Excerpt From Newsletter, It's The End of Public Education As We Know It, But I Feel Fine!, (Plague, Day 18, March 21, 2020)

From the latest newsletter. Sign up, please!

It’s The End of Public Education As We Know It, But I Feel Fine! 
Apt. 11D, 3/20/20

Hi all!

What I’ve witnessed in the past week is the absolute implosion of public education. Who knew that this 100-year old institution would falter so severely? I suppose that at this moment in time, schools are the least of our problems, but I’m still going to talk about them anyway. 

In the past week, more than half of all school districts in the country shut their doors. Some shut down entirely. Some are doing some sort of online education. But nobody knows for sure, because only one online education journal is keeping track. And this journal doesn’t even know which schools are shutting down entirely and which ones are attempting some sort online education. Nobody knows. Isn’t that weird? 

Or maybe it’s not weird. We have a system of hyper-local schools in this country, which is hopelessly inefficient and expensive. This is just one of the many problems with public education that is being exposed by this pandemic. 

Perhaps even more important than its job in the provision of learning and wisdom, our schools feed the nation’s poor. And as we’re discovering, it is also a system of childcare for just about everyone, regardless of income. When the school system collapses, children go hungry, and parents get fired from work. 

The other problem with our education system is that nobody is in charge of this mess. It’s all up to each town. So, each town is handling this crisis differently. A thousand different superintendents are coming up with a thousand different plans. And some of these plans royally suck. Some closed the schools for two weeks and formed a coherent plan. Others shut the schools for an afternoon — just a couple of hours really — to figure out how to put together an education plan for thousands of children. 

Some schools are having their teachers do online classes using programs like Zoom during the old classroom hours. Other schools are just putting up some worksheets on Google classrooms. None of them have a proper plan for how to deal with special education. And guess which school districts have the worst plans? Yes, the poor ones of course. So, by the end of this crisis, the kids in the richer schools will be just fine, and the kids in the poorer districts will be further behind. Surprised? Yeah, of course not. 

Some school districts are trying to pretend that parents are partners in all of this. Ha. Partners are usually consulted and paid for their time. Parents are pissed. I would be surprised if any school district is still maintaining this illusion of online education by the end of March.  

And the states seem to agree. Some, like Michigan, have said that none of this online stuff will count towards graduation or their 180-day requirements. Schools will have to educate kids during the summer to make up for lost time. In other states, the teachers’ unions will presumably have a meltdown about plans to teach in the summer, but we haven’t heard from the unions yet, so who knows? 

My guess is that summer school will happen for sure, because there’s no way that these inconsistent, half-baked online classes can be considered a proper education. The programs that rely on parents are especially problematic, because parents aren’t certified teachers, and the unions have made all sorts of laws about certification that can’t be undone easily. Between state constitutions and federal special education laws, schools will be in a bind. They will have to figure out how to make up these hours at a later date. 

The one hope with all this mess is that we are getting a better understanding of all the problems in society and government. The pandemic will shine like a black light on a crime scene and show us what we need to do better.  Maybe we should have a Universal Basic Income. Maybe workers in a gig economy need more protections. In terms of education, we are definitely going to need a much higher level of centralization and leadership than we have now. We are also going to have to separate schools from other social services; schools can’t wear too many hats. 

Here at Apt. 11D, my family is doing fine. We’re a little stir crazy. All this togetherness isn’t easy, especially with a semi-independent college kid in the mix. But we’re healthy, most importantly. 

This newsletter was always supposed to be a bi-monthly enterprise, but with the crisis, I’ll be here more often. I’ve got an op-ed coming out in the am tomorrow in USA Today. Look for it! 

Be well! Laura

The Plague is Here, Part Ten — Germs Don’t Care About Social Inequality, So We Should. Later.

While every other state and city in the Northeast has shutdown and moved to online education, Mayor DeBlasio hasn’t. He’s keeping the schools open.

There are 400 cases of the virus in New York City.

He said that if he closed schools, most likely students wouldn’t get any education until the fall. With its high number of low income students, there is little chance that they can maintain the pretense of an education that is happening here in the suburbs.

He’s also said that schools are the main place where students are fed every day. Without the school cafeteria, kids are going to go hungry. They may be left alone, because their parents don’t have the type of jobs that transition to home.

Closing the schools will, no doubt, lead to MASSIVE pain among low income families. Pain that you can’t even imagine.

But not closing them will lead to other pain, but all those kids and school personnel will be trading germs. People will get sick. They’ll bring those germs home and infect their grandparents.

Imagine a two-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights with windows that face the dark courtyard behind the building. Imagine an entire extended family living there. Breathing on each other. Going out to school and jobs. They will all get sick very soon.

The virus is going to do MASSIVE damage in those poor communities. There’s not much we can do now, but we will have to rethink everything when it passes.

Johnny Still Can’t Read

It was a bad week to write anything about schools. The NAEP test scores came out, and that’s the big story. Nobody cares that school buildings are falling down, when the kids can’t read. I might argue that it’s all tied together, but I won’t today.

Let’s just talk about the scores themselves. Basically, scores have stayed flat for thirty years. Only 1/3 of American kids are on grade level for math and reading.

The big question is why. Brace yourself for a 1,000 thought pieces on this topic in the next few weeks. Is it because the teachers aren’t teaching phonics? Is it because kids are glued to their cellphones? Is it because parents are working too much and aren’t helping their kids? Is there enough teacher accountability? Do we need more charter schools?

I don’t know. I think we need more of everything, and there’s no one right answer.

But what really has me worried is what happens to these kids as they become barely literate high school graduates. We’re pushing them off to colleges, where they get stuck in remedial classes that are trying to teach skills that they should have learned in middle school. Most drop out of college; others major in things like Leisure Studies or Sports Management and then can’t find a proper job after graduation. There are fewer jobs for adults without those basic skills.

I’m not sure why education isn’t a national priority. I don’t know why it isn’t the top issue in a presidential election. I’m not sure why we push education stories to the back pages of newspapers and journals. For me, it’s Ground Zero for a better world.

SL 761

I’m mostly ignoring my kids, who are still not at school yet (ughhhhh!) and trying to get work done on articles. I’m in research mode today for one piece and don’t have the brain space to write a full blog post. So, just some links today.

I’m fascinated with the market for Masters degrees. Might look at them next. In the meantime, here’s an article about MBAs. Looks like they are in trouble.

My college kid tried to sell his off-campus housing set up last year as a big cost saver. Not. Yeah, it was just a place to party in peace. Not a cost saver at all. Those landlords around college campuses must be making a fortune. The colleges, who depend on those shacks to house the overflow of students, need to monitor matters better.

Sometimes it’s best if college students are randomly assigned a roommate by the college, rather than going through the matchmaking garbage on Facebook ahead of time.

The number of kids in special ed in Flint, Michigan has skyrocketed. Because of lead. It’s the legacy of lead. Those poor babies were permanently damaged. Makes me sick. And now the schools aren’t prepared to teach them? If anybody deserves reparations, it’s those families.

In the “Crazy, Complicated” World of Special Education, Parents Turn to One Another for Help — On the Internet

In this article, I look at online groups that special ed parents form to help each with the crazy, complicated world of special education.

When Stasi Webber decided it was time to uproot her family from their Michigan home to find a better school for her 11-year-old son with autism, she turned to the internet for answers.

The public schools in her state don’t provide the specialized behavioral and life skills training, known as ABA therapy, that her son needs; he skips school every Tuesday and Thursday to receive these essential services. But recently, Webber learned from parents on social media that her son could get both academics and ABA training in schools in New Jersey, where she grew up.

With a tentative plan of returning to her childhood home in Mahwah, she found three or four local social media sites run by special education parents and asked about ABA services at the local district, its willingness to send students to specialized schools and comparisons with nearby towns. She put her house on the market.

“I knew I had to reach out to the internet, because moms are willing to help other moms,” Webber said. “You find out the most information that way.”

More here.

School-Whipped

Schools dominate my life.

It’s been decades since I’ve been in a classroom as a student and many years since I’ve been in the classroom as a teacher. But I have never been able to detach from education institutions, because of my kids. Classrooms, homework, grades, the school calendar command my time and brain space. Writing about schools is an effortless task, because they are on my mind all day long.

Ian’s school turned Memorial Day into a five day holiday. Which is fine. But it meant that I couldn’t quite get into the writing zone and get my crap done. I got some minor e-mail tasks done yesterday, but after three hours of him playing Plants v. Zombies, I felt guilty and took him to the mall. My work day was finished. On Monday, he had to be at the school at 8:00am to perform with the school marching band in the town parade.

Other chores for Ian today include a phone call to his case manager to discuss how we would go about bumping him a year ahead for math. I have to figure out what I’m going to do with him for a two week gap between camps in August. Is there enough money in the Ian slush fund for extra tutoring in the summer?

Even though Jonah is a college kid, he’s not quite baked. His sloppy work habits and poor “soft skills” came back to bite him in the ass last semester. Distracted by the demands of pledging for a frat, he did stupid things like not making sure that his assignments in an online class were properly submitted and was generally disorganized. So, I’m making him take classes on organization at his college over the summer. We’re talking through various lifestyle changes and basically scaring the shit out of him.

I don’t think there’s another government institution that has a bigger impact on me on a daily basis. There’s definitely more brain space in my personal life for non-school stuff that there used to be. I joined a running group this spring and ran a 5K on Monday. I have a couple of harmless hobbies. I read a lot and see friends on the weekends. But school issues, which are so integral to my kids’ lives, still dominate.

Other parents are even more driven by schools. Ian doesn’t spend over twenty hours per week doing a varsity sport, like Jonah did. He’s not in honors classes, so he comes home with no homework. And Jonah’s missteps only become known when the semester ends, so we can spend months in la-la land thinking that he’s taking care of his shit.

Last week, a neighbor told me about her weekend schedule driving her two young boys around the state for various sporting activities. One kid had to be an hour away for a full day Lacrosse tournament. The next day, the other kid had a full day of swim meets. Between reading tutors and school dances, her schedule was packed. She couldn’t grasp what we did with our lives without a kid in sports. Because I couldn’t gossip with her about teachers for next year or the school play, we quickly ran out of conversation topics.

Walking through Storm King with the family

Ian’s life is a lot more simple, so we drag him around to do our various interests, rather than living our lives on the soccer sidelines. We took the boys to an art park over the weekend. It feels somewhat rebellious to craft our own schedule, rather than have one dominated by sporting activities and schools. We could be even more whipped by schools than we are.

Being whipped by schools is both a privilege and a burden. Parents in towns like ours demand these services and are able to pay for it with high taxes. Three quarters of our local property taxes go to schools. The superintendent is more powerful than the mayor.

But it also means that schools oversee our lives. They control our children’s destiny. They structure our social lives. The school panopticon’s oversight is totalitarian in communities like ours. While schools are broken elsewhere, the system is still rigid in its own ways making it difficult for individuals to take alternative paths.

I think when my kids move onto the work-world and schools are a thing of the past, I’m going to stop writing about education. I fantasize about reinventing myself as a travel writer. Maybe I might write about my weird hobby of selling used books. Who knows? But I would love to break the school chains someday.