If you do a quick search on Teacherspayteachers.com, one of the most popular sources for online teaching materials, you’ll see that “distance learning resources” are now front and center. Unlike last spring’s hit-or-miss, half-baked approach, many districts this fall are prescribing minimum time requirements for real-time, live instruction: Up to three hours per day in Los Angeles, four hours per day in Chicago, and five hours per day in Washington, D.C., depending on grade level and subject matter. Little noticed amid the haggling over these and other logistical hurdles are the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning online—and what schools and systems are doing to set their teachers up for success.
Well, brace yourself, because they’re not doing much. Unless your child’s school is still planning for in-person instruction, yours is likely no exception either. The Center on Reinventing Public Education has been tracking over one hundred districts; nearly 70 percent of them have indicated no additional time will be provided for professional development. To be sure, teacher development has never been a strong suit of school systems, but the lack of attention to it at a time when everything has changed in terms of what teachers are being asked to do will force them to look for support elsewhere.
Indeed, without adequate time and sufficient training, teachers will be left to fend for themselves in procuring tools and resources to help make the leap to virtual teaching successful. Regrettably, most of what teachers find won’t be worth using. A report published last December by Fordham examined the online marketplace as a growing and increasingly popular resource for teachers looking to fill curricular gaps, but one that often fails to provide materials that are cognitively demanding for students. Yet teachers consistently turn to these materials, most often to spark student interest and engagement. With many districts planning to stay fully remote through January, teachers are nervously wondering how to keep their students engaged through the keyhole of Zoom day in and day out. I recently spoke with an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in a mid-size urban district and she told me that most of her teachers don’t even know what a good online lesson looks like.
It’s unfortunate because, for all the competing priorities and interests gumming up the restart of schools, the lodestar should be avoiding complexity and helping teachers sidestep the prodigious waste of time ordinarily spent sourcing lessons from the internet. Four years ago, the RAND Corporation released a study showing that nearly every teacher in America—99 percent of elementary teachers and 98 percent of secondary teachers—uses “materials I developed and/or selected myself” for English language arts. The numbers were nearly identical for mathematics: 97 percent for elementary and 99 percent for secondary. Instead of spending their limited time on instructional design, teachers should be focused instead on instructional delivery, studying student work, and figuring out how to establish and maintain human connection when physically distanced from their students.
Look around the country and you’ll see that the exact opposite appears to be happening. In addition to hours and hours spent scouring the internet, some teachers are painstakingly replicating their lessons in YouTube form, a time consuming and energy sapping exercise. Not to be outdone, one Florida district has raised anxiety to a new level by inexplicably proposing that teachers simultaneously provide in-person and online instruction. It’s this type of superhuman expectation that has prompted the Chicago Teachers Union to embrace the hashtag #MakeItMakeSense. Perhaps worried about what may come from all of this, districts could soon follow the lead of the one outside Nashville that recently required all parents to sign forms agreeing not to watch their child’s virtual classes—a demand that is both inappropriate and outrageous.
As my colleague Robert Pondiscio soberly observes, “Teachers [have been] asked to teach in ways that are not merely foreign to them but which they’ve been trained to believe are bad for kids.” To make matters worse, school districts have ostensibly abdicated their role in providing the time and in-depth training and preparation required to do online teaching well. Not surprisingly, teacher-sourced online supplemental materials, quality notwithstanding, will be increasingly called upon to fill the vacuum. To wit, since schools shut down in mid-March, Teachers Pay Teachers has seen a 20 percent increase in weekly spending per buyer; searches for distance learning have shot up 1,400 percent!
For most of these teachers, separating the wheat from the chaff is no easy undertaking. Fordham’s report found that nearly two-thirds of instructional materials were either weakly aligned or not aligned at all to standards, and when it comes to remote learning, some resources are far better than others. The NewSchools Venture Fund has a curated list of some very good ones; EL Education, Match Fishtank and LearnZillion also offer high quality, Common Core–aligned materials. Next month, bestselling author and instructional guru Doug Lemov has a new book coming out on the topic, Teaching in the Online Classroom: Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal. Doug and his Teach Like A Champion colleagues have done as much as anyone to identify, study, and disseminate effective teaching practices.
The prospect of millions of teachers foraging for distance learning tools and strategies online is a discouraging vision of the new school year—one engendered by an underinvestment in teacher professional learning that could come back to bite us no matter how much effort is put into procuring more devices and hotspots, streamlining online platforms, or tightening attendance and grading expectations. But we can take heart that many are meeting the remote learning challenge head on, working closely with scores of schools and districts as they adapt to all of this uncertainty. With back to school season well underway, these efforts have taken on added urgency at a time when there’s very little in the way of silver linings.