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If Learning Stops, Does It Matter?, Apt. 11D, April 3, 2020
Three weeks ago, my kids were sent home from high school and college. After some bumps getting my special needs kid, myself, and his teachers all on the same page, Ian is happily marching through his Algebra 2 worksheets, recording his band lessons, and having daily Google Hangouts sessions his teachers. My college kid’s professors were ready to go on Day One, so there were never any issues there.
Both my kids are learning, entirely independently in their own spaces. It’s untraditional, but I no longer feel like we’re living in a Code Red Meltdown Situation. Arguably, my college kid is learning more now, with a full belly of food and with a normal blood/alcohol level.
But that’s our house. The low key buzz from teachers is that the picture is definitely mixed. Some houses, like ours, are making it work; others aren’t. From what I hear, learning is happening sporadically elsewhere, but learning levels are largely dependent on zip codes, the kid’s personality, parental resources, and the abilities of particular teachers.
At this moment, there are some homes were the engineering dad is helping his daughter zoom past two years of math; in another house, nothing is happening but back-to-back Switch games. Some teachers had two weeks of professional development on running Zoom classes before turning their AP History Classes into online version of the real thing; others had a couple of hours of training and were told by administrators to simply put some worksheets on the Internet for kids. Some schools have shutdown entirely and aren’t even bothering with any form of virtual education.
As a former academic, I like to know numbers. How many kids are learning? How many aren’t? What groups of kids are learning more than others? We will probably know the answers to those questions.
We do know that nine out of ten kids are out of K-12 school right now, but beyond that, we know nothing, John Snow. We don’t know even the most basic of information about what’s happening to kids — like who’s learning and who’s not — because nobody at the national or state level is keeping track of the big picture. Now that Betsy DeVos suspended state standardized testing requirements, we won’t even get that datapoint. So, we’ll may never know which schools have closed entirely, which one are hobbling along with lower level virtual education, and which one’s have implemented higher end Zoom classes, like my college kids gets.
Ultimately, education is a hyper-local enterprise in this country with only of the flimsiest of oversight from state and national government, so school districts lack a common approach to training and closures. The lack of central oversight also means that teachers have little guidance and have shouldered all the responsibility for translating years of classroom lessons into an Internet-friendly format. With every teacher struggling alone, the process has been painful and inefficient. Thousands of the nation’s calculus teachers are muddling through on their own, when they could all be using a common lesson.
Rather than providing central support, our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has been loosening standards. In addition to ditching the testing requirements, she’s working to relieve schools from various requirements around educating kids disabilities. School districts could be forced by the courts to provide vulnerable populations — younger students, students with disabilities, and students in high need communities — with compensatory education down the line, which is a fate that both school districts and DeVos want to avoid.
In truth, some students will fare better than others during these shutdowns. Even my son who struggles with learning differences will keep learning, because he attends a high-resource high school, has highly-educated parents filling any gaps, and is highly motivated. We live in a house full of books and food, and our jobs aren’t in immediate jeopardy.
But vast numbers of other kids without those privileges aren’t going to learn anything until school starts up again in September. Research on the Summer Slide, shows that middle class students thrive without school, but lower income kids suffer regressions. America’s schools have always been unequal; but education in the time of Corona means that the gulf between rich and poor will grow even greater.
Missing months of education is simply is not acceptable. Schools must remain open in the summer, particularly for students with disabilities, younger students, and in areas with the greatest economic strain. Schools will need a bailout from Congress to pay for this summer program. Parents, particularly those who care for highly disabled children, should be immediately compensated. In the long term, we also need to detangle schools from non-educational missions, like providing food and childcare, as well as increasing centralization of curriculum and training.
Be well! Laura