I have seen, of late, various memes to the effect of: “with schools closed, we’re seeing we don’t need them at all.” Glib, but short-sighted and mostly false. The response to the Coronavirus has revealed that a great many things once though to be of the utmost importance aren’t important at all. Those possessed of common sense have always known this. We live in the most advanced and prosperous society ever, and that gives frivolous, entitled, hysterical people license to make lunatic demands that are actually taken seriously—until we’re reminded just how fragile civilization can be.
However, one thing remains always important: education.
I’ll not spend time explaining why education is important. Nor will I reiterate the kinds of problems about which I write weekly, as regular readers know. All of that may be found in the SMM education archive. Suffice it to say 12 years of socialization is the foundation of citizenship, and the basic knowledge that makes people basically functional citizens in our representative republic. Education is a lifelong, individual process. Surely, not everyone reaches the same level of function, and in those schools more concerned with political indoctrination than teaching, less function is the order of the day. However, schools serve many vital socialization functions.
Sadly, so much of that socialization is lost. Proms are canceled, extra curricular activities of all kinds, gone. Spring athletes have almost certainly lost their opportunities for local, regional and state titles. For high school seniors, these are once in a lifetime opportunities, lost forever.
With nationwide school closures due to the Coronavirus, schools have been forced to switch, with no preparation, to “online” learning. Because many kids don’t have computers, nor do their parents have online access, paper assignment options are also being done. What’s that you say? No problem; kids are all computer geniuses? If only that were true.
Some small portion of kids are computer geeks, but most know only what they need to know to do the things they want to do on their cell phones—mainly—and on common PC platforms otherwise. If they want to play games, they learn what they need to know to operate those games and related peripherals.
Many schools have large numbers of “Chromebooks,” which has become a generic term for small, inexpensive laptops, normally kept in groups chargers of 30 or so in classrooms. Google has invented various online services for schools, which help them market Chromebooks. There are accusations of data mining kids and other forms of surveillance, but that’s for another article.
Many schools have gone overboard in requiring their teachers to do their instruction through Chromebooks in the name of going “paperless,” and using “technology,” which they think will transform education. In reality, Chromebooks and all technology are merely tools. They may allow somewhat more efficiency in producing assignments, but they transform nothing, with the possible exception of educrat’s resumes. People learn, circa 2020, as they did in the time of Aristotle.
Kids need structure, which schools provide. They also need nurturing relationships with adults, which good teachers provide. Some are self- motivated and enjoy learning, but most don’t, at least not to the extent that they will ardently pursue their own education in the absence of that structure. Worse, most kids are not readers, which causes all manner of difficulties. In the classroom, teachers can at least expose kids to reading as a group, but assign reading out of the classroom, and most won’t bother to read at all.
Now we arrive at March, 2020, and our nation’s kids are mostly thrown out of school, unsure when they’ll be returning. For many, the 2019-2020 school year has come to an end; they will not be in their school buildings until the 2020-2021 school year. Others may return for a few weeks in May. All of this is determined by their state education bureaucracies. One interesting change has been the cancelation of mandatory, high stakes testing, much of which is done in March, April and May. Educrats are horrified, teachers and kids, delighted.
Schools with Chromebooks have loaned them, by the thousands, to students. Some of those little laptops will be damaged beyond repair, some will be lost, some will simply disappear. The IT sections of school districts are overwhelmed with calls from parents who can’t get the laptops to work with their home systems. It’s one thing to be able to make them work in a school with known systems and the same software, quite another in innumerable homes with unknown systems, to say nothing of the fact many kids know so little about computers beyond the narrow knowledge necessary to text, use social media or play video games. Many kids will take a Chromebook home, where it will do nothing but collect dust.
School districts will send out mass e-mails, teachers will be required to try to keep in touch with their students via e-mail or phone, assignments will be posted on lesson plan websites, or in Google Classroom, and many kids will simply ignore all of that, betting that if they do nothing, nothing will be done to them. It’s a good bet.
If and when they return to school, those with e-mail addresses can say they never received the e-mails. Those without have a ready excuse. They can say they never received phone calls. Others can argue they could not access the Internet, so had no ability to find assignments or submit them. Others will say they got the assignments, but couldn’t understand them, couldn’t download them, couldn’t print them, or submitted their finished assignments, but they vanished into the electronic ether (that’s actually far more common than online learning advocates would want you to know), and who can prove otherwise? What is very obvious to adults is often not at all obvious to kids. What is obvious to teachers is not obvious to parents. Another factor in many schools is language barriers, particularly with parents.
Ironically, with unprecedented numbers of kids now on the Internet, trying to access school districts sites, Google Classroom, and others, we’re seeing unprecedented failures. None of these sites were designed or prepared for the numbers they’re seeing, so they’re either very slow, unavailable, losing assignments, or some combination of all of these and more.
Interestingly, many kids are working. Kids whose parents own businesses are needed to keep the doors open. Even kids whose parents have lost their jobs may find temporary work stocking grocery store shelves or in similar service jobs, helping keep families afloat, and making it very difficult for them to do any schoolwork.
State education bureaucracies have to waive the number of school days required—they have no choice about that—but they try to demand some kind of attendance standards and grading standards. What is an individual teacher to do beyond send out regular e-mails, post regular assignments, and try to make phone calls, calls that may never be returned? In effect, from the top down, schools are forced to pretend to offer instruction, but many kids, and many parents, aren’t playing along. Many kids won’t do homework under normal conditions; they certainly won’t do it when they have ready excuses to avoid it.
Teachers, unable to control attendance or much of anything else, find themselves having to make decisions on attendance and grades based on kid’s past performance, which is really the only rational standard in these times.
All of this is particularly difficult for elementary aged kids. They tend to form strong bonds with their teachers, who serve as surrogate parents. Kids want to please them and look forward to seeing them every day. This is less true for high school aged kids, much less in many cases, but even high schools kids feel a sense of community in their schools and look forward to being a part of that community every day. Kids get bored quickly at home; they want to be back in school.
This is a difficult time for teachers, most of who go into the profession because they believe they have something to offer, and have a degree of autonomy in providing it. In times like this, administrators focus on standardizing everything, which means many of the lessons and focus individual teachers establish is out the window in favor of far less rigorous and interesting group lessons. In many respects, this is necessary because school staffs have to copy paper lesson packets to be handed out to hundreds, even thousands of students. It’s easier to prepare one lesson for all 10th grade English students than ten lessons for ten tenth grade teachers. They also have to accept finished lessons and get them to the right teachers, this while teachers are essentially locked out of their classrooms. Copier budgets go through the roof.
Unfortunately, one-size-fits all instruction is inevitably mediocre instruction. In addition, it keeps teachers from adapting their instruction to the needs of their students. The needs of one class are often very different than those of others, their ability to complete work in a given time frame greater or lesser. Some classes are far more needy of a teacher’s individual attention than others.
Many parents are loath to leave home to go to schools where they rightly fear germs are everywhere, and some states are all but locked down, even threatening to arrest parents that venture forth for anything but food and emergency medical care.
We’re learning many lessons. Online learning only truly works for self-motivated, involved kids who have the hardware and knowledge to use it. It’s far more appropriate to college than to K-12 education. As police officers and teachers know, there is no substitute for face-to- face contact.
I’ve often written that educrats think they can alter human nature, or ignore it entirely in implementing their “transformative” ideas, which are usually anything but. Human nature cannot be overcome, merely understood. Take structure out of kid’s educational experience, and many will be happy to avoid education entirely.
Even the kids willing to do work online will often find that without a teacher to explain vocabulary and concepts, they miss a great deal. Some will find assignments incomprehensible. Understanding this, teachers write far less demanding lessons, hence, less valuable and effective lessons, than they normally would. Asking students to redo assignments, even providing prompt, written feedback on papers, is now impossible.
A teacher’s most valuable commodity is class time. So much is being lost, never to be recovered, and teachers are despairing at the lost opportunity.
Future repeats of this kind of medical disaster may find schools somewhat more prepared in terms of organization, but nothing can change human nature, and there is no substitute for personal guidance in education.
This is my final semester of a long teaching career. This is not how I imagined that semester would unfold. I miss my kids, and I’m sure this is true for most teachers. Most of all, I’m frustrated because I know that no matter what I do, even if every one of my students wholeheartedly did their best with online learning, I am providing a far less effective educational opportunity than I would if my kids were in my classroom every day. Learning is about regular, correct practice. Teachers will be doing far fewer assignments than normal, and have little or no ability to provide the guidance necessary to ensure correct practice.
So, school is essential. There is no substitute. We do school as we do today not necessarily because it’s the way we have always done things, but because, given human nature, it’s what works. Winston Churchill said Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time. Education is like that.