Remote Delivery of Instruction–Covid-19 and Re-opening Schools

Regardless of what President Trump wants, the vast majority of American students will begin their school year with remote delivery of instruction. As the surging of infections in many southern and western states has occurred, health risks for both children and adults have again risen. (see here and here). And many parents unwilling to take risks with their children will opt for staying home and their children doing the best they can with electronic devices

Note that I avoid the phrase “remote learning.” I do so because “learning” implies that through a medium–a computer screen–students have acquired knowledge and skills, been assessed for mastery, and can apply either or both in a different situation. Sitting at home in front of an Internet-connected device and listening to a teacher conduct a ZOOM session or completing and submitting an assigned worksheet, or partnering on-screen with a small group, or have small groups of students collaborate on-screen separately from the teacher can be (and are) worthwhile tasks leading to learning. But the medium has severe limitations as anyone knows who has taken online courses and experienced it since lockdowns and sheltering in began in March. And veteran and novice online teachers, are familiar with both strengths and shortcomings of distance education.

Nor am I romanticizing in-person classroom teaching. Rest assured as someone who has taught for 14 years, headed a school district for seven years, and have studied how teachers have taught over the past century I know full well the limitations, nay weaknesses, of face-to-face instruction. I have studied school reforms aimed at transforming curriculum and instruction and found how some were fully implemented by teachers and ended up both stretching and entrancing students intellectually. But most did not.

Organization may be transformed such as the age-graded, eight-room grammar school replacing the rural one-room schoolhouse over a century ago. But that has been rare. for all of the rhetoric about multi-age groups in schools, project based teaching, and unleashed innovations of charter schools, the age-graded organization remains the mainstay of U.S. schooling nearly two centuries after the first one appeared in the 1940s in Quincy, Massachusetts. I have yet to hear anyone question this organization

Curriculum may be transformed as has occurred when the college preparatory curriculum that all high school students in the 1890s had to take and subsequently the differentiated curriculum (e.g., college prep, vocational/commercial. and general) that Progressives created in the comprehensive high school between the 1920s and 1940s. And a generation later only to have many of the courses mostly replaced by the New Math, New Biology and New Social Studies of the 1960s and 1970s. Then within a few decades, to have those courses once again re-engineered by reformers in the 1980s and 1990s with curriculum standards aimed at getting all students prepared for college. Not unlike the aim of those 1890s reformers who taught a bare fraction of 17 year-olds. Yes, curriculum has indeed changed again, again, and yet again.

And instruction has also changed. Transformed, no. But incremental changes, yes. And in that tradition of gradual change, the notion of “great” teachers continues to seize the imagination of students, parents, administrators, and, yes, teachers as well. That idea of “great teachers” persists. Yet the idea hides the conflicting traditions buried with the common belief that there are “great” teachers.

Consider that the majority of adults in the nation believe schools should test students to see that they prepare children with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to succeed in an increasingly competitive labor market and diverse community. In short, they embrace the dominant ideology of standards, testing, and accountability to prepare graduates for college and career. In the historical tradition of teachers transmitting knowledge and skills to students, Maurice Butler, William Taylor , Michele Forman, and other teachers push, prod, and inspire students to get high test scores, go to college, and succeed in life.

But for many other parents, practitioners, and researchers, a “great” teacher goes beyond high achievement. They want their children’s teachers—reflecting another age-old tradition of teaching—to work daily for the wellbeing of the child, see students as whole human beings, believe in active learning, create structures for students to collaborate and explore. In short, these folks embrace a progressive ideology of teaching believing with supreme confidence that students exposed to this tradition of teaching will do well on tests, graduate and go to college. They would point to Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith, kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley, and Foxfire teachers in rural Georgia nurturing, inspiring, and connecting to students.

Because parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers vary in their beliefs about “great” teachers and different historical traditions of teaching, I put the word in quote marks. Especially now when remote instruction will be the dominant way of teaching in the coming months.

Even more troublesome is that the current concept of a “great” teacher squashes together two distinct aspects of teaching that need to be separated: the difference between “good” and “successful” teaching. They are not the same. And here is where the concept of “great” teachers gets even more complicated. Please stick with me here.

“Good” teaching is teaching that pursues morally and rationally sound instructional practices. “Successful” teaching, on the other hand, is teaching that produces the desired learning. As Gary Fenstemacher and Virginia Richardson put it:

“[T]eaching a child to kill another with a single blow may be successful teaching, but it is not good teaching. Teaching a child to read with understanding, in a manner that is considerate and age appropriate, may fail to yield success (a child who reads with understanding), but the teaching may accurately be described as good teaching. Good teaching is grounded in the task sense of teaching, while successful teaching is grounded in the achievement sense of the term.”

Another way to distinguish between “good” and “successful” is when a 8th grade teacher teaches the theory of evolution consistent with the age of the child and best practices of science teaching (the “good” part) and then has her students complete three written paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate their understanding of the theory of evolution (the “successful” part). These teaching acts are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other. For the next few months, one has to imagine this occurring on screen with rapt students watching. It is hard for me to imagine.

For the past quarter-century, however, policymakers and politicians have chopped, grated, and mixed together the goals of schooling into a concoction seeking to make education an arm of the economy. They scan international test scores, focus on achievement gaps, and boost teacher pay-for-performance plans. This policy direction has shoved the notion of “great” teaching into one corner of the ideological debate and thoroughly erased the distinction between the “good” and “successful” in teaching. Now “great” teaching means test scores go up and students go to college. A big mistake.

Why a mistake? Erasing the distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching muddles policy prescriptions seeking to improve how teachers teach and what students learn. Most important is that policymakers have, again, ignored the history of diverse teaching traditions and different ways of teaching that parents, practitioners, and researchers prize resulting in an unfortunate monopoly on only one way of teaching while students—in their glorious diversity–learn in many different ways.

And during a pandemic when the main choice is on-screen delivery of content and skills, these distinctions matter but will be lost in the predictable hullabaloo over remote instruction (not remote “learning.”

Just as being “schooled” is very different from being “educated,” so too is face-to-face learning from “remote delivery of instruction.”


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Anniversary of this Blog

Dear Readers,

This post marks my 11th anniversary as a blogger. I want to thank those readers who regularly read my twice-weekly posts, those who have dipped into them occasionally, those who have subscribed to the post, and finally those who have taken the time to write thoughtful comments. Also to the growing number of international readers, I am grateful for your attention to one American’s viewpoint on school reform and classroom practice.

As with all things, there is a history to writing this blog. My daughter Janice who is a writer in marketing communication urged me to begin a blog in 2009. She guided me through the fits-and-starts of working on this platform. After 11 years, I thank her for getting me started on this writing adventure.

For the nearly 1400 posts I have written since 2009, I have followed three rules:

1. Write about 800 words.

2. Write clearly on school reform and classroom practice.

3. Take a position and back it up with evidence.

For anyone who blogs or writes often, I want to say that sticking to these rules has been no easy task. Yet after eleven years, it has been very satisfying. I remain highly motivated to write about policymakers, administrators, teachers, and students–all who inhabit the policy-to-practice continuum–and all who in different ways, with varied ideas, seek to improve schooling. Even amid the past five months of the Covid pandemic.

To me, writing is a form of teaching and learning. The learning part comes from figuring out what I want to say on a topic, researching it, drafting a post, and then revising it more times than I would ever admit so that the post says what I want it to say. Learning also has come from the surprises I have found in the suggestions and comments readers post—“Did I really say that?” “Wow! that is an unexpected view on what I said,” or “I had never considered that point.”

The teaching part comes from putting my ideas out there in a clearly expressed logical argument, buttressed by evidence, for others who may agree or disagree about an issue I am deeply interested in. As in all teaching, planning enters the picture in how I frame the central question I want readers to consider and how I put the argument and evidence together in a clear, coherent, and crisp blog of about 800 words.

Because of my background as a high school teacher, administrator, policymaker, and historian of education I often give a question or issue its context, both past and present. I do so, and here I put my teacher hat on, since I believe that current school reform and practice are deeply rooted in the past. Learning from earlier generations of reformers’ experiences in coping with the complexities of improving how teachers taught, and how they tried to change schools and districts, I believe, can inform current reformers about the tasks they face. Contemporary reformers, equally well-intentioned as their predecessors, in too many instances ignore what has occurred previously and end up bashing teachers and principals for not executing properly their reform-driven policies.

Expressing my sincere gratitude toward readers for the blogging I have done over the past 11 years is a preface to what I will begin writing during my 12th year of posts. Obviously, I will describe and analyze the effects of the pandemic on a key societal institution and its impact on efforts to improve schools. And how teachers, administrators, and students have been coping with this crisis. Also I will be posting pieces throughout the year drawn from a book I hope to complete next year about how 20th century reform movements have affected me as a student, teacher, administrator, and professor. Yes, I confess I am a proud member of the old-old in America.

Again, thanks to those readers who have taken the time to click onto my blog. I deeply appreciate it.

Larry Cuban


Filed under Uncategorized

3 Lessons From How Schools Responded to the 1918 Pandemic Worth Heeding Today (Mary Battenfeld)

Mary Battenfeld is a Clinical Professor of American and New England Studies at Boston University. This appeared in Pocket. Thanks to Hank Levin for sending it to me.

Much like what has happened in 2020, most U.S. schools closed during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Their doors were shut for up to four months, with some exceptions, to curb the spread of the disease.

As a professor who teaches and writes about children’s history, I have studied how schools responded to the 1918 influenza pandemic. Though wary of painting the past with the present’s favorite colors, I see three main lessons today’s educators and policymakers can draw from how schools and communities responded to the last century’s pandemic.

1. Invest in School Nurses

School nurses were transformative when they were first introduced in 1902.

Rather than simply send sick students home, where they would miss school while receiving no treatment, nurses cared for children’s illnesses and provided health information to their families.

After a study showed that nurses cut student absences in half, more and more cities funded them. Within 11 years of the first nurse being hired, nearly 500 U.S. cities employed school-based medical professionals.

In 1919, nurse S.M. Connor, while apologizing for not doing more “owing to the handicap of the influenza epidemic,” submitted a report to the Neenah, Wisconsin school board of her work. Connor made 1,216 home visits, took children to doctors and delivered community health talks, in addition to conducting school-based examinations and follow-up.

In November 1918, New York City Health Commissioner Royal Copeland underscored the role of school nurses. Being under “the constant observation of qualified persons” gave students “a degree of safety that would not have been possible otherwise” and “gave us the opportunity to educate both the children and their parents to the demands of health,” he said in a report titled “Epidemic Lessons Against Next Time.”

2. Partner With Other Authorities

In a version of the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,” a study of schools in 43 cities during the 1918 pandemic identified “planning that brings public health, education officials, and political leaders together” as key to successful responses.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Rochester, New York, school and health officials combined forces with organizations representing immigrant communities. In Los Angeles, the mayor, health commissioner, police chief and school superintendent collaborated to monitor infection rates, provide teachers additional training, and create and deliver homework for 90,000 schoolchildren.

Such cooperation also helped schools as they reopened.

In St. Louis, while schools were closed, police cars became ambulances, and teachers worked in health agencies. Students returned to school November 14, but by the month’s end the city saw a new influenza surge, leading to another school closure.

Political, health and education leaders designed a gradual reopening that saw high schools open first, followed a month later, once cases in younger children had dropped, by elementary schools. Thanks to these collaborative efforts, St. Louis had 358 deaths per 100,000 people, among the best outcomes in the country.

3. Tie Education to Other Priorities

In 1916 the U.S. Bureau of Education proclaimed that the “education of the schools is important, but life and health are more important.”

Reformers of the period, known as the Progressive Era, took that notion to heart. In addition to school nurses, they established school lunch programs, built playgrounds and promoted outdoor education.

They attacked societal barriers to child health and welfare by enacting child labor laws, making school attendance compulsory and improving the tenement housing where millions of children lived.

By the time the pandemic hit, President Woodrow Wilson had declared 1918 the “Children’s Year.” Schools stood ready to deliver not only lessons but food and health care.

When schools reopened, children could learn in what Copeland described as “large, clean, airy school buildings” with outdoor spaces.

Children playing on a Boston rooftop in 1909. Credit: Lewis Wickes Hine / Library of Congress.

Heeding Those Lessons in 2020

A century after Americans learned the importance of investing in school nurses, fewer and fewer schools employ them. Only 60% of schools have a full-time nurse, and about 25% have no nurse at all. A recent analysis concluded that reopening safely will cost an additional US$400,000 per district, on average, to hire more school nurses.

These figures are higher for urban schools that educate more students of color, poor students and immigrants, and come as the pandemic’s economic fallout is already causing districts to cut budgets.

Even so and despite the federal government’s sometimes divisive response, local communities, as in 1918, are fighting this devastating pandemic with teamwork. In Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Sacramento and elsewhere, city councils, school districts, nonprofits, and labor and business groups are working together to meet their communities’ needs.

And a movement, spurred by anger over the death of George Floyd, police brutality and widespread concerns about systemic racism, is demanding that all jurisdictions spend less on the police especially now, when the challenges brought about by the pandemic make funding for public schools more essential than ever.


Filed under leadership, raising children

The Poetry of Teaching

Why a poem? Because in writing posts for this blog and for books I have written over the past half-century, I have used expository writing. I describe, analyze, and try to capture school reform, policy-making, and the practice of teaching using facts, evidence, and explanation. It is aimed at the brain, not emotions.

Yet art, dance, drama, short stories, novels, and poetry–even cartoons–can capture features of teaching and learning, particularly what teachers and students feel when in classrooms in ways that exposition cannot.

I am neither a poet nor an aspiring one. I offer these as ones that stirred me, that captured in vivid language what teachers and students feel and do.

The Hand

Mary Ruefle, 1996

The teacher asks a question.

You know the answer, you suspect

you are the only one in the classroom

who knows the answer, because the person

in question is yourself, and on that

you are the greatest living authority, but you don’t raise your hand.

You raise the top of your desk and take out an apple.

You look out the window.

You don’t raise your hand and there is

some essential beauty in your fingers,

which aren’t even drumming, but lie flat and peaceful.

The teacher repeats the question.

Outside the window, on an overhanging branch, a robin is ruffling its feathers

and spring is in the air.

Reprinted from Cold Pluto: by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press © by Mary Ruefle 1996.

Why Latin Should Still Be Taught in High School

Christopher Bursk

Because one day I grew so bored

with Lucretius, I fell in love

with the one object that seemed to be stationary,

the sleeping kid two rows up,

the appealing squalor of his drooping socks.

While the author of De Rerum Natura was making fun

of those who fear the steep way and lose the truth,

I was studying the unruly hairs on Peter Diamond’s right leg.

Titus Lucretius Caro labored, dactyl by dactyl

to convince our Latin IV class of the atomic

composition of smoke and dew,

and I tried to make sense of a boy’s ankles,

the calves’ intriguing

resiliency, the integrity to the shank,

the solid geometry of my classmate’s body.

Light falling through blinds,

a bee flinging itself into a flower,

a seemingly infinite set of texts

to translate and now this particular configuration of atoms

who was given a name at birth,

Peter Diamond, and sat two rows in front of me,

his long arms, his legs that like Lucretius’s hexameters

seemed to go on forever, all this hurly-burly

of matter that had the goodness to settle

long enough to make a body

so fascinating it got me

through fifty-five minutes

of the nature of things.

From The Improbably Swervings of Atoms by Christopher Bursk © 2006. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Poem for Christian, My Student

Gail Mazur

He reminds me of someone I used to know,

but who? Before class,

he comes to my office to shmooze,

a thousand thousand pointless interesting

speculations. Irrepressible boy,

his assignments are rarely completed,

or actually started. This week, instead

of research in the stacks, he’s performing

with a reggae band that didn’t exist last week.

Kids danced to his music

and stripped, he tells me gleefully,

high spirit of the street festival.

He’s the singer, of course—

why ask if he studied an instrument?

On the brink of graduating with

an engineering degree (not, it turned out,

his forte), he switched to English,

his second language. It’s hard to swallow

the bravura of his academic escapes

or tell if the dark eyes laugh with his face.

Once, he brought me a tiny persimmon

he’d picked on campus; once, a poem

about an elderly friend in New Delhi

who left him volumes of Tagore

and memories of avuncular conversation.

My encouragement makes him skittish—

it doesn’t suit his jubilant histrionics

of despair. And I remember myself

shrinking from enthusiasm or praise,

the prospect of effort-drudgery.

Success—a threat. A future, we figure,

of revision—yet what can the future be

but revision and repair? Now, on the brink

again, graduation’s postponed, the brilliant

thesis on Walker Percy unwritten.

“I’ll drive to New Orleans and soak

it up and write my paper in a weekend,”

he announces in the Honors office.

And, “I want to be a bum in daytime

and a reggae star at night!”

What could I give him from my life

or art that matters, how share

the desperate slumber of my early years,

the flashes of inspiration and passion

in a life on hold? If I didn’t fool

myself or anyone, no one could touch

me, or tell me much . . . This gloomy

Houston Monday, he appears at my door,

so sunny I wouldn’t dare to wake him

now, or say it matters if he wakes at all.

“Write a poem about me!” he commands,

and so I do.

Gail Mazur, “Poem for Christian, My Student” from Zeppo’s First Wife: New & Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Copyright © 1995 by Gail Mazur. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: The Common (The University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Mrs. Kitchen

Ann Staley

Teaching is about making 400 close-judgment calls a day. Wise teacher comment

Mrs. Kitchen

…traveled the world with her M.D. husband,

both working for the American Red Cross.

They returned to suburban Harrisburg

and began the next chapter of their lives.

Mrs. Kitchen became a 2nd grade teacher at Progress Elementary School.

Our classrooms had floor-to-ceiling windows,

which opened so you could hear recess voices,

and dark wooden floors polished to a sheen.

We were seated, not in usual rows,

but in a square “u” of desks.

We were allowed to sit with whomever

we wanted, as long as our work was uninterrupted

by giggling (the girls) or hitting (the boys).

Mrs. Kitchen was small in stature, big in heart.

She wore glasses and had curly brown hair.

She loved all of her students, but had,

I realized even then, a soft spot for me.

I didn’t understand why and still don’t.

Every afternoon, in the hour before school ended,

she read aloud to us–from books

on the New York Times Bestseller list.

 Kon Tiki is one I remember most vividly.

Winifred Kitchen taught “up” to us,

believing that eight-year-olds could understand more

than the 1950s psychology books expected.

This was her great gift to her fortunate students.

We studied Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men,

then made shadow boxes depicting their lives.

One day when I’d finished my work early,

she sent me to the library, alone, saying,

 Get whatever book you want, Ann.

That day I chose a book titled The Pigtailed Pioneer,

about a girl whose covered wagon arrives in Portland, Oregon,

where she meets her first Indian in an encampment south of town.

I had braids, then, which my mother plaited each morning,

tying on plaid or satin ribbons that she ironed.

Girls still wore dresses to school in those days,

no pants were allowed until we got to Junior High School.


One afternoon I asked Mrs. K if I could go to the office

without being sent there. I wanted to meet the principal,

a woman, but wanted to go there on good terms.

She arranged an interview with this imposing woman.

After we finished speaking, the Principal told me to

sit behind her desk, answer the phone if it rang.

She was going out for her usual late afternoon of listening

to the classrooms with open doors. I was thrilled.

My 2nd grade year convinced me that I wanted to be a teacher.

I set up summer school for my dolls in the basement

and began, in earnest, my professional life.

In Instructions for the Wishing Light, with Permission from author

Teaching English from an Old Composition Book

By Gary Soto

My chalk is no longer than a chip of fingernail,

Chip by which I must explain this Monday

Night the verbs “to get;” “to wear,” “to cut.”

I’m not given much, these tired students,

Knuckle-wrapped from work as roofers,

Sour from scrubbing toilets and pedestal sinks.

I’m given this room with five windows,

A coffee machine, a piano with busted strings,

The music of how we feel as the sun falls,

Exhausted from keeping up.

                                       I stand at

The blackboard. The chalk is worn to a hangnail,

Nearly gone, the dust of some educational bone.

By and by I’m Cantiflas, the comic

Busybody in front. I say, “I get the coffee.”

I pick up a coffee cup and sip.

I click my heels and say, “I wear my shoes.”

I bring an invisible fork to my mouth

And say, “I eat the chicken.”

Suddenly the class is alive—

Each one putting on hats and shoes,

Drinking sodas and beers, cutting flowers

And steaks—a pantomime of sumptuous living.

At break I pass out cookies.

Augustine, the Guatemalan, asks in Spanish,

“Teacher, what is ‘tally-ho’?”

I look at the word in the composition book.

I raise my face to the bare bulb for a blind answer.

I stutter, then say, “Es como adelante.

Augustine smiles, then nudges a friend

In the next desk, now smarter by one word.

After the cookies are eaten,

We move ahead to prepositions—

“Under,” “over,” and “between,”

Useful words when la migra opens the doors

Of their idling vans.

At ten to nine, I’m tired of acting,

And they’re tired of their roles.

When class ends, I clap my hands of chalk dust,

And two students applaud, thinking it’s a new verb.

I tell them adelante,

And they pick up their old books.

They smile and, in return, cry, “Tally-ho.”

As they head for the door.

Gary Soto, “Teaching English from an Old Composition Book” from Gary Soto: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Gary Soto


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

The Difference between “Complicated” and “Complex” Matters (Yet Again)

Ten years ago I posted my thoughts and ideas (many of which I borrowed) on the differences between complicated and complex organizations and why it mattered when it came to schools. The post turned out to be one of the most read of the nearly 1400 I have written since beginning this blog in 2009.

I bring it back for an encore because of Covid-19. In the past five months since lock-downs rippled across the nation, schools have been closed. In the past two weeks, the President wanted schools to re-open with face-to-face instruction and some districts moved in that direction. But with another upsurge of the coronavirus in many states, most school boards have fallen back to remote instruction beginning in the fall. Too many unknowns about the virus, disease, and its effects on children and adults throw school boards and superintendents back to the first commandment of schooling: health and safety of those in schools.

This back-and-forth debate about schools re-opening underscores both the centrality of this institution to the social, economic, and political vitality of the nation but also it complexity. Thus a re-run of this post.

What’s the difference between sending a rocket to the moon and getting children to succeed in school? What’s the difference between a surgeon extracting a brain tumor and judge and jury deciding guilt or innocence for a person accused of murder?

Answers: sending a rocket to the moon and surgeons extracting brain tumors are complicated tasks while getting children to succeed in school (or, for that matter, raising a child) and the criminal justice system are complex.

According to York University (Ontario, Canada) business professor Brenda Zimmerman, complicated procedures like brain surgery and rocket launchings require engineer-designed blueprints, step-by-step algorithms, well-trained staff, and exquisite combinations of computer software running carefully calibrated equipment. Think rocket landing on the moon in 1969, doctor-controlled robotic arms doing brain surgery, and the U.S. “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A complicated system assumes expert and rational leaders, top-down planning, smooth implementation of policies, and a clock-like organization that runs smoothly. Work is specified and delegated to particular units.

Certainty about outcomes is in the air the organization breathes. Complicated systems use the most sophisticated math, technical, and engineering expertise in mapping out flow charts to solve problems.

Yet even those sophisticated systems fail from time to time such as the Challenger shuttle disaster, Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, and the 2010 BP oil leak.

Complex systems like criminal justice, health care, and schools, however, are filled with hundreds of moving parts, scores of players of varied expertise and independence yet missing a “mission control” that runs all these different parts within an ever-changing political, economic, and societal environment. The result: constant adaptations in design and action. Recall the U.S. President, Congress, lobbying groups, and scores of interest groups trying to get a reform health care bill into law during 2010 in the midst of a slow recovery from the quasi-Great Depression of 2008. Or ponder the U.S.’s bungled efforts to build a democratic Iraq between 2003-2010 after the engineered “shock and awe” got rid of Saddam Hussein.

Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and savvy managers simply are inadequate to get complex systems with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments. These web-like complex systems of interdependent units adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings. See the complexity of dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan in this slide.

Or consider how the criminal justice system to avoid gridlock created plea bargains. Interdependent parts of the system (police, defense lawyers, district attorneys, and judges) adapted to overflowing court dockets. Just as adding financial management courses to the regular curriculum is how schools adapt to external lobbying.

Health care, criminal justice, and school systems even with their façades of command-and-control mechanisms, policy manuals filled with procedures for subordinates to follow are constantly buffeted by unpredictable events—picture a hospital emergency room, a kindergarten class of wailing and reclusive 5 year-olds, judges doing arraignments one after the other.

So what if schools, hospitals, and courts resemble spider webs of interconnecting strands than carefully designed and well-oiled machines?

One practical outcome of this distinction is approaching planned change differently. Those who run complicated systems (e.g., airplane and automotive industrialists, investment bankers, computer hardware and software CEOs) introduce change by laying out a detailed design of what is to be changed, step-by-step procedures to implement the change and overcome any employee resistance, and reduce variation in performance once change is implemented. Highly rational, mechanical, and smooth.

The problem for those who inhabit complex systems like schools is that change, conflict, and unplanned changes occur all the time. So do adaptations because of the web-like independent and interdependent relationships that make up the system. What happens when smart people try to graft procedures from complicated organizations onto complex systems?

Trying to toilet train a 3-week old baby is an absurd example of the thinking that occurs when a complicated solution (designing a flow chart for teaching toilet training) meets a complex problem (a baby that feeds continually, sleeps 20 hours a day, and soils her diapers repeatedly). Inevitably, the toilet training flow chart gets adapted again and again until the baby is ready to be toilet trained—a year or more later. Or consider a less absurd example of the pay-for-performance plans imported from complicated business systems to be installed in complex school districts. The pay-4-performance policy will get adapted repeatedly and, over time, will become unrecognizable to designers and promoters.

The answer, then, to the so-what question is: At the minimum, know that working in a complex system means adapting to changes, dealing with conflicts, and constant learning. These are natural, not aberrations. Know further that reform designs borrowed from complicated systems and imposed from the top in complex systems will hardly make a dent in the daily work of those whose job is convert policy into action.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Please Don’t Make Me Risk Getting Covid-19 to Teach Your Child (Rebecca Martinson)

Rebecca Martinson is a teacher at Northwest Career & Technical Academy in Mount Vernon, Wash. This appeared in the New York Times, July 18, 2020.

I write often about the inescapable personal and professional dilemmas that each educator (including myself) confronts as we traverse our daily lives. Martinson expresses very clearly the stark dilemma facing her (and the choice she would make) if her district directs her to return to the classroom for face-to-face instruction during this pandemic.

But the fact is that for Martinson and other teachers there is no right answer on what to do. During these difficult moments when we face such dilemmas about how much risk each of us is willing to take for ourselves and loved ones, no one can say with any confidence that X, Y, or Z is the correct thing to do. Yes, we have learned to protect ouselves to some degree by wearing masks, keeping physical distance, washing hands, etc. but beyond that no one knows for sure whether opening schools for children and their teachers will lead to more infections and some deaths. Sure, experts state probabilities but health risks remain. Individual choices must be made between staying free of the virus and jobs, between losing a year of schooling and not contracting Covid-19. Regardless of what political leaders tell us, the persistent unknowns about the virus make decisions about what to do, at best difficult, and at worst, paralyzing.

Read Rebecca Martinson’s reasoning behind her decision and how a few teachers responded to what she wrote.

Every day when I walk into work as a public-school teacher, I am prepared to take a bullet to save a child. In the age of school shootings, that’s what the job requires. But asking me to return to the classroom amid a pandemic and expose myself and my family to Covid-19 is like asking me to take that bullet home to my own family.

I won’t do it, and you shouldn’t want me to.

I became an educator after a career as a nurse. I teach medical science and introduction to nursing to 11th and 12th graders at a regional skills center that serves students from 22 different high schools in 13 different school districts.

My school district and school haven’t ruled out asking us return to in-person teaching in the fall. As careful and proactive as the administration has been when it comes to exploring plans to return to the classroom, nothing I have heard reassures me that I can safely teach in person.

More than 75 New York Department of Education employees have died of Covid-19. CDC guidelines say a return to traditional schooling with in-person classes would involve the “highest risk” for Covid-19 spread. But even in-person classes with students spaced apart and prevented from sharing materials are categorized as leading to “more risk.” The “lowest risk” for spread, according to the CDC, is virtual learning. I can’t understand why we would choose more risk than is necessary.

It’s impossible to hear about the way parties, day camps and church services have led to outbreaks this summer without worrying about what will happen if kids and adults gather in the fall. It scares me to think of how many more lives will be lost. It terrifies me that I could be among those who lose their lives.

I completely understand why parents and administrators want kids to return to school. When we first started online learning in March, it was miserable — pointless, even. Eventually, we established parameters, and I figured out how to teach kids across the northwest corner of Washington State virtually. During summer school, I’ve live-streamed my lectures into campgrounds, living rooms and bedrooms decorated with twinkly lights or festooned with posters. My virtual classroom includes pets and younger siblings.

Yes, it has been hard. Yesterday, as several really adorable teenage faces laughed through the computer screen at my use of a Tyrannosaurus Rex to explain the sympathetic nervous system and the feeling of impending doom it can cause, I thought, “I miss them.” I wished I was standing in my favorite place in the world, my classroom — because, frankly, that T-Rex analogy is much better when accompanied by my dino walk.

But it amazes me how fast students adapted to remote learning. I teach a particularly hands-on class. This summer, I’ve managed to teach them to type blood, to suture wounds and how the sensory system works. I’ve taught them all about infection control and epidemiology —  they can not only tell you that you should wear a mask, but they can show you how to do it correctly. I used to put my hand over students’ hands to guide them through certain lessons. Now I use a GoPro camera. It’s hard, but they are learning.

Most important, we — students and teacher — are safe.

If I’m asked to return to the classroom as the pandemic rages, I will have to walk away. As deeply as I love teaching, I will not risk spreading this virus in a way that could hurt a child or a family member of a child. While children make up a small proportion of U.S. coronavirus cases and they are less likely to become seriously ill than adults, the virus might be linked to “multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children.” Plus, many of my students struggle with poverty or are from multigenerational households. I will not risk passing a virus to them that they might pass to their vulnerable loved ones. I won’t do it.

It isn’t fair to ask teachers to buy school supplies; we aren’t the government. But we do it anyway. It isn’t fair to ask us to stop a bullet; we aren’t soldiers. But we go to work every day knowing that if there’s a school shooting, we’ll die protecting our students.

But this is where I draw the line: It isn’t fair to ask me to be part of a massive, unnecessary science experiment. I am not a human research subject. I will not do it.

I have also included two responses from teachers in other parts of the country to Martinson’s op-ed. These appeared in the New York Times Letters section on July 24, 2020.

Hannah Duggan
New Orleans

To the Editor:

I am 62 years old and have been teaching in the New York City public schools for more than 20 years. I love my students, my job and my school. I believe that children belong in school, and I know that this period of quarantine has been incredibly hard for my sixth-grade students academically, emotionally and socially. I miss them every day.

I will not return to the classroom in September, which makes me extraordinarily sad. Unfortunately, I do not trust the system to take care of me (or my students). Our school’s ventilation system has not been working properly for more than 10 years despite custodians’ efforts to fix it. I spend many days dealing with students coming back from the bathroom to report that there is no soap to wash their hands.

Are you wondering if my school’s population is made up of Black and brown students? It is. Do you think these same scenarios exist in schools that are richer or whiter than my school? I do not know.

Nothing would make me happier than to be persuaded that I am incorrect — that it will be safe for a 62-year-old teacher to return to her classroom. But too much is at stake. I love my students, but I love my own children, my husband and my friends. I value the gift of my life. I will not look away from reality. This is my “teacher reality” right now.

Sharon Kramer
New York

To the Editor:

As a teacher, I very much appreciated Rebecca Martinson’s discussion of what is going through the minds of all teachers right now. Yet I can’t help but comment upon her great privilege in being able to write this.

Should she disagree with her state’s or district’s policies, she simply will not teach next year. What about teachers whose realities are much different? Single-parent teachers who rely on that income? Or my own situation, in which both partners are teachers in the same school district — in Florida! — where the governor has mandated in-class instruction five days a week? Where does that leave those of us who cannot give up our incomes?

Teachers all over the country are being put in the inconceivable position of having to choose between the health of their families and their livelihoods, and it is a terrible position indeed.

Anna Deckert
Fort Walton Beach, Fla.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Cartoons on Re-Opening during Pandemic

As barber shops and tattoo parlors open, as customers return to bars and restaurants, as parents are called back to work, louder and louder calls for children to return to school mount. I have collected cartoons that poke at the re-opening of “normal” life including schools. Enjoy!


Filed under Uncategorized

Introduction To My Next Book (Part 4)

This is the final part of my draft Introduction to “Confessions of a School Reformer.”

The research literature on children’s academic performance has shown time and again that anywhere from over half to two-thirds of minority and white students’ test scores—lower, middle, and upper class–can be attributed to family’s socioeconomic background.

Yet many educators in public traditional and charter schools in poor neighborhoods either ignore or dispute those research findings. These educators see such research as an incentive to prove scholars wrong. Such educators continue to operate on the principle that engaged and committed staff unaccepting of  “excuses” (e.g., low-income family, all minority enrollment, neighborhood crime) could lift students out of poverty through helping students become academic achievers, entering college, and securing well-paid jobs.  And the evidence of such positive outcomes is both available and rich.

The issue, then, of the degree to which family background and ethnic/racial school demography affect student achievement rubs against not only this body of evidence that there are schools graduating low-income minority students who enter higher education but also a discomforting and inescapable fact:  Formal schooling  occupies only a small portion of a child’s day. Consider that children and youth attend public schools about 1100 hours a year for 13 years (or just under 15,000 hours.  That time represents less than 20 percent of a child’s and teenagers waking time for all of those years in school.  Hence, most of student’s time is spent outside of school in the family, neighborhood, religious settings, and workplace.  

Important as time spent in school is economically and socially in accumulating content and hard- and soft-skills, diplomas, and degrees for jobs and careers, it is often given far more weight—recall the basic faith that Americans have in the power of schooling–than life lived outside of school in assessing not only how a child becomes an adult but also what kind of adult.

So two fundamental questions past generations of reformers seldom wrestled with publicly about the connection between individuals, schools, and society remain open to contemporary crusaders:

*How much of a child’s academic success or failure in school is due to family background and what occurs in home and neighborhood?

* Can schools, reflecting the larger society’s faith in perfecting individuals and institutions, reform society? If so, how?

There are many ways to answer these questions in trying to determine degrees of impact that these reform movements have had on children and youth including poor and minorities. Individual memoirs (e.g.,   ), case studies (e.g., , Alex Kotlowitz—Chicago kids), surveys (e.g., Coleman 1966), longitudinal research on groups of children (e.g., Seven and Up, Sean Reardon), and many other designs have established general statements, more often than not challenged by other researchers and, especially policymakers.  No design is invulnerable including what I offer in this book., a mix of research, analysis, and experiential data.

Confessions of a School Reformer is one person’s direct experiences in these three reform movements that have swept over the nation’s public schools especially in three cities where I lived and worked. Other accounts may arrive at different answers than what I present here. So be it. Using direct experiences informed by a broad and deep knowledge of the history of schooling as a springboard to delve into each of these reform movements over the past century enveloping public schools is my way of making sense of a complex community institution and its effects upon my life and that of the nation.

The book is ambitious. I connect larger, swirling reform movements with my experiences as a student, teacher, superintendent, and researcher. I reveal my thinking about teaching and school reform at different points in my life and confess errors in beliefs and stumbles in practices. And I draw conclusions that often challenge mainstream wisdom about school reforms over the past century.  The book, then, is a historical analysis of school reforms over the past century and a memoir. It is a tricky combination and readers will determine to what degree I succeed.  

I have organized the book in alternating chapters of analysis and memoir to answer four questions.

*How did the Progressive movement (1890s-1950s) shape public schooling nationally in governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction and in the Pittsburgh schools that I attended as a student.

As a student between 1939-1951, what do I recall and make of my experiences in three schools in the fading years of Progressive school reform?

*How did the Civil Rights movement (1950s-1970s) influence the governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction nationally and in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. school systems?

As a teacher and administrator in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. (1956-1967), what classroom and school reforms did I and others design and implement during the Civil Rights movement?

*How did a reform movement aimed at increased economic growth tie schools more closely to the private sector (1970s-present) influencing school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction nationally and in Arlington (VA)?

As the Arlington County superintendent between 1974-1981, what district reforms did the Arlington School Board and I design, adopt, and implement during the standards, testing, and accountability movement that sought to bind more closely schools and the economy?

*How did major reforms adopted and implemented since the early-1980s (e.g., higher state standards and Common Core curricula, access and use of new technologies) influence governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction nationally?

As a practitioner and historian of education 1981-2021, what reforms did I study and what were my conclusions?

The four memoir chapters will contain one additional feature that calls to mind the title of this book. When I describe my direct experiences during a reform movement, I will elaborate my primary beliefs at the time–what my thinking was then–and detail any errors in that thinking and slip-ups in practice that I pursued and committed. Thus, Confessions of a School Reformer

For example, following the analysis chapter of being a school chief in Virginia during the early years of the standards, testing, and accountability reforms, I detail in the memoir what my ideas and beliefs were then about district improvement. For example, I believed that the district, not the school or classroom, was the primary unit of school reform to improve schooling, especially for children of color. While that belief has substantial merit to it—and I specify those merits in the chapter—I learned from experience then and since that a district-strategy of reform is too narrow. Surely, the district as a key piece to any strategy in improving governance, curriculum, and instruction is worthwhile but such school reform fails to account for the larger social context in the community, state, and nation (e.g., political vulnerability of tax-supported public schools to economic, social and political forces–need I remind readers of the 2020 pandemic and movement for racial justice?) That was an error in my thinking in those years. What I thought then differs from what I think now.

The following chapters document how in America perfecting imperfect individuals and a flawed society drove reformers to engage in over the past century three movements within which schools were also targets for improvement. Historically, faith in formal schooling as paving the road to personal success and national prominence has been an enduring motif. From Andrew Carnegie to W.E.B. DuBois to Lyndon Johnson to a character in the popular West Wing drama, education has been touted as essential to being an individual who is noticed, recognized, and approved, of communities that succor the needy and improve themselves, and of equal importance, reducing inequalities while maintaining a democratic nation. 

Schooling was surely important to me as I traversed eight decades as a student, teacher, administrator and researcher immersed in these larger reform movements. Just how important it has been in my life and the events that shaped who I am is a question I explore in the ensuing chapters.


To those readers who have read all four parts, I thank you. Any comments would be appreciated.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Introduction to My Next Book (Part 3)

And so, the last century of reform in America has been the story of these three political and social movements beginning with excited policy talk, then moving to downsized policy actions, and finally erratic implementation spilling over public schools. Beyond these reformers achieving a few of their intended goals in each era, what often goes unnoticed are some of the unintended—even perverse– effects of hyperbolic reform talk, narrowed adoption of policies, and uneven execution.

Perverse outcomes of school reforms

Consider the massive effort by civil rights reformers to desegregate schools between the 1960s and 1980s following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision (1954).

Activists used both direct action such as boycotts and marches and indirect action such as legal strategies to get urban districts to desegregate through busing, making larger city/county districts that straddled attendance boundaries, and taking school boards to federal court for maintaining segregated schools—strategies that civil rights reformers believed would bring minority and white children together to learn. Many of these efforts succeeded, particularly in the South in the 1970s and 1980s (see here and here).

The fact of the matter is that then residential segregation determined school segregation then and now. Where students went to school in cities and suburbs depended upon where families lived. In a largely working class Latino area, for example, the neighborhood school would be heavily Latino. Ditto for low-income Blacks and upper-income suburban whites.  Thus, white, Black, and Latino families moving in and out of urban residential areas (where practices such as racial covenants embedded in deeds  banning sales to minority families and banks that didn’t give mortgages to neighborhoods outlined in red on a city map kept the races apart) led to re-segregated schools where mostly black and brown children enrolled—often coming from families in poverty.  Suburban schools often became white enclaves (see here).

The unintended effect of direct actions and court-driven efforts to hasten desegregation, then, was to speed up re-segregation of poor and minority students by residential location and covert bank practices.  Few policymakers after the Brown decision (1954) anticipated the return of racial and ethnic separation of whites from African American and Latino school children.

Or consider that one of the intended effects in the 1980s and 1990s of raising state high school graduation requirements, strengthening curriculum standards, using tests to determine how well students achieved those standards, and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts responsible for student academic outcomes was t produce graduates able and willing to enter the workplace and secure employment. The expectation was that tying schools closer to the nation’s economy would benefit youth, the workplace and the country.

So when the federal No Child Left Behind Act (2002-2015) containing many of these features became the law of the land reformers believed that these policies would forge tighter links between schools and the economy.

The documented record, however, is mixed as to whether those reforms, including NCLB, aimed at producing skilled graduates who could enter an information-driven workplace achieved the intended goals (see here and here).

Yes, high school graduation rates have risen. And, yes, percentage of high school graduates attending college has increased. But test score gains sufficient to close the achievement gap between minorities and whites had not occurred. Nor could I find evidence that graduates were better prepared to enter the workplace than an earlier generation.  Furthermore, the promise that higher standards and accountability would alter historic inequalities between minorities and whites remained unfulfilled since the 1980s when these standards, tests, and accountability reforms emerged. Unemployment and wages for African Americans compared to whites remained largely unequal and stagnant during economic growth and recessions. 

Documenting the intended effects of school reforms is tough enough. But when researchers investigated the unintended or unexpected results of school reform, unusual outcomes became apparent.

Few reformers, for example, thought that NCLB with its mandated state tests and its required reporting of Adequate Yearly Progress in test scores would push state and local policymakers to manipulate student results or press teachers to narrow their classroom lessons.  State officials fiddled with numbers setting the threshold for a passing score on its tests to avoid many schools being cited as “failing.” And some districts had principals and teachers actually change student results to show improvements. Additionally, many districts across the nation tapered their curricula to fit what was on these state tests and set aside school time to prepare students for end-of-year exams. These unintended outcomes became obvious within a few years of NCLB’s passage.

Even worse in the wake of NCLB, many urban and suburban districts found that their schools had failed to meet the law’s criteria for improvement. States published districts’ test scores and districts announced school-by-school scores identifying those schools that were in danger of closing if results didn’t improve.  Each year, shame and blame exponentially spread across the U.S. as states, districts and schools flunked NCLB requirements. 

Local and state officials complained annually about the unfairness of such measures applied without acknowledging demographic differences in districts and schools. They lobbied their legislators to alter the federal law. The deluge of complaints and meager student outcomes led the U.S. Congress to dump NCLB and pass the Every Student Succeeds Act delegating the power to determine school success and failure to each state. President Barak Obama signed ESSA into law in 2015.  In effect, the 2002 reform was re-formed in 2015.

None of this, of course, is new. Policy researchers and historians are well aware of how hard it is to determine unvarnished success of reform-driven policies over time in districts and schools. They are equally aware of how commonly unexpected outcomes accompany these very same policies.  Nor is it new that these unanticipated outcomes seldom shook the widespread embrace of reform-driven policies, then and now, uplifting those Americans who historically have done poorly in public schools—immigrants, rural migrants, and low-income children of color.

Rock-hard faith in the curative powers of schooling

Reformers in each generation believed in their hearts that they could solve thorny social, political, and economic problems. They knew what had to be done and had the answers. Public schools, they held, were the chief, if not the sole, determiner of individual and national success.  Schooling was the great equalizer shaping the life journey that individual children and youth traveled. Mirroring the deeply embedded and traditional belief that American institutions can, indeed make people better, the school, like the church and family, was an instrument for not only reforming individuals and institutions but also curing societal ills such as illiteracy, poverty, and economic errors.

Recall that industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie endowed the Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching in 1905 and funded the construction and maintenance of nearly 1700 free libraries across the country between 1883-1929.

Also President Lyndon Johnson had as the centerpiece of his “War on Poverty,” the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) that provided billions of dollars to poor and minority children then called “disadvantaged.”

And it is precisely on this point of faith about the curative powers of schooling that one pillar of that belief has wobbled and remains contested in 2021.  For many decades there has been an enduring struggle among educators, parents, policymakers, and public officials over how much students’ backgrounds shape school effects.

For true believers, schooling raises everyone regardless of family circumstances. Yet, (and this is a very big “yet”) much evidence has piled up over the past century that social class matters on who sails through age-graded schools and who stumbles along the way. Consider, for example, that the majority of urban districts in the U.S. now house mostly minority and poor children. More than half of African American children and six out of ten Hispanic children and youth attended schools in 2017 that were at least 75 percent minority.  Most of these schools are located in urban districts and historically segregated Southern rural districts. Note further than in 2013, researchers found that over half of U.S students are poor.

Moreover, the research literature on children’s academic performance has shown time and again that anywhere from over half to two-thirds of minority and white students’ test scores—lower, middle, and upper class–can be attributed to family’s socioeconomic background.


The final part of the Introduction to “Confessions of a School Reformer” follows in a subsequent post.

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Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Dilemmas Facing Policymakers in Re-opening Schools

Here is the best summary that I have found thus far on the policy dilemmas facing school boards and superintendents in deciding how and when to re-open schools. It comes from a blog called Electoral Vote. Curated and written by two academics, one (Andrew Tanenbaum) an expert on statistics and public opinion polls and the other (Christopher Bates) a historian.

Every educational policy has one or more prized values embedded in it and when it comes to Covid-19, these values clash. Choices have to be made among sought-after values (health and safety of students; health and safety of faculty; giving parents choices of school options, limited resources to do efficiently what is essential, quality of educational experience, etc.). Sacrifices occur as policymakers with limited funds and knowledge of the virus’s spread and effects strike compromises (e.g., when to open, under what conditions) in deciding which values take precedence. Thus, the policy issues that authors of Electoral Vote have listed.

As part of his program of COVID-19 denial, Donald Trump has demanded that schools reopen in the fall, at risk of having their federal funding cut. His notion, ostensibly, is that if students go back to school, then parents can go back to full-time work. And if parents can go back to full-time work, then the economy will come zooming back to life, and he will ride that momentum to a reelection victory. Talk about your magical thinking.

In any event, the plan—if you can even call it that—is falling apart. On Monday, school officials in (liberal) Los Angeles County and (conservative) San Diego County both announced that they would begin the year with virtual instruction, and that they might eventually go to face-to-face, but they might not. Miami-Dade, which was specifically held out by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as a model for other districts to follow as they reopen, is now tapping the breaks hard as Florida evolves into the nation’s #1 hotspot. Officials in Chicago, Houston, New York City, Washington, D.C., and other locales have also made clear that, at most, students will attend school in person a couple of days a week in fall.

There is no question that, under pandemic-free circumstances, students are best served by in-person instruction. But the barriers that school districts face under current circumstances are substantial. We’ve noted some of them already, but let’s put together a fuller list, all in one spot:

  • Space: Most schools do not have enough space to allow students to sit in a classroom and maintain social distancing. They could (and presumably will) wear masks, but that’s not going to get it done when sharing space for 6-7 hours a day. And that’s before we talk about communal situations like cafeterias, hallways, locker rooms, and so forth.
  • Student Risk: It is true that younger people seem to be less likely to contract COVID-19, and less likely to have really bad outcomes if they do. On the other hand, consider the Fauci item above and think about what we did not know about COVID-19 six months ago, or even three months ago. Then consider what we might find out in the next six months. Maybe it turns out that the current thinking is entirely wrong, and that kids are just as vulnerable as anyone else. Maybe it turns out that certain populations of kids—say, those of a particular ethnicity, or who are lacking a particular gene, or who have an underlying health condition, or who live in a particular climate—are at risk. Do we want to turn the nation’s schools into the world’s largest virology experiment?
  • Faculty Risk: A major part of the reason that schools were shut down in the first place was to protect faculty, many of whom are senior citizens (or near-senior citizens) and/or have underlying health conditions that are known to put them at higher risk for COVID-19 (and for serious complications from the disease). One would hope that Americans would not wish to put these folks at risk. And regardless of what Americans think, the faculty themselves may not be willing to play Russian roulette. One survey, way back in May, revealed that 20% of teachers were unwilling to return to the classroom while the pandemic is underway. A more recent survey, covering only the city of Chicago, put the figure above…70%. At a time when resources and faculty time will be spread very thin, the loss of 20% of your labor force would be a backbreaker. Anything above that, and it gets even more grim.
  • Online Classes: Online classes are a very different beast than in-person classes, with different forms of presenting information, different kinds of assignments, etc. It is challenging for both students and teachers to shift back and forth. And it is nearly impossible for a teacher to simultaneously prepare and teach both sorts of classes. There just isn’t time. So, any model that involves “18 students will take the in-person version of the class, and 14 more will take the online version” is not plausible without additional faculty.
  • Educational Experience: Again, in-person is almost always better than online, all other things being equal. But if students have to wear masks, and if they can’t have recess time, and they have to eat lunch in shifts, and their teacher has to step out for a month due to illness to be replaced by whatever substitute the district can find, and so on and so forth, they are going to have a lousy educational experience and aren’t going to learn a whole lot. Further, even the most optimistic folks aren’t trying to say that no students will get sick. What happens if a student is incapacitated for a month, or six weeks, or longer? Can they plausibly catch up? Probably not, especially with teachers stretched too thin to give them one-on-one help. And if that’s the case, then what? Do they just go through the motions and repeat a year, lagging their cohort for the rest of their educational career? Do they take a long vacation and try again in Fall 2021?
  • Legalities: Nobody’s talking about this, as far as we can find. However, there are some significant legal issues that are likely to come into play here if schools proceed injudiciously. One of the biggies is that most faculty are protected by unions, and the unions can be expected to hold the line on safety, particularly for high-risk faculty. Imagine that a school district orders a 56-year-old asthmatic 8th grade teacher with hypertension back to work, and that teacher refuses for (justifiable) health reasons. Then what? If the school tries to fire the teacher (and probably even if they try to withhold pay for a year), they’ll be hit with a grievance, which takes even more time and money to fight, and still leaves the classroom unstaffed. Another big issue here is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which gives substantial protections to both faculty and students for a broad range of conditions, including underlying chronic health problems. If the parents of a fifth grader with a history of circulatory issues insists that their child simply cannot be exposed to COVID-19, and demands that they be accommodated, the school district would probably be compelled to offer them an alternate (online) mode of instruction. And then we’re back to the problem above, that one faculty member can’t plausibly create two versions of their course at the same time.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does cover some of the major challenges that school districts are looking at right now, with roughly six weeks left until school resumes. No wonder Los Angeles and San Diego have already put their feet down. Anyone who knows anything about education (i.e., not Trump and DeVos) would recognize that these things cannot be dismissed with the wave of a hand, and that the best you can hope for is that districts work through them as best as is possible, adopting different (and flexible) solutions as dictated by local circumstances….


Filed under compare education and medicine, dilemmas of teaching, school leaders