefit from instruction with the rest of the class. And this, in turn, benefits even our neurotypical students who gain lessons in empathy and experience the full range of human abilities.
That isn’t to say the system has ever been perfect. Far from it.
Moreover, any school that attracts a surplus of students can choose which ones its wants to enroll. The choice becomes the school’s – not the parents’ or students’. In fact, administrators can turn away students for any reason – race, religion, behavior, special needs, how difficult it would be to teach him or her. This is much different from authentic public schools. There, any student who lives in the district may attend regardless of factors such as how easy or difficult he or she is to educate.
But you may luck out. Every privatized school isn’t a scam. Just most of them. So if you have found a charter, cyber or voucher school that is working for your child and doesn’t self-destruct in the time your child is enrolled, you may wonder why you should worry about the rest of us – the kids caught up in a web of privatized predation and neglect?
You have to live in this society. Do you really want to live in a country with a large population of undereducated citizens who cannot figure out how to vote in their own interests? Do you really want to live in a society where crime is a better career choice for those who were not properly educated?
That’s why we can’t let public education disappear.
Many people are upset with what local boards did during the pandemic, but the way to solve this isn’t to flee to schools without democratic principles. It is to seize those principles and make them work for you and your community.
According to the American Counseling Association, this is sometimes called the “cost of caring” and can result from “hearing [people’s] trauma stories and becom[ing] witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.”
“Being a teacher is a stressful enough job, but teachers are now responsible for a lot more things than just providing education,” says LeAnn Keck, a manager at Trauma Smart, an organization that helps children and adults navigate trauma.
“It seems like teachers have in some ways become case workers. They get to know about their students’ lives and the needs of their families, and with that can come secondary trauma.”
This is an aspect of the job for which most teachers are unprepared.
According to a 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers, only 15% of teachers felt comfortable addressing grief or trauma.
When I first entered the field two decades ago, I was taught how to design lessons, sequence curriculum, manage classes, calculate grades, etc. Never once did anyone mention that I would be standing between a hurting child and a world he is desperately trying to lash out against.
Most teachers aren’t taught how to help students who have experienced trauma. Nor are we taught how to handle the toll it takes on our own health and personal lives.
And unfortunately things are getting much worse.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma. This includes abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances. And 35 percent of kids have experienced more than one type of traumatic event.
In class, these traumas can manifest in many ways such as acting out. However, they can also be more subtle such as failure to make eye contact, repeated foot tapping, etc.
Childhood trauma was not unknown before the pandemic, but it was much less frequent.
Last week at my school, a student in the hall pushed another student into a teacher’s back. The first student was trying to fulfill the infamous TikTok challenge of hitting a teacher, but he wanted to avoid punishment by being able to claim it was an accident.
This increase in negative behaviors can be directly attributed to the pandemic.
It is vital that people stop hurling stones and understand the increased burden placed on teachers’ shoulders. Not only that, but it’s well past time for people to get off the side lines and actually support educators.
We need time to talk with our colleagues about what we’re experiencing.
That’s not just gossiping or socializing. It’s necessary to function.
Educators need the ability to talk through what they’re experiencing and what they’re feeling with other teachers coping with secondary trauma, according to Micere Keels, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and founder of the TREP Project, a trauma-informed curriculum for urban teachers.
“Reducing professional isolation is critical,” said Keels. “It allows educators to see that others are struggling with the same issues, prevents the feeling that one’s struggles are due to incompetence, and makes one aware of alternative strategies for working with students exhibiting challenging behavior.”
However, this can’t be something teaches do on their own. This is an essential part of the job.
Part of our profession has become being put in harm’s way. We need the time to cope with that on the job with our colleagues.
In addition, this allows teachers to work together to develop coping strategies.
For instance, it’s never good to meet a student’s anger with yelling or fury of your own. Educators need to find ways to de-escalate and bring the tension down in the classroom.
Finally, it is essential that teachers are allowed the latitude to go home from their jobs.
By that, I don’t mean that teachers are held hostage, that any district forces their staff to stay in the building 24/7. I mean that many teachers find it difficult to go home and stop being teachers. We’re always on. We need time to turn off and tune out.
Educators often take mountains of work home, grade papers, call parents, etc. All on their own time.
Every district can accomplish some of it TOMORROW.
If we want to continue having teachers – I mean flesh-and-blood teachers with college degrees and hard won experience, not just technology, apps or a rotating cast of minders and babysitters – we have to take care of them.
They take care of our children.
It’s time we gave back what they need to get the job done.
It’s time we gave back the respect they deserve.
It’s time we gave them the opportunity to heal from the trauma of coping with our children.
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They are simply busy work – useless paper that is often filed away in the office and never seen again.
Certain kinds of principals – and we know who you are – have checklists of every teacher in the building and simply mark off your name to designate that you turned in your lesson plans like a good doggie.
But even worse are administrators who read every word and send you pages of comments asking you to change this or that so it more closely adheres to the Common Core Academic Standards. As if parroting a bunch of shoddy benchmarks made by standardized testing companies is going to have any real effect on classroom practices.
Either way it’s an exercise in futility.
Whether administrators pour over these plans or just file them away, making teachers hand them in every week has nothing to do with improving teacher effectiveness or even making us more reflective and adventurous educators. It’s about administrators justifying their own jobs.
It’s like saying, “Look what a tough principal I am! I make my teachers hand in their lesson plans. I don’t let them get away with anything!”
Here’s a dirty little secret about education – No one gets into this profession to sit behind a desk with their feet up.
If they do, they soon realize that teaching isn’t the place for them. There is so much we have to do everyday – from grading papers, to counseling students, to calling parents, to scaffolding group work, tutoring, mentoring, modeling, lunch duty, hall duty, in-school suspension – and that’s before we even begin to talk about teaching and planning!
We don’t have time to write up a detailed plan of what we think we’ll be doing in class every single day with an equally detailed justification for everything we’ll do!
Because we know we’ll never actually use it in the classroom!
The very idea of lesson plans is antithetical to 90% of classroom practice.
Teaching isn’t something you can sit back and plan and then recreate with 100% fidelity day-in, day-out.
Today we may need to go back and reteach yesterday’s lesson. Or we may have to jump right back into a discussion we were having last week. Or we may need to switch tacks and focus on something else so students can calm down or won’t get frustrated.
The reality of the classroom determines what a good educator does inside it. And this cannot accurately be guessed at from a distance of time and/or space.
Sure, as a language arts teacher I may know I want to teach vocabulary skills, or complete sentence construction, reading comprehension or anything else. I can pick out my texts and my assignments, figure out which activities would best get across the idea, what kind of practice could be useful, etc. But HOW all that comes together is more of an art than a science.
Your administrator may not even be trained in your discipline. How’s a gym teacher going to evaluate language arts? How’s an elementary special education teacher going to evaluate calculus?
And it’s even worse when compounded by experience – or perhaps I should say inexperience.
Most principals only taught for a handful of years before becoming administrators. And many of them haven’t even had much time to figure out how best to BE administrators.
Yet our warped work culture puts them in charge of the actual professionals in the classroom – the classroom teachers – and encourages them to disrupt the normal flow of things in the name of what? School improvement? Or parasitical management?
Principals should be focused on two things – (1) providing the best work environment for students and teachers; and (2) advocating for teachers and students. They should make sure teachers have what they need to get their jobs done effectively. And that means listening to exactly what those needs are. If those needs aren’t being met inside the district, the principal should go outside and work to get those resources brought in.
Educators don’t need you to stand in judgement of them and then brag to your superiors about being a hard ass. They need you to get them the resources necessary – time, salary, lower class size, counselors, anything really that reduces the unnecessary from a teacher’s day so she can focus on her students.
But demanding educators hand in lesson plans is just the opposite. You’re ADDING to the unnecessary work load, not reducing it.
So lesson plans are an antiquated notion that need to go the way of mimeographs, transparencies and overhead projectors.
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.