The Inequity of Learning Pods

The public discussions of “learning pods” are growing by the week, as desperate families take to social media to find others to pod with and teachers begin to promote their services as a pod “facilitator” in search of a safer, easier to manage learning environment.

But is the future of public education really found in a model where families are spending, in some instances, thousands of dollars more each month to facilitate online learning in the public schools? And do we really want to say the only way hybrid education works is if parents can be prepared to spend more than their current property taxes to insert their children into learning pods?

We explore the issue on the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen here.

And How Was Your Corona-Ed Spring?

Why yes, dear ol Eduflack did tell the New Jersey media that this year’s emergency virtual education was a “frustrating disaster” for special education students. When you suspend federal protections the first week in, delay IEP meetings with families for months, and put off IEP and 504 decisions until “later in the fall,” what would you call it?

You can read the full article here, as the Garden State begins to walk back the hard school reopening stance its pushed all summer.

Let’s Spend Our Edu-Virus Dollars Wisely

For most students, school will soon be back in session. Many big city districts have chosen to remain virtual for the start of the year. Some, like New York City, are insisting on going hybrid. But all can agree it is going to be an expensive school year.

Recently, Congress has debated the need for $175B or so in new federal education dollars to make whatever happens happen. But we aren’t debating how to make sure we use those dollars well.

Yes, $175B is a lot of dollars. But when we look at the long-term needs of students, is it best spent on hand sanitizer and disinfectants and plexiglass and nearly empty yellow buses, or is it better spent on teacher professional development and technology and high-speed internet?

We explore the topic on the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen here.

When It Comes To Reopening Schools, There Is No One Answer

President Donald Trump and EdSec Betsy DeVos want brick-and-mortar schools open for business this fall. Teachers, their unions, parents, and many others want to keep them closed, with teaching happening virtually, until their are guarantees on health, safety, and vaccines.

If we know anything, it is that a one-size-fits-all approach to schools just doesn’t work. There are too many variables, too many issues, and too many reasons why we prefer to leave education decisions to states and localities.

On the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore for topic of reopening and why we shouldn’t look to the feds for all the answers. Give it a listen here.

“A Historical Reality Check”

With statues continuing to come down around the nation, the need for understanding the history of why those statues went up in the first place becomes more and more important. One only needs to look at recent actions that tore down a statue of abolitionist  Frederick Douglass as proof of that.

On a recent epidote of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore how we don’t need to waste too much time lamenting the loss of statues, particularly those honoring Confederate generals, and instead need to focus our efforts on dramatically improving how we teach our nation’s complex history and how we make sure today’s learners and activists understand both what has happened in our history and why.

Give it a listen here.

Literacy as a Constitutional, Civil Right

Earlier this year, the federal courts ruled that learning to read was a Constitutional right. For decades now, those (including dear ol’ Eduflack) who have advocated for scientifically based literacy instruction and who believe that virtually all learners can be taught how to read with proven instructional approaches have discussed literacy skills as a civil right.

With those declarations – and with decades of research clearly articulating how to teach reading and how to learn literacy skills – why are we still struggling to get learners reading at grade level by fourth grade?

On the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore the issue. Give it a listen here!

 

A Potential Crisis for Special Education Families?

Across the nation, k-12 classroom teachers have been rightfully praised for quickly adapting to the new normal of virtual education. As tens of millions of students were forced to quickly shift to Google classroom and Zoom and other such tools to finish the 2019-20 school year, teachers adjusted to do the best they could in an incredibly tough, and unplanned, situation. 

For many students, it meant a lighter class load. A single school day broken into two. A shorter learning period. Grades were not to be discussed. And states cancelled their spring state assessments.

Three months into the great coronavirus virtual education experiment, we are now confronting a reality where many states may not have their students return to traditional classrooms in the fall. And in some that do, learners will deal with a “hybrid” schedule requiring some days in a physical building and some days online to ensure the needed social distancing that traditional public schools just haven’t been built to address.

All of that is ok, for the majority of students. We adjusted our expectations. In some instances, it was helpful for parents to see how hard it is to actually teach or to keep their kids on task, providing an eye opener into the realities of instruction. It was a temporary inconvenience that will soon pass. 

That is, of course, unless one is a special education family. As millions of families came to trust and praise their schools for adapting to virtual instruction in the age of corona, many special education families couldn’t overcome their distrust for a system that has taken actions over so many years to deny those with special needs the education to which they are entitled. 

If anything, these school closures may likely cast, in the long term, a nasty spotlight on the harsh realities of special education in the United States. They may showcase our collective lack of interest or commitment, as school systems, on the learners who need those systems the most. And they may, ultimately, do more to advance special education services – through likely class action lawsuits – than we have seen since the initial passage of IDEA. 

Might this seem a little harsh? Yes. Might this be unfair to teachers who are honestly doing their best and are exceeding the expectations of mainstream families? Absolutely. But challenging times cannot and should not absolve school districts from their obligations, and they definitely shouldn’t grant them a pass in challenging times for what they refuse to do during the easy times. 

In my highly resourced, overachieving school district, an email to special education parents at the start of quarantine announced that they were suspending all 504 and IEP meetings until traditional school resumed. Such a decision likely violated federal law. And until state directives forced the district to change course more than a month after it issued such an order, it also could have been seen as an act of educational malpractice. 

For those parents who have spent years engaging advocates and lawyers and spending tens of thousands of dollars on both to ensure their public schools are adequately educating their kids, there is little comfort in knowing that all the accommodations they fought for were tossed out the window in the name of BrainPop videos or Kahn Academy lessons. And that certainly is true as the “temporary” response of this spring is now potentially extended into the next academic year. 

What of the student who needs speech therapy, but whose district fought during the IEP process to deny such services virtually, demanding they could only be provided face to face?

What of the special services department that simply sends families a link to some online occupational or speech therapy activities to do at home with their children, never mind that parents are not trained service providers or may not even speak the language that their child needs the therapy in?

What of the family that fought long and hard for an array of needed accommodations, now to be told that they are all on hold until September or beyond, depending on what decisions the state and locality make?

What of the family already struggling to show that their special needs child is not making adequate gains, only to now be told this past year will be written off (just like the three or five years before it) because of unforeseen circumstances?

Any parent who has even sat across the conference table from the school administration for a 504 or IEP meeting knows what is coming next. Over the years, we have watched the number of people around the table grow, and we’ve seen the binders of data around them get larger, as we’ve witnessed the stonewalling, the delays, and the excuses increase. The administrators who become the adversaries of special needs families are trying to wait it out, hoping enough time passes so that the student is no longer in the school, the OCR complaint is no longer ripe, and a new clock starts at a new school, repeating the process all over again. 

In an already adversarial, contentious relationship between special needs families and resistant school districts, covid-19 school closures became the latest armor to protect systems from their legal and educational duties. 

One only needs to look at the IDEA guidance provided from the US Department of Education at the start of this great experiment to see this unfortunate fact. A whole lot of “mays” and no “musts.” School districts that pivoted to virtual learning only needed to ensure access to the same learning platforms, not to the accommodations their legally binding IEPs required.  

Truth be told, those who have never been through the 504 or IEP process would be aghast. We want to believe that all those involved in the learning process have nothing but the best interests of the child at heart. And while that may be true for the individual teachers involved in the process, it is nowhere near the truth for the system itself. Having sat at that table, having had my school district try to tell me – incorrectly –  that their rules trumped state and federal law when it comes to special education, parents like me are all too aware of the lengths districts will go to restrict their obligations. And we are all too wise as to how a time of crisis and pandemic could be used to deny millions of special needs students of the education guaranteed them under the law. 

Online videos and group chats may work for the vast majority of k-12 students for the past few months or even for the next school year. For those learners, they will make up the learning slowdown over the next few academic years to follow. But for those students who are already behind, for those who have fallen further and further back as their families have been required to fight a system hellbent on denying them, what happens to them? A high school diploma for those learners doing seventh or eighth grade-level work is hardly the reward. 

IDEA protections exist today because the parents of special needs students refused to be denied and refused to accept lesser for their kids. Some may enthusiastically see this covid-19 experience as the gateway to virtual education. Instead, at least for special needs families, it may be the match that reignites the special education community, providing the needed spark to empower parents. 

Trying to Find the Words

Eight years ago, when I was advocating for k-12 education reform, I spoke often on how “Black and Brown kids” were not receiving the quality of public education they needed, deserved, and to which they had a right. I was taken aside by both those in power and those I was working alongside in reform, and told that using “Black and Brown kids” made too many people feel uncomfortable.

From Eduflack’s latest at Project Forever Free, as I try to find the words to speak out.

Seeking School Certainty in Uncertain Times?

Most of us are getting tired of hearing the phrase “new normal” in reference to our lives the past three months. Slightly more frustrating – and unrealistic – may be hearing those who yearn for the time, be it next week or next month, when things return to the old “normal” and we go back to doing and behaving as we long had.

Last week, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was asked about the state’s plans for reopening. At first, Murphy stated that his state departments of education and health were “wargaming” scenarios for reopening the public schools in the fall. He followed that remark the next day with the revelation that he intended to follow the guidelines offered by the New Jersey School Boards Association, Searching for a New Normal in New Jersey’s Public Schools.

For some, the NJSBA recommendations are a common-sense approach building on the CDC guidelines to address the needs of a state hit particularly hard by coronavirus. To others, it appeared an untenable future, one that drastically detours from how children actually behave in school buildings and from what would be possible in 2020-21 school classrooms.

In the interim, parents and educators and learners are growing more and more frustrated with how to navigate the virtual classroom in a meaningful way. Many of those parents – seeing the stresses and emotional toll the ongoing lockdown and school closures have had on their children – are desperate to have those yellow buses rolling and students sitting next to each other in desks, even if they are socially distanced.

That desperation, though, has been met largely with silence by school decisionmakers. School superintendents are speaking in relatively united voice that they can make no decisions about school plans and school calendars until they receive guidance from the state. The cycle is all too expected. Parents look to the schools for answers. The schools say they can’t act until the state gives them direction. The governor and state officials can’t act until they have received guidance from the state school boards association and the state teachers union. The school boards and the teachers unions can’t act until they have feedback from local school leaders. Rinse and repeat. Who will actually make a decision?

At a time when we need educators the most, leaders to innovate and ensure student learning and bring stability to the lives of young people in dire need of such, we are collectively waiting for direction from on high. We are waiting for permission to begin addressing our educational needs, rather than asking for forgiveness if some of our steps may need adjustment later on.

Case in point is the “letter” released over the Memorial Day holiday from David Aderhold, the superintendent of West-Windsor Plainsboro, NJ Public Schools (the school district I send my own children to), to Governor Murphy. In his missive, Dr. Aderhold, who also serves as the president of the Garden State Coalition of Schools and the New Jersey Network of Superintendents, posed 91 questions to Governor Murphy, questions that superintendents say they need answered before they can begin planning for the new school year that begins in three short months. And these are just “a list of 91 Questions to get us started.”

Yes, asking and documenting these questions is important to the strategic planning process. Some are global questions that many have been asking for months. “Who gets to determine the acceptable risk of foreseeable harm, illness, and potentially death in our public schools should we return from virtual instruction to in-person instruction?” “What will be the criteria and parameters to reopen schools?” And “What will be the budgetary impacts for school districts based upon the economic challenges realized due to the public health crisis?”

Some read like questions we should want our local communities to be answering, and don’t want a governor or a state legislature meddling in. “Will accommodations be made to allow families who wish to keep their children home in the fall? Will those children be allowed to participate in virtual instruction or will they be required to withdraw their children to be homeschooled by their parents?” “Will there be modifications to our school day?” “What are the contractual impacts to the myriad of possible scheduling solutions?” “What are the financial impacts in order to implement social distancing requirements?” “Will school districts continue to offer extended daycare programs (before school and after school programs)?” “How many staff members will be needed to accomplish this?”

Others are larger questions that reflect the future of teaching and learning in general, particularly when offered in a hybrid environment. “What will music classrooms look like in the Fall 2020?” “How do you socially distance physical education classes?” “What professional development needs will school districts have in order to assist their teacher’s enhancement of virtual instructional practices?” “How will we teach programs that require hands-on interactions in close proximity, such as Robotics, Woodworking, Culinary Arts, and Fashion Design?”

And other questions are those that public schools should have and should continue to be asking regularly, key questions that are essential to k-12 public education in the United States but that may be accentuated by the current situation. “How will school districts assess education gaps and remediate learning needs?” “How will the implementation of IEP’s for Special Education students be met in a virtual, hybrid, or partial day academic program? What is the state’s guidance for Extended School Year programs for students who receive Special Education services?” “How will we assess which students need academic support and remediation?” “How will school districts address the digital divide that still exists months into the pandemic?”

It is important for school leaders throughout New Jersey and across the United States to document all of these questions, while also adding to the list as situations evolve and as new issues arise. After all, part of successful leadership is anticipating what could happen, even if it means playing devil’s advocate and thinking through the absolute worst-case scenarios, including those that estimate that New Jersey public schools will need a supply of 900 million masks for the upcoming school year.

What we must avoid, though, is the perennial educational issue of perfect being the enemy of the good. Local leaders should not have to wait until they have comprehensive answers to each of these 91 questions (and their subparts) as well as new questions that arise in the coming weeks before they are allowed to begin substantial planning for the 2020-21 school year. In fact, superintendents and principals and teachers should have been empowered to begin long-term planning months ago, when we first locked the doors of our community public schools.

As a community, we also must accept that we will never have true certainty when it comes to this planning. We will need to weigh the risks of one action over another. We will need to realize that we will never receive complete assurance that not a single student or educator will get sick if only we devise the ideal plan. We need local leaders who, instead of waiting for permission before they start addressing these 90-plus questions, are prepared to apologize tomorrow for taking actions today. And we need state leaders who quickly empower those local leaders while guidance is being worked out at the state and regional levels, recognizing that decisions are needed today.

Now is the time to act. It is the time to help families and learners understand what the coming school year might look like. It is the time to help educators understand what their teaching environment may look like. It is time to help localities understand the financial and health realities of the school this fall. The answers might not be perfect, but in these uncertain times, the only thing we can be certain of is we need to be proactive, particularly when it comes to the future of our schools.

For the Next Gen of Teacher Candidates, Content Should be King

With many public school systems now entering week 10 of their new coronavirus normal, as community school buildings remain shuttered and millions of students try to learn through digital platforms, talk of “the return” to the good ol’ days is growing louder and louder.

Sure, some continue to declare their success in mastering virtual education, but far more are trying to prepare for what traditional school will look like in a traditional environment for the 2020-21 school year. Images of students wearing facemasks and distancing contraptions have already started to fill social media, as educators come to grips with months of lost instruction due to Covid-19, a virtual learning environment offered largely to tread instructional water instead of teaching new content. In response, some are calling for summer school for all to avoid the expected slide from the current to the next school year while others suggest the need to repeat the current grade.

Last week, Chiefs for Change – a group of reform-minded public school superintendents and school administrators – offered a thoughtful report on what school leaders should consider as they look toward the return of a school-building-based instructional year this fall. In The Return: How Should School Leaders Prepare for Reentry and Beyond?, the Chiefs explore a number of important – and controversial – topics, ranging from abandoning the agrarian school calendar (one that currently gives educators and learners summers off) to more “intently focusing on the social and emotional wellbeing and skills of students.”

More interestingly, Chiefs for Change called for school systems across the country to adopt staffing models that focused on educators with deep subject matter and instructional expertise. Yes, this spring’s virtual schooling experiment has demonstrated that the pedagogy and classroom management skills largely taught in colleges of education across the nation do not necessarily translate to teachers successfully managing a virtual classroom on an online platform. For every media story one sees of an elementary school classroom taught via Zoom, with a shared screen that looks like the Brady Bunch on steroids, there are dozens of untold stories of online platforms being used simply as electronic bulletin boards, where teachers simply post assignments for students to collect and complete, providing a thumbs up when any effort is demonstrated by the learner to complete them.

In its recommendations, Chiefs for Change also pulls back a closely-held secret in teacher education. Many teachers are not expert in the content areas they teach. Those who teach U.S. history, for instance, often major in history education, not in American history. The same can be said about those who teach chemistry or biology, the majority of whom leave their teacher education programs with degrees in science education, not in the specific content area. One can even consider the typical elementary school educator, tasked with teaching reading and math and beginning science while equipped with a degree in elementary education that likely provided only some survey courses on a range of content areas, with an emphasis on needed physical classroom management skills.

For years now, reformers have preached about the need to dramatically transform pre-service teacher education. In the early days, the focus was on alternative certification programs and having teacher candidates avoid the “status quo” teachers colleges altogether. More recently, advocates have looked to alternative approaches to traditional teacher education models, with institutions like the Relay/Graduate School of Education becoming the aspirational model.

Decades of research into the most effective approaches to teacher education demonstrate the importance of both strong content knowledge and effective pedagogy. When groups like Chiefs for Change talk about content knowledge, they are essentially noting that novice teachers should be coming to the classroom with a broad and substantial liberal education, one that translates into strong content knowledge of classroom teachers, regardless of the academic subject they are licensed to teach.

A first glance, we may be looking for too much from undergraduate teacher education, expecting all aspiring educators to start as teachers of record with strong, research-based backgrounds in both the subject areas they teach and the most effective ways to teach and lead a classroom. Our new educational normal, though, has clearly demonstrated that the current emphasis on pedagogy and classroom management is woefully insufficient for the uncertain years ahead.

The coming generations of k-12 educators may be digital natives, but they are largely still being prepared in teachers colleges constructed for an analog world. Until their clinical experiences include virtual instruction, and until their preparation focuses on the importance of subject matter content and how to make it interesting, relevant, and understood by all in their classroom, our instructional struggles will continue.

We can do better. We should do better. Ed schools should be committed to preparing world-class educators. School districts should be focused on hiring teachers well prepared in both content and pedagogy, with the assessments to demonstrate their mastery of both. And we all should embrace efforts to ensure our kids’ teachers are truly the best in the world, with the preservice education, in-service supports, and high-quality instructional materials needed for learners to succeed today … and tomorrow.

 

(This piece also appears on Medium.)