Results of National On-Line Learning Experiment are Trickling In… and they are BAD

April 7, 2020 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes article by a team of reporters headlines one problem with universal on-line learning: the national “attendance rates” are plummeting. But a closer look at the data indicate that something even more devastating is occurring: the on-line “attendance rates” in affluent districts are sky high while those in economically challenged districts are extraordinarily low. This is so for several reasons:

  • Affluent parents can work from home and are, therefore, able to closely monitor their child’s school work. Working class parents, those “...in fields like sanitation, health and food service” are not at home and given the lack of supervision their children are not spending as much time— if any— on school work. This quote from a Los Angeles HS English teacher explains the reality faced by the children of parents who go to work outside the home: “A lot of our students have siblings they have to take care of, and their parents are still going out and working. It makes it very difficult to log on at the same time as feeding breakfast to their siblings or helping with chores.
  • High school students in competitive high schools, i.e. self-motivated students, are spending time online while those who are indifferent to schooling and attending only out of compulsion are avoiding school altogether.
  • Students with NO access to high speed internet are completely incapable of learning and, consequently, are missing school altogether

But here’s what the article neglects to point out. ALL of these circumstances existed BEFORE the pandemic and ALL of these circumstances seemed to be acceptable.BEFORE the pandemic attendance was a problem. BEFORE the pandemic schools struggled to engage low income parents. BEFORE the pandemic schools struggled to engage students, particularly at the middle and high school levels. BEFORE the pandemic some children were expected to take care of younger siblings and do chores wile others burnished their resumes by participating in after school activities. BEFORE the pandemic tens of thousands of students could not access the internet, denying them of the same learning opportunities a their cohorts. All of these problems existed BEFORE the pandemic and we accepted them as a “given”. Maybe a gift of the pandemic will be the revelation that our system as it exists now is inherently inequitable and THAT problem needs to be addressed.

And how could that problem be addressed? Maybe some of the billions we are spending to subsidize banks, Big Oil, health insurance companies, and arms manufacturers could be directed to under resourced schools.

Pandemic Imperils Post-Secondary Education Across USA

April 7, 2020 Leave a comment

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ABC News reports that ALL colleges and universities in the nation are suffering potentially crippling if not cataclysmic losses as a result of the pandemic. Here are the two paragraphs that summarize the impact:

Scores of colleges say they’re taking heavy hits as they refund money to students for housing, dining and parking after campuses closed last month. Many schools are losing millions more in ticket sales after athletic seasons were cut short, and some say huge shares of their reserves have been wiped out amid wild swings in the stock market.

Yet college leaders say that’s only the start of their troubles: Even if campuses reopen this fall, many worry large numbers of students won’t return. There’s widespread fear that an economic downturn will leave many Americans unable to afford tuition, and universities are forecasting steep drop-offs among international students who may think twice about studying abroad so soon after a pandemic.

The college and university presidents hoped that the stimulant package would help offset their losses, but they were deeply disappointed to find their request for money largely ignored. Instead of getting the 60 billion dollars requested they got only 14 billion. This means that they will need to use whatever endowment funds they have to cover lost revenue, losses that they expect to mount in the fall when students decide to sit out a year because they cannot pay the tuition. And schools with limited endowments? The ABC report doesn’t say so but they may well close taking thousands of jobs and tens of thousands of dreams with them.

In the end, though, it is possible that we may look back and determine that college was oversold. We may find that paying for more schooling to earn more money to buy more things was a fool’s errand.

Another Potential POSITIVE Covid 19 By Product: Broadband Deemed a Public Utility

April 6, 2020 Leave a comment

Jeremy Mohler’s recent post on the In The Public Interest blog includes this paragraph:

The COVID-19 outbreak has exposed what’s long been true: High-speed internet is a public good. It enables education, healthcare, public safety, civic participation, economic growth, and much more. It connects our communities, the nation, and beyond. And, in times like these, it keeps us close to friends and loved ones.

And yet our country charges the among the highest fees for this service in the world and because of that roughly 1/3 of our citizens don’t have access to broadband, a reality that especially impacts low-income, black, and Latino communities. There IS hope that high speed internet might be declared as national necessity. Both the Democratic party and the Republican party are seeking another stimulus, and both are talking about a stimulus to “improve infrastructure”. This COULD be an opportunity for those who see internet access as a civil rights issue to make our voices heard. One thing is certain: as the legislation is developed the telecom industry will do so.

NY Post Op Ed on Pass/Fail at Yale Conflates Grades with Merit

April 5, 2020 Leave a comment

Recent Yale graduate Esteban Elizondo’s op ed piece in the NYPost criticizes his alms mater’s decision to adopt pass/fail grades in response to an outcry by the Yale Student Senate. His argument is that grades are the best means of identifying “merit”, of determining who in a particular class is superior to everyone else. He concludes his distrust against the pass/fail paradigm with this:

“Meanwhile, don’t believe for a second that these Universal Pass demands are temporary. The real motives for easing standards have nothing to do with coronavirus at all. What students really want is to jettison grading permanently so they don’t have to work so hard. It’s nothing but laziness and virtue signaling disguised as activism.”

I am not going to support the main reason the Yale Senate put forth for supporting Pass/Fail but i strenuously object to the notion that Pass/Fail would lead to a world of laziness. I offer two examples of pass/fail testing that are part of our culture that we accept without question: driver’s tests and medical degrees. I have the same kind of driver’s license as someone who failed the exam five times… and the student with the lowest grades in medical school is called “doctor”: the same as the valedictorian. In both cases the “grades” have less to do with merit and more to do with mastery.

The Coronavirus is giving us a chance to examine the value of our grading system. We should use this opportunity to do so and not frame our thinking based on the existing system.

Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus Is a Luxury – The New York Times

April 4, 2020 Leave a comment

As the virus continues to spread throughout the nation, an analysis of cellphone data shows that those in the wealthiest areas have been able to reduce their movements more than those in the poorest areas.
— Read on www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/03/us/coronavirus-stay-home-rich-poor.html

What this article DIDN’T say: the affluent moms and dads who stayed home could support their kids who might need help with their school work. The hourly working parents… not so much. Oh… and as a further penalty, the kids of hourly workers will be exposed to the virus.

Governance Questions Emerging at Universities Could be Canary in a Coal Mine for Public Schools

April 4, 2020 Leave a comment

The Hechinger Report featured an article by Lis Kenneth Regula, a lecturer in the Department of Biology at the University of Dayton in Ohio, who is concerned about the potential for the contracts with online education providers to devolve into a change in governance in colleges and universities. Her concern is that “...amid the rush to address public health concerns, many universities are functioning on a more top-down model of management than the shared governance that is standard in U.S. higher-education institutions” and that once the emergency is over, colleges and universities may find themselves beholden to contracts signed during an emergency that might change the way instruction is delivered in the future… or…even worse the decisive unilateral action taken by college leaders might undermine the longstanding shared governance approach valued by college professors.

Again, in times of emergencies, this model of strong, decisive leadership can be critical. It is not, however, the way that educational systems should ideally operate, and the coronavirus doesn’t change the need for shared governance.

Faculty and staff are co-equal partners with the administration in the running of a university, and their experience, expertise and relationships with students shouldn’t be discarded or downplayed. We all contribute to the mission of a university, and we all must continue to have seats at the table for the university to continue to thrive.

It isn’t too difficult to envision a scenario once this pandemic is history whereby governors declare a state of emergency due to depleted State resources. They could then use that “state of emergency” to eviscerate union contracts, empower school boards and administrators to make unilateral policy changes that abrogate the rights of employees, and use the “efficiency” of online learning as the basis for eliminating large numbers of teachers and limiting the scope of services offered by public schools. They could do so by direct fiat or they could do so by starving school districts of state resources and waiving guidelines so that online learning could be made more widely available.

In times of emergency the democratic decision making process is ineffective. The COVID 19 pandemic is such an emergency. The wholly predictable shortfall of state resources for schools and state funded universities and colleges is not an emergency. State financial offices should be developing algorithms to predict how state funding will be compromised as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic and legislators, governors, state agencies, and elected officials should be using those financial forecasts to plan for the future. The COVID 19 crisis should provide an opportunity for re-setting the way states fund public education and an opportunity to decide what kinds of services schools might offer in the future and, in so doing, have an impact on the entire economic set up. If we use the previous “normal” as the basis for the future, the economic divide will be perpetuated and expanded. If we re-think state economies, the national economy will change as well.

Now That School is Out… What Can Be Done? If Progressive Educators Don’t Seize THIS Chance, Betsy DeVos Will! But Wait… MAYBE Micro-grants Will Open the Door to DeSchooling!

April 3, 2020 Leave a comment

For the past several days I’ve posted about some of the positive results of schools closing abruptly and suddenly finding themselves providing instruction on-line. Among the positive consequences are:

  • The suspension of standardized tests
  • The suspension of giving grades and making every course Pass/Fail
  • “Grade levels” being replaced with grade spans
  • An increased awareness of terms like UNschooling and DEschooling
  • A spotlight on net inequality
  • An increased understanding of the social services schools provide
  • An increased awareness of the roles schools play in medical and nutritional wellbeing of students

If there was ever a time to move in the direction of the Networked School as described in the white paper I wrote several years ago, NOW is the time. Unfortunately there is no single group who can move in a different direction away from the traditional lock-step schools that we have now except for one person: Betsy DeVos. And, alas, while progressive educators scramble to find a unifying message that might attract parents, Betsy DeVos, her Department of Education appointees, and the lobbyists on the religious right are busy developing plans for a new kind of schooling post coronavirus.

As NPR’s Anya Kamenetz reports in her analysis of what will happen once schools open, Ms. DeVos and the GOP are viewing this as a national version of Hurricane Katrina. But instead of using this national catastrophe as an opportunity to open charter schools, she is seeing it as an option to provide parents, even homeschooling parents, with vouchers:

In the United States, education secretary Betsy DeVos has long been a champion of alternatives to public schools, including homeschooling, vouchers and charter schools. In the wake of coronavirus-related school closures, she’s proposed “microgrants” that would go directly to families to supplement children’s education. If enacted, this would essentially constitute a federal homeschool voucher program, a big change in federal policy.

These “micro grants” are virtually identical to the “micro vouchers” proposed in the 1992 book Schools Out by Lewis Perelman. In that book, Perelman envisioned a day when schooling as we know it today would be replaced with on line learning opportunities that students could access for a fee. After demonstrating mastery on some concepts those students would be awarded a “merit badge” that would enable them to progress to a higher level course or fulfill some kind of credit.

I have deep ambivalence about the direction Betsy DeVos is headed. Clearly, providing these “micro grants” would accelerate the demise of the traditional brick and mortar school with students grouped by age cohorts with multi-aged “family” groupings. It would replace the lockstep curricula with one determined by the student’s interest. And most crucially, it would measure student’s learning using criterion referenced performance tests, like the ones used to attain a drivers license or the Advanced Placement tests, instead of norm referenced standardized tests like those used to “measure” school performance in virtually every state in the country. From my perspective these are all potentially positive outcomes.

But it is clear to me that if the federal government offered “micro vouchers” to parents, it will lead to more disparity in educational opportunity, break down the wall between church and state, and destroy the unifying role public education is ideally suited to play.

The issuance of micro vouchers will be the greatest benefit to those highly engaged parents. As we know from research over the past several decades, students who parents who are highly motivated to see their children succeed in school do far better in school than disengaged parents. And we also know that few parents choose to be disengaged. Rather, many parents lack the time needed to support their children. Parents who work multiple jobs, who are raising children on their own, who are homeless or challenged to feed their children, or who struggle with diseases like addition would like to be more engaged with their children but find themselves incapable because of time constraints. Highly engaged parents, particularly those with the time needed, could commit the time needed to explore microgrants and benefit greatly from the opportunity. Parents lacking the time and resources will not benefit. The socio-economic divide between these children will only expand if micro-grants become a reality.

As one who has fought legislation that proposes funneling public funds to sectarian schools, I am concerned that the issuance of micro-grants will open the door for parents to enroll in religiously affiliated schools. Given Ms. DeVos longstanding advocacy for the expansion of Education Savings Accounts designed to provide parents with tax relief for non-public school tuition, it is hard to believe that this proposal is intended to improve or strengthen public school.

What concerns me most, though, is that in giving parents a “choice” there will be more homogeneity in schools and we will move further away from the ideal of a common school where all children of all races, creeds, and socio-economic backgrounds attend school together. I believe in the idea that public schools should mirror the ideals of our country as I understood them as a child. We were a melting pot of nationalities and our schools were designed to provide a means for every child of every background to improve themselves, develop tolerance for each other, and help each other out. Micro-grants are designed to separate children into smaller slices, like FaceBook does. In our Covid 19 lifeboats, I hope we are learning that we need unity.