Labeling Students Then and Now (Part 1)

Twenty years ago, Sarah Deschenes, David Tyack and I wrote an article published in the Teachers College Record called: “Mismatch: Historical Perspectives on Schools and Students Who Don’t Fit Them.” 

Because of the pervasiveness of the age-graded school since the middle of the 19th century, “normal” students were those who satisfactorily acquired the slice of curriculum 1st, 5th, or 8th grade teachers distributed through lessons in their self-contained classrooms Those students who met their teachers expectations for grade-level academic achievement, behavior during lessons, and the school’s requirements for attendance and performance were “normal.” And “normal” students were the majority.

But a sizable fraction of students, for many reasons deviated from the “normal.” They didn’t fit. Since the mid-19th century until the present, these students have been given labels. They were (and are) “educational misfits.”

Examining the changes in the language of labels attached to students who strayed from the definition of “normal” required in age-graded schools offers reformers pause in considering the power of these labels over time. Especially now as the U.S. schools enter the fourth decade of the standards, testing, and accountability reform movement, surely an added template for judging “normal” performance.

Between the “normality” structured within the age-graded school and the state and federally driven standards movement since the mid-1980s, spotlighting the vocabulary educators used in the past to describe “misfits” may get all of us thinking about labels often used now.

I have chosen excerpts from the article to give readers a flavor of the both the labels used and the argument we put forth in the article. Part 2 will be the analysis of these labels over time and what they mean for the current standards-based reform movement.

In his illuminating study of “educational misfits,” Stanley J. Zehm has compiled a list of the varied names given to children who failed to do well in school….In the first half of the nineteenth century, when the common school was in its formative stage, writers spoke of the poor performer as dunce, shirker, loafer, idle, vicious, reprobate, depraved, wayward, wrong-doer, sluggish, scapegrace, stupid, and incorrigible. Although terms like dunce and stupid suggest that educators sometimes saw low achievement as the result of lack of brains, far more common was the belief that the child who did not do well in school was deficient in character….

How did educators of the latter half of the nineteenth century describe those students who did not keep up with the factory-like pace of the elementary grades and the meritocratic competition of secondary schooling? 

Zehm finds these epithets emerging in this period: born-late, sleepy-minded, wandering, overgrown, stubborn, immature, slow, dull. The religious language of condemnation used in the early nineteenth century was diminishing, but the notion that academic failure came from defects of character or disposition continued. If pupils did not learn, it was largely their own fault….

The labels educators used during the period from 1900 to 1950 indicate this shift in the way they conceptualized the “misfits” in the educational system: pupils of low I.Q., low division pupils, ne’er-do-wells, sub-z group, limited, slow learner, laggards, overage, backward, occupational student, mental deviates, backward, occupational student, mental deviates, and bluntly inferior. The message of the labels was clear: There were students who simply did not have smarts, and the pedagogical answer was to teach them different things in a different way in a different place. Older views about poor performers persisted, however, even in an era when the language of science provided a rationale for discriminating on supposedly objective grounds….

Some of the new names reformers gave to children who were not per-forming well in school began to reflect new ways of seeing. Such terms as these, emerging in the period from 1950–1980, suggested that the blame lay more with the school than with the students: the rejected, educationally handicapped, forgotten children, educationally deprived, culturally different, and pushouts. But the older habits of thought remained embedded in labels like these: socially maladjusted, terminal students, marginal children, immature learners, educationally difficult, unwilling learners, and dullards. Such language still located the cause of the trouble largely with the student, though protest groups made educators generally more euphemistic, as in names like bluebirds and less fortunate….

In each era, educators have used these labels in part to explain away failure. There has always been a reason for failure that, for the most part, has been rooted in individual or cultural deficit. The institution of schooling has won out in each of these eras. Labels have created categories of individual failure and have left school structures largely intact. These labels create a powerful argument for what might happen to the standards movement: Which students will be labeled and how?

With the standards, testing, and accountability reform movement in its fourth decade, what labels do educators use in 2020 to describe children and youth who do not meet the state and district standards set for each grade and do poorly on state and district tests?

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We Got the School Reopening Story Wrong (Nat Malkus)

Nat Malkus is a resident scholar and deputy director for Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The article appeared in The Hill October 20, 2020.

“It’s the politics, stupid” may be the aphorism for our times. In the age of Trump, the seductive narrative that uber-polarized identity politics can explain everything, including reopening plans for schools, appears obvious. After all, the president repeatedly proclaimed that schools must reopen, and for monthspolls have shown pronounced partisan divides on whether students should return in-person or not. While we still don’t have a full accounting, early analyses indicate that schools in Trump country are more likely to be back in-person this fall, often despite high COVID rates.

Partisan politics is a familiar and intuitive, but ultimately inadequate explanation for school reopening patterns.

close examination of emergency remote learning in spring 2020 reveals large differences between Red, Blue, and Purple states, with Red states often coming up short. Those gaps are due in part to challenges which still exist this fall. National political theater undoubtedly affects local reopening decisions, but it is a poor explanation for why more Red states’ schools are returning in-person — not only because it ignores the differences in remote learning Red states provided last spring, but also because it cannot explain them.

After spring closures, about a third of schools in Red states offered students synchronous learning platforms, like Zoom, compared to about half in Purple and Blue states. Assistance with devices and internet access were also much lower in Red states. Thus our common mental picture of remote schooling — students connecting to teachers through online video instruction — was less common in Red states, and their students undoubtedly suffered. Gaps extended beyond technology, because fewer schools in Red states expected one-on-one contact between students and teachers, posted explicit expectations for student participation, or took attendance after buildings were closed (which turned out to be a quarter of the school year).

There are plausible explanations for these differences. Broadband access — the vital infrastructure for online learning — was far lower in Red states. The digital divide is even more pronounced in rural areas, which are more common in Red states. Of course, many districts laid out substantial sums to bridge that divide, but building that bridge was not only more expensive and time consuming in Red states, the payoff would be lower because their school years end earlier. These are not just excuses: They are structural reasons why well-intentioned district leaders, not partisan ideologues, made rational decisions that lead to different outcomes.

Remote learning was rough everywhere last spring, but it was rougher in Red state districts. Against that backdrop, their tendency towards in-person reopening this fall looks more pragmatic than political. Summer polling showing that Republican-leaning respondents were more concerned about students falling behind pushed in the same direction, but school leaders did not need polls or survey evidence to see the damage done to their students last spring. With no quick fix for broadband access this fall, it is understandable that they disproportionately saw providing the option to return to in-person learning as the best way forward.

You may find this logic wholly unconvincing when politics is a simpler, more familiar alternative. It is possible to look at this evidence and still believe politics influenced Red states inhabitants’ expectations about the length or threat of the virus, which caused remote learning differences last spring and still drive reopening decisions this fall. However, if political polarization explains schools’ pandemic responses in the fall, it should also explain the actual differences evident in Red states in the spring.

Politics alone is a weak explanation for those differences. All school districts in Red, Blue, and Purple states shut down in the spring, and all districts retooled their schools to provide remote learning platforms. Red, Blue, and Purple states diverged in the kinds of platforms schools offered, and there is nothing inherently political about providing lessons on Zoom or using alternatives like Google Classroom or instructional packets.

Structural factors, like broadband access, shorter school years, and more rural students, are more directly connected to the forms of learning offered in the spring. Those non-political factors combined to produce less effective remote learning in Red states in the spring, created yet another compelling reason for pragmatic school leaders to prioritize in-person reopening so that students could make up lost ground.

If “It’s the politics, stupid” cannot explain the differences seen in remote learning last spring, we should doubt its power to explain reopening this fall.

In this age of polarization, nearly every aspect of our lives is colored by politics, and questions about reopening schools are no exception. But rank politics is better for selling papers and enflaming indignity than adequately explaining professional decisions.

The future may show that returning in-person this fall proved foolish, or that returning remote was excessive caution that cost students dearly. Until then, we should remember that most school leaders are making difficult decisions in good faith while considering a host of factors ahead of politics, like they did last spring.

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Whatever Happened To Vocational Education?

Where and When Did Vocational Education Begin?

In the mid-19th century, school reformers made the distinction between the head and hand learning in children and youth–both had to be schooled. After the Civil War, reformers introduced “manual education” into schools. Working with tools to fashion wood, iron, and other metals into useful objects, balanced the nearly total focus on academic subjects (see here and here). While adding such courses to the high school curriculum was common in the closing decades of the 19th century, separate manual training high schools in cities were also built such as the duPont Manual High School in Louisville (KY), Manual High School in Denver (CO), and Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington, D.C.

But the economy that welcomed artisans in carpentry, brick masonry, and farriers was shifting to industrial workplaces where different skills and different gatekeepers to jobs were needed.

In the early decades of the 20th century, business and civic leaders called for a different kind of “hand” schooling to prepare youth for newly created industrial and manufacturing jobs as machinists, iron and steel workers, etc. Many of these leaders had visited Germany, a global competitor now outstripping the U.S. in selling its products. They saw how Germany had established vocational education and apprenticeships in secondary schools and how these schools provided a ready supply of workers fitted to a rapidly changing industrial economy. By World War I, U.S. high schools had added “vocational” subjects to the academic curriculum and districts opened newly established, separate vocational schools.

What Problems Did Vocational Education Intend To Solve?

incorporating vocational education into the high school curriculum sought to solve two problems. First, the wholly academic curriculum of the 19th and early 20th century high school drove most students to dropping out of school while in grammar school (grades 1-8) or immediately after graduating. Adding work-related courses that could equip students with workplace skills and lead to actual jobs enticed students to continue going to school. In a democracy, Progressive reformers wanted the high school to educate all students, not just to those who prepared for college.

Second, public high schools with their concentration on academic subjects were largely divorced from the economy. As the nation became an industrial democracy, Progressive reformers pressed for a better fit between schools and the economy. In 1917, the Smith-Hughes Act had the federal government for the first time funding local schools that introduced vocational subjects into the curriculum for both boys and girls. Since then the federal government and states have repeatedly legislated vocational education as a key part of work training in U.S. high schools. Thus, Progressive educators were victorious in adding the goal of vocational preparation by the 1920s (see here and here).

Third, racial discrimination dominated the ways of bringing Blacks into industrial and skilled jobs within a highly segregated society that dictated what Blacks and whites could do for a living (e.g., trade unions banned Blacks from entering apprenticeships and journeyman postions through mid-20th century).

In the decades following the Civil War, vocational education in the Black community had a model to follow in the work of Samuel Armstrong at the Hampton Institute in Virginia and Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The vast majority of Blacks lived in the South and were tenant farmers renting acres from white landowners within a rigid racial caste system. The Hampton and Tuskegee models prepared craftsmen and women for a largely agricultural economy that was slowly shifting to an industrial one–the emphasis is on “slowly” between 1870-1930.

Subsequent reformers kept channeling minorities into vocational courses even after the Brown decision thereby continuing that school-based segregation (see here).

What Does Vocational Education Look Like in Classrooms?

Here are some classroom photos from early 20th century:

With policy criticism of vocational education as a dumping ground for minority students accelerating since the 1960s, especially after A Nation at RIsk report appeared in 1983, federal and state efforts to merge academic and vocational skills together in acquiring not just jobs but pursuing careers led to a re-casting of vocational education classes into Career and Technical Academies (see here and here)

Did Vocational Education Work?

The effectiveness of vocational education since the mid-20th century has been contested by both policymakers and researchers.

One measure of effectiveness has been getting actual jobs in the specific fields that students prepared for (e.g., trade and industry such as auto repair, electrician, brick mason, . Another measure has been preparation for a suite of jobs in the vocation or career (e.g., business, health care, sales, information technology, human service occupations). A third has been to increase participation in vocational education and career and technical education. Researchers have reached negative, positive, and mixes of both conclusions (see here, here, and here).

At best, then, the research on effectiveness of vocational education remains contested.

What Happened to Vocational Education?

Since the early 1980s, it has had major surgery. Today it is called Career and Technical Education (see here). Major infusions of donor and federal funds has re-made CTE in a darling of policymakers, especially after the merger of academic and vocational experiences that opened up routes to higher education than had ever existed under the aegis of 20th century vocational education. With the policymaker mantra that everyone goes to college, CTE leaders march in cadence to that slogan.

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As More Students Head Back, Here’s What We Now Know (And Still Don’t) about Schools and COVID Spread (Matt Barnum)

This article appeared in Chalkbeat, October 22, 2020. Matt Barnum is an education journalist.

Two months ago, Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, was something of a school reopening skeptic. In places with relatively high COVID rates, like Florida and Texas, K-12 school buildings should stay shuttered to protect the health of teachers, students, and their communities, he argued.

Now, his view is changing.

“The evidence so far suggests that we can likely open schools — especially K-5 — pretty safely in most parts of the country,” he said, as long as those schools take precautions like requiring masks. “I’m getting slowly but surely persuaded that I may have been too cautious.”

That’s because where schools have reopened, things have gone relatively well, as least as far as scientists and public health officials can tell right now. Many European countries have reopened schools with apparent success, too. That consensus is pushing more schools to reopen buildings, even as case counts rise across the country, and is driving increasingly confident claims that there is little or no relationship between schools and COVID spread.

It’s also true, though, that the existing evidence is still limited, and some epidemiologists say it’s simply too soon to reach firm conclusions.

There has been no effort from the federal government to systematically track school openings and COVID outbreaks. That means we are often relying on data from those who volunteer it, and lack good information about how schools that have reopened might differ from those that have not.

Then there is the inherent difficulty of the project: It’s tough to isolate the effect of a single factor like school reopening on community COVID spread, particularly when testing data is also limited.

That tension — more data, but all of it limited — is at the heart of the school reopening debate right now, several epidemiological and education researchers suggest. Jha, for one, is optimistic.

But, he cautions, “The strength of the evidence here is shaky.”

The case for school reopening

As more and more schools across the country have reopened their buildings, many local officials say they haven’t seen a strong connection to COVID spread in their communities and that outbreaks have been relatively rare, unlike what’s happened at many universities.

In New York City, random tests of over 16,000 staff members and students turned up only 28 positive results.

In Colorado, 43 schools — out of more than 1,900 in the state — have experienced outbreaks in which public health officials documented transmission within the school building since schools began reopening in late August.

Nationally, among over 1,000 schools voluntarily reporting data, test positivity rates are very low: 0.14% among children and 0.36% among staff.

“A lot of people expected, oh, we would have 100 cases of COVID day one — and places aren’t seeing that,” said Preeti Malani, the University of Michigan’s chief health officer, referring to K-12 schools. “They’re not closing down. They’re able to find a way to continue on.” That’s pushed her to believe that schools generally can and should reopen.

A national study of childcare providers showed that those who continued working were just as likely to say they had contracted COVID as those who stayed home.

Reopenings seem to have gone well in many European countries, too. In Germany, one of the most rigorous studies on the question found reopening schools was actually linked to lower, not higher, rates of COVID spread.

It’s also clear that children are less likely to suffer severe symptoms from COVID, and deaths among children are very rare (although Black and Hispanic children have been disproportionately affected).

A recent overview of research from around the world concluded that “widespread transmission can occur among school-age children, but that there is very little evidence, at least in the context of relatively low community transmission, that schools have been a driver of transmission.”

Jha says the growing collection of data points has swayed his opinion. “I’ve got eight or 10 pieces of data, every one of which is super weak — but they’re all pointing in the same direction,” he said.

There is also largely undisputed evidence that school closures do major harm to students, academically and otherwise.

“Not only are there benefits to being in school, there are also risks of not being in school,” said Sarah Cohodes, an education researcher at Teachers College at Columbia University.

Instances of child neglect have likely gone unreported. Children are more socially isolated.And they have missed months of in-person instruction, with uneven remote learning. One recent study out of Belgium, using actual student test scores, showed sharp declines in learning.

“The evidence in terms of learning is clear — that learning is better in person, especially for younger children,” said Cohodes, who has compiled research on a number of aspects of COVID and education.

Alicia Riley, a postdoctoral scholar in epidemiology at UC San Francisco, goes further, noting that some prior research has even found that more education helps people lead longer lives. In other words, keeping schools closed may have its own long-term deleterious effects on health.

“Our concepts of safety — we’re only calculating in the COVID risk,” she said. “But if we’re thinking about the real long-term health harms, schooling is protective for health.”

The case for reopening caution, and better data

Some epidemiologists view the same data with more wariness.

“I think it’s premature to say that school reopening has been successful. For a start, it’s an ongoing process linked to what’s happening in the community generally,” said Zoë Hyde, a senior research officer at the University of Western Australia. “If community trans mission rises, then you will see outbreaks in schools. This has become very apparent in Europe as they battle their second wave.”

A number of experts are concerned that we’re not getting a full picture because of incomplete testing. “While we know we are only seeing part of ‘the iceberg’ of all infections, we don’t know exactly how much of that iceberg we are seeing,” said Kim Powers, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina.

That may be particularly concerning with children, who are often asymptomatic and thus less likely to be tested. “It’s quite likely that we’re not spotting a lot of the infections which are occurring in children,” said Hyde.

“If we’re just doing symptomatic testing and we’re only counting cases in which kids are symptomatic, it’s kind of impossible to trace this adequately and to really understand what’s going on,” agreed Riley.

Meanwhile, there’s general agreement that existing data is insufficient, and that it can be difficult to generalize the conclusions.

The tracker of COVID test results from schools being compiled by Brown researcher Emily Oster and others, for instance — the most comprehensive national database available — is only able to include the fraction of public schools that voluntarily provide information, with results that may not be representative. The study of childcare workers was also based on an online survey that the researchers described as “not fully representative.”

Other international research acknowledges that it simply cannot disentangle the effect of school reopenings from many other factors. Pinning down how outside factors — low rates of community spread, many students staying home, mild temperatures allowing for open windows and good ventilation — might have contributed to success stories could guide school officials elsewhere.

There is also some evidence on the other side of the ledger, though it comes with its own caveats. Data compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics show that the number of children with new COVID cases has been rising slightly in recent weeks, though that doesn’t mean cases are necessarily linked to schools.

Idaho has seen upticks in cases among children and adults, with the governor saying reopened schools has been one factor. In suburban Salt Lake City, a school district saw cases rapidly emerge at some of its schools, forcing a shutdown of three high schools and a middle school. In different parts of the country, reported COVID cases in schools or among school staff have continued to tick up, though the numbers appear relatively low overall.

A recent Swedish study found evidence that COVID infection rates were higher among teachers (and their partners) whose schools didn’t close this spring, compared to teachers whose schools did close. (Notably, mask use in schools did not appear to be widespread at the time.)

“The overarching message is that the evidence is still evolving and pretty scant,” said Rebecca Haffajee, a health policy researcher at RAND.

Meanwhile, reopening buildings right now comes with its own often unacknowledged trade-offs. Since many districts are still allowing students to learn from home, and some only allow students in a few days a week, teachers have had to divide their attention between students who still learn virtually and those who are in person. It also means time and energy is being spent on building safety rather than improving the online instruction that many students will still rely on.

Ultimately, there is widespread agreement among experts that more and better data is needed to help school leaders make decisions.

Cohodes described it as “absolutely ridiculous” that researchers have been left trying to collect data on their own. “The federal government should have set out guidelines for collecting this and worked with state departments of education,” she said.

“All of this is frustrating to me because we’re in such a weak data zone and we should have much better data,” said Jha.

Just this week, though, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos described this as not her job. “I’m not sure there’s a role at the department to collect and compile that research,” she said.

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Does Classroom Use of Computers Cause Gains in Students’ Academic Achievement?

A decade ago when a surge of interest in placing computers in classrooms was joined to available public and private money, U.S. schools went on a rampage of buying and distributing devices to students and teachers. At that time I wrote a post about a puzzling fact that was overlooked  or simply ignored:  With increased access to new technologies, there is little reliable and valid evidence showing that these technology investments have yielded gains in student achievement.

That was then and this is now. Amid a pandemic-induced shift of face-to-face lessons to online instruction, the question is irrelevant. The need is that every single public school child must have a device to use for remote instruction.

While there was certainly a digital divide a decade ago even amidst the splurge spending for devices, school closings due to the pandemic have pushed districts to triple-time distribution of devices and Internet connections to families lacking either or both.  Yet, the lack of solid evidence that student computer use–especially now when lessons are online–is strongly associated with increased test scores and other academic outcomes remains puzzling. So I updated that post and publish it now.

After decades of school and classroom use of new technologies, some facts have emerged that puzzle me.

Here’s one.

Since the early 1980s, the federal government, states, and districts—not to mention philanthropists—have invested billions of dollars in wiring schools, buying and deploying machines, and preparing teachers and students to use high tech devices. Nearly all teachers now have access to one or more computers at school. As for students, the number of students per computer across the U.S. has gone from 125 per computer in 1983 to 4 per computer in 2006. Teacher and student access to computers has increased even more in the past decade with thousands of schools issuing computers to each and every student and teacher.

With increased access to new technologies, there is little reliable and valid evidence showing that these technology investments have yielded gains in student achievement.

Why?

One answer is simply that access to machines does not necessarily lead to teachers regularly using high-tech devices in daily lessons. Consider that after nearly 30 years of access to computers in the U.S., based on national surveys and research studies of schools, over 60 percent of teachers are regular users, that is, using computers for instruction one or more times a week (see here). These teachers use interactive white boards, laptops, and hand-held devices to have students do Internet searches, turn in typed rather than hand-written homework, take notes on lectures, watch videos, and other familiar classroom activities. A small sub-set of these teachers, however, do use electronic devices weekly, even daily in far more creative and imaginative ways inside and outside classrooms with their students.

But the majority of teachers, most of whom–paradoxically–use their home computers a few hours each night, are either occasional or non-users in integrating available machines into their daily lessons.

So one explanation for the first puzzling fact is the flawed assumption that deploying computers to teachers and students will lead to teachers regularly using high-tech devices for instruction. Note that without regular use by teachers, establishing either a correlational or causal link between computers and, say, student test scores, is impossible.

Another explanation for the puzzle of so little linkage between computers and student achievement examines how researchers go about studying the connections between technology and student outcomes.

Many researchers fail to consider that the common designs and methodologies they use to determine linkages between classroom technology use and student achievement cannot capture the inherent complexity and unpredictability of teaching and learning. So researchers use shortcuts to get around that complexity and unpredictability.

I need to unpack the previous sentence. Consider that teaching students involves many factors relating to who the teacher is, what content and skills are taught, and what activities and tasks occur while teaching. Also consider student factors: who they are, what experiences, motivations and interests they bring to the classroom, and what they do during lessons. Then consider the school itself, its organization, culture, and its neighborhood. Finally consider the district, its resources, leadership, and culture of learning or non-learning that it cultivates. All of these interacting factors, sometimes unpredictably, affect classroom teaching and learning.

Yet look at the majority of research designs and methods used to determine the effects of teachers using computers with student. Most common are surveys of teachers and students who report their perceptions of classroom use supplemented by researchers’ descriptions of practices, and interviews with teachers and students. Some researchers set up comparison groups of classes that use computers to study a topic with classes not using computers studying the same topic. Then the classes using and not using computers are pre- and post-tested.

Both research designs have serious defects. Short of establishing an experimental and control design with students and teachers randomly assigned to each group, it is nearly impossible to establish a causal linkage between the use of high-tech devices and student achievement. Such experimental or quasi-experimental designs are uncommon and usually too expensive to mount.

Because surveys, class-comparisons, or studies of small groups of students using computers are less expensive in dollars and labor, thousands of studies have been done since the introduction of desktop computers into schools in the early 1980s. Many show minute gains or “no significant difference” in test scores from student use of computers. The results, however, are correlations—associations between presence of computers and gains in test scores, not evidence that student use of the machines caused a rise in test scores (see here).

Here, then, are two ways to make sense of the puzzling fact over the paltry results in student outcomes of so much investment in high-tech devices and so little return on those dollars.

When one shifts to the evidence of online instruction being associated with academic achievement gains, a similar story unfolds.

A brief look at the many K-12 and higher education studies that have sought an answer to the question of the effectiveness of online instruction in producing student gains in achievement may help readers.

Scores of studies of outcomes for online instruction have been contested because most have had serious design and methodological flaws. Moreover, many of these studies lumped together full-time virtual schools, hybrids, and online courses, And the results have been underwhelming.  That is where heartburn enters the picture (see here).

Even when researchers over the past few decades have performed meta-analyses of a smaller number of studies that have met higher standards of quality they found that virtual instruction in its various modes, at best, is equivalent to regular face-to-face classroom instruction. At worst, some studies showed less achievement gains than traditional teaching. And keep in mind that these meta-analyses were of studies where online instruction occurred in mostly math, reading, and science courses—not other academic subjects. Nor in areas of great concern such as kindergarten and primary grades, the arts, and social and emotional learning. The overall picture is considerably dimmer than promoters of full- and part-time virtual schooling have promised or leaders had expected. *

So with such little evidentiary support for huge expenditures of school budget funds for hardware, software, maintenance, and professional development, why keep buying the stuff?

There was one explanation I omitted when I wrote this post in 2010 because it did not register with me then but over the following years has emerged as a powerful reason for more classroom use.

The rationale for giving devices to every student and teacher has shifted from linkage to student outcomes to the simple fact that all standardized testing will be online.  With the Covid-19 pandemic, insuring that every student had access to a device and the Internet took precedence over teacher’s decisions to use or not use devices for their lessons. Until in-person schooling resumes for most U.S. students, all lessons will continue to be online–for better or worse.

____________________

*Cathy Cavanaugh, et. al. “The Effects of Distance Education on K–12 Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis.” 2004 Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates ; Rosina Smith, et. al.  “A Synthesis of New Research on K-12 Online Learning”. 2005, Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates; Barbara Means, et. al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, 2010).

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Cartoons on Parenting During the Pandemic

If you are like me, you know family members and close friends who have had to school their children (and grandchildren) since March. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 93 percent of people living in households with school-age children reported some form of distance instruction is occurring. The pandemic has tattooed remote instruction onto the bodies of millions of students and their families. No one asked for the tattoo but there it is.

I have collected cartoons about parenting during the pandemic. Enjoy!

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“We Can Only Hope” (Terence Freeman)

Freeman is an English teacher at Lawton High School in Lawton, Oklahoma. He has taught 14 years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and 26 years at Lawton High School. This story appeared in the Washington Post’s online article, October 6, 2020. Freeman is one of nine teachers the newspaper asked to report on their experiences in returning to remote and in-person instruction during the pandemic.

Hope was on my mind in the summer months leading up to this academic year. I hoped the school had plans and funding for sanitizer, cleaning liquids, paper towels, masks, teacher testing and more; hoped that I and my students would remain healthy; hoped that I could still have the personal relationship with students that enables learning to happen.

I will remember Hands. During Week 2, I took my classes to the library, where the district fulfilled its promise to provide every student with a Chromebook. I now had the option of having students read from a website or from a paper textbook. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s nothing like the heft and texture and tangibility of the printed text.

Yet I worried about students in successive classes touching the same books. So I went on Amazon and ordered three large boxes of nitrile gloves. I’ve placed a pair for every student in a baggie with her or his name on it, and the baggies are stored in separate boxes in the classroom. The students enter the room, wipe down the desks I have sprayed with liquid cleaner, wash their hands with sanitizer, grab the assigned baggie, put on the gloves, grab the book on the desk, read and at the end of class put the gloves in the baggie and the baggie in the box. A terribly makeshift solution, but one that’s been enthusiastically received and executed by the students. They and I each do what we need to do — that’s the can-do spirit of an American.

I will remember Obstacles. Two-thirds of our students elected in-person education. Some technical adjustments were relatively easy — cold breakfast in the classroom, wiping down desks before each period, sanitizing hands, distancing between desks. Masks were harder — not the wearing, but the communication.

On the first morning of school, gloved and masked, I helped do a security check of students’ backpacks/bags/purses before passing the students on through the metal detector. All of the students were masked, and I quickly realized how important our faces are to communication, to the recognition of emotion. A cheery greeting from me, if I got a response at all, generated a reply whose emotional content was muffled, distant, cold. I have had the same experience in class. Conversations involve both hearing and observing, and the masks impede the observations. I and my students have needed to work harder to emote through our eyes and voices.

I will remember the Probe. In Week 3, I took advantage of a free coronavirus test offered by the state’s health and education departments. I made my appointment the day before, showed up 10 minutes early and was the second school employee at the location. The testing equipment beat me to the scene but, unfortunately, the nurses did not. Teacher after teacher arrived at the room, and we milled around in the hallway, awkwardly chattering and trying to maintain social distance.

Thirty minutes after my arrival, two nurses arrived — one female, one male. In due course, I was seated before the male nurse, who proceeded to make a minute-long speech that I understood nothing of — these masks are truly a pain. The insertion of the probe was uncomfortable, the nurse’s count to five unnecessarily slow and the aftermath a slight burning and a watery eye. I high-tailed it back to the classroom and beat the first of my 18 students by about 30 seconds. I used a Kleenex to dab the watery eye — one must maintain one’s image, after all. A result came the next day: “Not Detected.”

I will remember the Extra. On the third day of school, I learned that my Advanced Placement students would have the option of getting a virtual education. I tried hard to find a magic bullet, but the programs and technology suggested to me over the summer would, I came to believe, only allow me to offer a significantly limited version of the in-person curriculum I have developed over the years. So I have found myself trying to construct that limited version (at the moment, for eight students) while at the same time conducting the in-person version. In essence, I feel as if I am being tasked to be two teachers — me and Extra Mini-Me.

So there it is — my first weeks at school. Hands. Obstacles. Probe. Extra. H-O-P-E. I am reminded of the poet Basho: “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” We can only hope.

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Schools and the Pandemic Recession

As a tempered optimist about the power of schools to shape the lives of both adults and children, this post, I confess, will depress readers. Stop reading if you already feel blue during the pandemic.

I have no upbeat news. For schools, as for the rest of the economy, the news is downbeat. Uncertainty continues to surround any prevention and treatment of Covid-19. The lack of any coherent guidelines for opening schools and proper ways of dealing with the stubborn virus from the President and U.S. Secretary of Education is shocking in its negligence of an institution critical to the nation’s future.

Of even greater importance is that the President and Congress have yet to agree on a stimulus package to reduce unemployment and rescue small and medium-sized businesses from permanent closure. And with the election weeks away, chances of another federally funded trillion dollar-plus infusion into the economy, including schools is, well, dim. Already states–the primary funder of public schools across the nation’s 13,000-plus districts–have begun to either maintain (rather than raise) funding or include cuts in school funding for K-12 schools (see here and here).

Recovery from the pandemic recession may take longer than the previous Great Recession in 2008. The bounce back in state funding after the Great Recession has yet to occur (see here ). As the federal government continues to delay action until January when either Donald Trump or Joe Biden is inaugurated President, the situation worsens.

So schools for 2020-2021 and the following year will have to retrench. “Retrench” is a euphemism for laying off school employees, half of whom are teachers.

And laying off employees occurs at a time when taxpayers and parents continue their beliefs in schools graduating young men and women ready to enter the workforce, not unemployment lines, and thereby strengthen the economy. Even when remote instruction and limited in-person interaction are happening across 13,000-plus districts and nearly 100,000 schools in the U.S. these beliefs persist.

The existing standards-based testing and accountability regime in place across the 50 states and territories date back to the reform movement triggered by the 1983 report A Nation at Risk connecting the quality of schooling to the strength of the nation’s economy. Although such beliefs have been in the educational bloodstream since the early 20th century when vocational education was introduced into U.S. schools, these current beliefs in how schools can bolster the economy at the same time as decreasing youth unemployment are also part of the ideology that civic officials and policy entrepreneurs continue during the pandemic.

Parsing that ideology may help clear the air about the past and current direction of public schools insofar as being linked to the economy. Politicians and policymakers shuttle back and forth between two theories about how schools can grow the economy and, simultaneously, reduce unemployment among young people.

These theories continue during the pandemic although asking corporate and civic leaders about these underlying beliefs may yield blank stares since few political and business leaders, educational policymakers and practitioners realize how ideologies are at the heart of the standards, testing, and accountability movement in place for nearly four decades.

The first theory goes by the short-hand phrase “math-and-ATMs.” The heart of the theory is that high school graduates lack the right skills for today’s companies who want highly skilled employees. Teachers didn’t teach and students didn’t absorb–think math and science courses–or learn how to use the new generation of hardware and software technologies. Yes, the metaphor of those Automated Teller Machines replacing bank tellers speak to the millions of low- and semi-skilled jobs that have disappeared in the past two decades.

This theory is favored by business leaders, politicians and policymakers because this problem can be fixed: more math and science in elementary and secondary curricula and more technology use in schools. In this way, students get the knowledge and skills to enter the labor market in an ever-changing economy.

But there is another theory that has much less to do with schools that also explains high unemployment and defects in the economy. This is, as Ezra Klein puts it, “nobody-is-buying-anything” theory. Slow economic growth and high unemployment, the theory goes, is due to the huge debt load that U.S. consumers carry from mortgages, foreclosures, student loans, and credit cards. Consumers are not buying, employers are not hiring which then means that Americans have less money to spend–and you can fill in the rest of the cycle. Multiple outcomes of this argument for what is occurring during the pandemic.

Here the policy solution is for the government to step in and cut taxes, create new jobs and fund existing ones (e.g., construction, teachers, police and fire) and help both businesses and consumers get out of debt–what was called the “stimulus” legislation during 2008 and now the first CARES Act in March 2020 (but no subsequent relief since then). Once that happens, government spending eases and federal officials turn to paying down the national debt.

Of the two theories, “math-and-ATMs” wins out every time. Why? Because politicians and policymakers know in their gut and from polls that talking about improving schools, better test scores, and college-and-career ready graduates is much easier to do. Easier than doing what?

Easier than passing a new “stimulus” bill in a polarized political climate where new jobs are created and aid to businesses occur. That no relief bill has passed since March and none appear ready to occur before November 3rd, the nation waits. As nothing occurs at the federal level, more children and families slip into poverty and Covid-19 continues its rampage. And the standards, testing accountability reforms put into place over past decades remains the reform du jour.

Of course, policymakers can pursue both theories–government stimulating the economy and upgrading what students learn but, for now during a crippling pandemic that has cratered the economy, one theory of schools and its linkage to the economy continues to dominate policy talk and action. And that dominant theory distracts Americans’ attention from the oncoming train wreck of laid off teachers and support staff, and reductions in school services . And most important, little attention paid to what needs to be done politically outside schools.

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“I’m Hopeful for a Better Tomorrow” (Justin Lopez-Cardoze)

Lopez-Cardoze is a seventh-grade science teacher at Capital City PublicCharter School in Washinton, D.C. He has taught for nine years.

This story appeared in the Washington Post’s online article, October 6, 2020. Lopez-Cardoze is one of nine teachers the newspaper asked to report on their experiences in returning to remote and in-person instruction during the pandemic.

It was the first day of school with students. After eight years of first days, you would think I would feel calm and confident on my ninth. Honestly, each year it gets harder to manage the nerves. You want to do things right; you want your students to like you and say, “This class will be incredible.” On those first days of the last eight years, the moments felt so magical. I would see new faces, bright smiles, goofy personalities and nerves suddenly disappearing. It felt right.

But my ninth first day? I felt uncomfortable. I’m used to hearing and seeing students interacting with each other when I’m presenting on the first day, but in the world of Zoom, all you hear is yourself against multiple tiles on mute — and that day, most of the tiles were blank backgrounds with names. I didn’t hear a laugh. I couldn’t observe body language. What once felt like joy in my classroom quickly turned into emptiness.

I found myself seeking guidance from my principal that afternoon. I felt defeated, but in a unique way, which made me feel like even more of a failure. Last year, I was named D.C. Teacher of the Year, the first Latinx teacher to win that award. Folks were reaching out, asking me to share my expertise and perspectives from all over the District and country. I felt like I was on top of my teaching career. And now, after my first “Day One” in a distance learning program? I felt like a loser. I felt like I couldn’t be the teacher I had worked so hard to become.

I told my principal, “I feel like a first-year teacher again, only worse.” Her response stuck with me. “It feels worse because you have built years of what has worked well for you,” she said. “You have the background, and you have the experience. You have the expectation. Ignorance was bliss for you on your first day on the job several years ago. Now, you’re trying to live up to that expectation when the world has changed so drastically.”

So do I change my expectations? Do I lower them? Do I overhaul everything for the sake of adjusting to the pandemic? My principal told me to keep my expectations high in magnitude and low in rigidity.

“Create a bigger picture to discover the avenues that strive towards the high expectations your students deserve,” she said. “And select those paths as the decisions you will make as a teacher for your students at this time.”

I listened. And 18 instructional days later, I have realized this advice has transformed my students and me into agents of optimal learning. My outstanding co-teacher, Danielle Fadare, and I have helped each other broaden our scopes to provide meaningful and fun instruction.

Did we teach our students how to read a procedure with scientific tools and chemicals this year? No. But we did a demo on making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while students learned how to co-write detailed procedures in groups to control every move I made to create one.

Did students use compound microscopes to view outdated slides in person? No. But they have learned how to use a virtual platform provided by a local university to investigate cellular structures using a 100X objective lens — a level of magnification that most compound microscopes in K-12 schools don’t have.

For the longest time, I viewed distance learning as limiting my quality of instruction. I thought, “Well, I won’t be able to do this because it just won’t be the same through Google Hangouts or Zoom.” It turns out I was right. It won’t be the same. But I had a choice. Should I accept those limits or should I embrace the potential and leverage my creativity to create promising outcomes? I have chosen the latter.

Is everything perfect? Absolutely not. And there’s a long way to go. There will be lots of magical moments and wins, with lots of failure. But I’ll fail with the intention of finding a different path to follow.

And the kids are excited to be back. Many of them are already super tech-savvy. They’re turning their cameras on. They’re laughing. One thing that I noticed today is that when I dismissed kids to their next class, many wanted to stick around and just talk to me. Not for anything academic . . . just to talk. As crazy as this sounds, I feel like I can relate to my students more than I ever have in my entire career. I’m learning with them. I’m growing with them. I hope we can build trust for one another throughout this time. And I’m hopeful for a better tomorrow.

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“Welcome Back, Teach” (Jessyca Mathews)

Mathews is an English Teacher at Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint, Michigan. Her story appeared in the Washington Post’s online article, October 6, 2020. She is one of nine teachers the newspaper asked to report on their experiences in returning to remote and in-person instruction during the pandemic.

The massive rumbles of thunder surprise me from my sleep. With heart racing, I turn over to look at the time. It’s only 4:30 a.m. I could try to sleep for another hour and a half, but my mind has other plans. As I sit up and look out the window, I gaze at the dark, mysterious sky.

I am exhausted, but I must start my day because it is time for the inevitable. I must report to the Factory today.

I begin a ritual that would soon be my daily routine. I take a hot shower. Brush my teeth. Put on ChapStick. Find clothing with many pockets. Display makeup just on my eyes. The mask will cover the rest of my face.

I investigate my survival bag to make sure I have the required items: hand sanitizer, masks, face wipes and at least two bottles of water.

As I zip my bag, the memory of last year’s school bag comes to my mind, and I smile. Then it was filled with purple pens, gifts for co-workers and first-day prizes for students. I always loved playing games with them on the first day.

But that won’t happen this year. Teaching will be online for the foreseeable future.

I reach inside the medicine cabinet for the thermometer and take my temperature.

It can’t be over 100.4. Lastly, I complete the Factory’s required health assessment form online to “prove” I don’t have the Illness.

My “Good for the Soul” soundtrack plays on my car radio, but I ignore the tunes. There is too much worry about entering the Factory to enjoy the irony of Beyoncé, telling me to “Get in formation.”

After driving through rain-drenched streets, I arrive and park in the front parking lot. Before entering the Factory, I pause to watch other co-workers.

With her head hanging low, one worker walks with a slight limp as she begins her path to the front door. Another co-worker sits in her car. Her eyes are closed, and her body is still. This meditation must be her moment of peace, even if it is just this brief minute. I do not interrupt her.

Others lurch out of the dark shadows of cars and trucks, reaching for their faces to veil their noses and mouths. The coverings also suppress the lips that usually express greetings of “Welcome back” to start the previous years.

After meeting my new intern, Anna, who stands alone in a puddle-filled parking lot, we join the others. We trudge inside the Factory to start this new line of work and existence in education.

Nothing is like it was before.

The workers cannot meet as a whole group due to the Illness. Half of the staff are sent to the cafeteria and half head to the auditorium. We can’t even join as one to start the school year. There is no unity anymore.

Anna and I are sent to the auditorium to receive further instruction. Once we enter, we hear the directions:

Sit five seats apart!

Sit every other row!

Sit facing forward!

There are slight sounds of squeaking seats as each worker follows the directions. There is limited talking. There are no happy conversations about children and escapes that happened this summer. The Illness took many things. It also took away the usual noise and excitement that happens when we start another school year.

Just one year ago, teachers of all grades gathered in this space. There were laughter, hugs and well wishes to have another successful school year. But the tone has changed. Most sit and stare, their eyes filled with nervous tension, confusion and worry. We soon hear a noise from the speakers. The Leader is prepared to begin.

The Leader appears on a large screen and I fight to pay attention to my new directives as the anxiety creeps into my soul. The Leader’s message is quick and direct and we are sent to our working spaces. The Leader’s statements do not comfort me, and nothing in returning here makes me feel like I matter.

There are no lights on in my hallway. Figures of co-workers move like apparitions haunting abandoned buildings, each disappearing into their classroom. I panic at the drab ambiance of my working space. It makes me think of all the things that will not be there with me to start this school year.

No students. No conversations. No light. Will there be joy?

Today, there is only darkness and the soft click of my door closing to start this new year of dystopian teaching.

I shall teach children on screen from the Factory.

I whisper to myself, “Welcome back, teach . . . ”

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