Yes and no. Sounds like a mealy-mouthed answer to the question, but stick with me for a moment.
Background. Only twice in the past century has technology been the primary medium of instruction for each and every teacher and student. One was planned and the other unplanned.
In the mid-1960s, the federal government planned and then established television as the primary means of instruction in American Samoa. Daily lessons would appear on a monitor in the front of the classroom airing what content and skills were to be learned by elementary and secondary school students. A classroom teacher would then follow up the televised lesson. By the mid-1970s, Samoan schools had reverted back to in-person classroom instruction with television as a supplementary device.
A generation earlier, the unplanned example was in Chicago during the polio epidemic of 1937 when nearly 325,000 students were home for three weeks. The radio in the classroom became the primary teaching device. Once school resumed, goodbye radio; it lost its central place in the teaching of Chicago students. Fast forward to 2020.
U.S. schools across 13,000-plus districts responsible for over 50 million students were initially closed in March and slowly reopened over the summer and early fall. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 93 percent of people living in households with school-age children reported some form of distance instruction going on in their homes.Yesterday it was the radio, today it is the laptop.
Will remote instruction go away, repeating what occurred with television in American Samoa and the radio in Chicago?
And here is where I come to my “yes and no.”
After wholesale in-person instruction resumes—assuming a vaccine becomes readily available to all Americans by the end of next year–distance learning will, for the most part, shut down. Home screens will go dark. But not completely.
Nearly all lessons will be in-school, face-to-face for the simple reason that voters and taxpayers (including parents, of course) expect schools to return to their core social, moral and civic functions in housing students. Schools do far more than teach academic content and skills.
Schools are custodial institutions intimately tied to the economy insofar as permitting Moms and Dads to work either at home, the shop, or the office. The Presidential tweets to re-open schools in September was clearly linked to re-opening the economy by freeing Moms and Dads to return to the workplace. Pushback from parents and educators concerned about the health risks to their children and themselves turned reopening of schools into a hop-scotch mix of plans across 13,000-plus school districts (see here and here).
Beyond housing the young, public schools socialize children into the dominant cultural values ranging from social and civic norms–taking one’s turn, cooperating with others, pride in American democracy–to earning the necessary credentials to succeed in a tiered society. In doing so, schools replicate, even reinforce, the socioeconomic and racial inequalities that pervade America in 2020. Reopening schools now and over the next year and a half, then, will again reveal those unattended inequalities but also worry parents (and teachers) about risks to the health of children and school staffs. Nonetheless, nearly all remote instruction will shut down, albeit in slow-motion. That is the “yes” answer.
The “no” answer is that remote instruction will become the default option for schools when they close for snow days, torrential rains, and contagious diseases. Also, for those individual students who are ill for stretches of time or unable to attend school because of suspension or expulsion, screen contact with teachers will be the medium of choice.
But other questions about online instruction were ignored during the pandemic and remain unanswered. For example, how should students’ academic performance be assessed? How should they be graded for their online responses to instruction? What about the existing gaps in teacher experience, quality of instruction, and access to devices and the Internet between urban and suburban schools?
The larger issue of assessing student performance through remote instruction has been hardly addressed since March 2020. Screen assessments to determine understanding of the content and application of skills learned remains conflicted and sticky.
Will such remote instruction vary. Of course. In de facto segregated schools in low-income districts where teacher turnover is high and Internet and Wifi access and devices are still spotty for families, the unacknowledged inequalities become stark in both what content and skills are taught and how they are taught.
And what about standards, tests, and accountability–the nearly four-decade long reform movement–in the post-Covid era?
I would expect little conflict or few calls for overturning the Core Curriculum standards adopted by 41 states since 2020 (the remaining states have created their own curriculum standards). While the U.S. Secretary of Education has granted waivers for the 2020 spring administering of state standardized tests, she expects such tests to resume in 2021. While there is certainly much talk about too many standardized tests, the rush to return to normal will include annual state testing. The machinery for taking such tests is already in place since taking computer-based tests began before the pandemic struck.
Accountability for scores, however, will be sharply reduced, I believe. Ending No Child Left Behind in 2015 removed the coercive accountability that had grown dramatically since 2002. Every Student Succeeds Act (2016) returns decisions of what to do with low-performing schools and districts to the state. And across the states, again I speculate, the appetite to punish low academic performance, as measured by standardized tests, has shrunk greatly. That shrinkage began well before Covid-19 struck.
Still, the above point about online standardized testing does not directly deal with the contentious and unresolved issue of assessing student performance during and after remote instruction. Not only assessment but glaring inequalities in U.S. schools will continue to be part of the “normal” that children and youth will face as they enter re-opened schools. Also part of the “normal” that parents and employers yearn for is the taken-for-granted age-graded school and its underlying “grammar of schooling.”
So my guess is that remote instruction in sharply reduced fashion will remain in public schools as the default option for teachers to use when students cannot attend school. Apart from that, I have yet to detect any groundswell of reform talk about altering the familiar school organization, standardized testing, Common Core Curriculum, and existing accountability measures in place. Nor do I hear any coalition of reformers offering concrete policies that can reduce the stark differences in funding and staffing schools in urban and suburban districts that have become, in a word, re-segregated.
*I use “remote instruction,” “online instruction,” and “distance instruction” rather than the noun “learning” simply because there is no body of evidence that “online learning,” or similar descriptors does, indeed, benefit students even minimally on standardized tests.