From the start of the pandemic, I’ve resisted talk of the “new normal” in education for two reasons. First and most importantly, there’s an unquenchable thirst for the old normal, and increasingly so as disruptions to traditional patterns of schooling approach the twelve-month mark. Moreover, much of the new normal talk has been driven by advocates who see an opportunity to advance the ideas, models, and pet projects they promoted long before “Covid” entered our vocabulary. To a hammer, as they say...
To be sure, a significant number of families have seized the moment to take charge of their children’s education in ways that would have been unthinkable absent coronavirus, and we should be grateful for their efforts: forming “pandemic pods,” enrolling in micro-schools, embracing homeschooling, and other untraditional options. Some of that will stick, and that’s a good thing. We can only benefit and learn from the creativity and dynamism of those not content to sit around and wait while their children’s education is placed on life support. But for most of us, the act of sending our kids to a school alongside other youngsters in the community is not a make-do solution until something better comes along. It’s a cultural habit that’s persisted over generations because we value it. That traditional schooling could function more effectively is inarguable. That doesn’t diminish our attachment to it or the desire to return to it.
Now that the end of the crisis is closer than the beginning, attention can turn to getting kids back on track and recovering lost momentum, and perhaps being better prepared for the next disruptive event. With respect to my Fordham colleague Mike Petrilli, this is not the time to “think big” or lay out grand plans that even further disrupt the basic structures of schooling. The pandemic has not revealed deep wells of untapped capacity or competence in our K–12 education system seeking redeployment. Thus, any plan that increases complexity or makes teachers’ jobs harder, in my view, is a non-starter. Neither is this an “opportunity” for “disrupting” schooling. We’ve been conducting a natural experiment in disrupting education for nearly a year now. The goal now should be to end it, not extend it.
For starters, it’s time to stop wringing our hands over “learning loss.” Decisions were made starting last March to prioritize public health over educational outcomes. We knew—or should have known—that learning loss would occur. It was a deliberate choice that we now must live with and recover from. If you were among those insisting (or continuing to insist) that in-person learning is not safe, or demanding that schools simply must find a way to improve remote or hybrid learning, kindly take a seat.
Let’s also tap the brakes before we bash districts, schools, and teachers for making suboptimal instructional decisions under duress. But it’s important to commit to weaning ourselves off strategies pursued in haste before they become bad habits. The most obvious example, and too little discussed, is the explosion in the number of students placed on asynchronous virtual learning platforms such as Edgenuity, Edmentum (and its subsidiaries), Florida Virtual School, and other providers of online courseware and learning infrastructure.
The limited available data hint at the extent to which districts have relied on these programs during virtual instruction. Florida Virtual School, which also sells courses to schools outside of the state, reports enrollment for its individual course offerings has shot up by 54 percent. Another provider, Apex Learning, had doubled its enrollments by March. All of these purchases come with a price. The Oklahoma State Department of Education spent $2.6 million so that all districts would have access to the Edmentum product Exact Path, an online assessment and instruction tool. Similar purchases have been made at the district level. Ohio’s Columbus City Schools, to cite one example, entered into a $1.8 million contract with Edgenuity back in August.
I’ve spoken with several state education officials in the past month who privately express major misgivings over districts putting kids on these platforms and using state dollars to do so. One state leader who has advocated fiercely for the adoption and use of “high quality instructional materials” (HQIM) describes the dilemma of holding the line with local school districts that needed immediate solutions for remote learning but without placing additional demands on existing staff. “I can’t give you that through high quality instructional materials,” this official conceded, “because it’s the materials, coupled with skillful teaching, that gives you added benefit to students.”
I’ve made no secret over the years of my skepticism over “historic graduation rates” in U.S. schools unaccompanied by any concomitant evidence of gains in student achievement. Those gains are largely a function of online “credit recovery.” Covid-19 has quietly normalized the practices associated with credit recovery coursework—having students independently work through online content at their own pace with little or no guidance from an experienced educator—extending those practices to students who are not grateful for it, but resentful of it.
“Edgenuity is the definition of busywork. It consists of tedious tasks, videos you can’t skim through and mainstream assignments you can find the answers to online. It almost makes me want to mute the videos and work on something useful,” wrote one California high school student in her school newspaper. “This should be concerning and appalling to educators.” Parents have also discovered to their dismay that perfect scores can be earned on machine-graded assignments with incoherent word salads, as long as certain key words were included. This makes a gameable mockery of learning.
Remote and asynchronous learning has its uses. So too does “credit recovery” (unless we want boxcar numbers of kids denied high school diplomas to prove how tough we are on upholding standards). The risk is letting decisions made for the sake of expedience persist and become habits.
That’s a “new normal” that must be resisted.