Ferlazzo teaches English and social studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento. He has written or edited 12 books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week and has a popular resource-sharing blog. He has written pieces for The Answer Sheet over the years, including one on how teachers can help students motivate themselves and this one, one of my favorites, titled: “NEWS BREAK (not breaking news): Teacher asks students to grade him. One wrote: ‘I give Mr. Ferlazzo an A at being annoying.’ ”
NOTE: As in the past, Ferlazzo says he does not presume to suggest that the following compilation is all-encompassing, and he hopes that you will take time to share your own choices in the comments. He starts this piece with what he thinks is the best education news of 2020 and then the worst — although the items in each category are not in any order of importance (except for the No. 1 event listed in both).
Ordinarily, Ferlazzo starts out with the best news, but this has been such a bad year, it seems more appropriate to recognize the worst first:
The worst education news of 2020
- I doubt that there will be any dispute on this one: The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted education for tens of millions of students (along with the lives of their entire families). The deaths of educators, the 1.2 million child coronavirus cases, and the countless numbers of family members and friends affected by the disease covid-19 have contributed to a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. Although it’s still not clear how this year’s changes will affect most students academically, it is a safe bet that our most vulnerable populations, including students with learning challenges, English-language learners, and those who were experiencing academic challenges before the pandemic, are taking a significant “hit” to their learning and to their mental health. In addition, many of their families have suffered huge blows to their financial well-being, and research has documented how economic insecurity can affect learning. We will all be dealing with the consequences of these effects for years to come.
- Although since March school districts have made huge dents in the numbers of students who did not have devices or Internet access, the numbers of students still without them (especially without stable Internet access) is still staggering. Schools, tech companies and the federal government have to do better.
- The lack of attention to student privacy, and its abuse that has often targeted students of color, has been a shortcoming common to all too many districts and schools.
- The Trump administration’s insistence on forcing school districts to give students federally mandated standardized testing is unwise. In these circumstances, they will not help students or teachers. We can hope that the incoming Biden administration makes a better decision.
- Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s decision to ban college students who were registered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, from receiving coronavirus aid was just another example of journalist Adam Sewer’s Atlantic article explaining the purpose behind many Trump administration policies, “The Cruelty Is The Point.”
- Though some versions of hybrid instruction may be working in some places, it appears that most parents and many teachers have more negative opinions. Many districts in areas where the coronavirus infection rate has been at a consistently high level have made the strategic mistake of putting funds and other resources into face-to-face schooling plans that are likely to never see the light of day. These efforts have often been at the expense of leaving teachers on their own to improve remote instruction and of not providing needed social service support to the substantial numbers of students who are not participating at all in remote classes and whom schools might lose forever.
- I have mixed feelings about putting this next one under the “worst” category. President Trump’s attack on how slavery is taught in schools and, specifically, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project in the New York Times, was inaccurate and wrongheaded. However, that same attack can now be used by history teachers everywhere to generate interest in examining slavery’s role in America’s founding; there’s nothing like sharing irrational criticism of something to get students more interested in it! As we said in my previous community-organizing career, “Sometimes your opponent does your best organizing for you.”
- The loss of Proposition 15 in California, and the billions of dollars it would have brought to education, was a blow to schools in our state. That loss, coupled with the defeat of Proposition 16, which supported the use of affirmative action, indicates that education advocates need to rethink organizing strategies to support our students.
The best education news of 2020
- Vaccine distribution is probably set to begin this month! Though it will take many months — if not longer — for most Americans to get the shots, it appears that those who are most at risk, including many in communities of color who have been hit the hardest by covid-19, may be near the front of the line. There will certainly be huge logistical problems, and it’s still not clear when a vaccine for children will be available. Teachers will probably be in the second tier. But the bottom line is that the presence of a vaccine does offer us educators, our students and their families hope that the terrible effects of the pandemic might begin to reach an end.
- The tremendous efforts by educators to retool their instruction to teach in full-time distance-learning mode or in hybrid models is a tribute to their resilience and flexibility. Also deserving praise are the many administrators who supported them and recognized that, especially in these circumstances, “good teaching” and not necessarily “successful teaching” was the priority. And a special shout-out is warranted to the thousands of teachers who stepped up on their own to connect with their students and families immediately after school closures in the spring, when so many districts were frozen in indecision. This doesn’t mean, however, as I discussed in the “worst news” section, that we did “effective” teaching (that produced desired learning outcomes) and reached all of our students — many have disappeared or have not been successful due to pandemic circumstances beyond our control. But the vast majority of educators did exceptionally “good” teaching this year (used the best teaching practices we knew and applied them in ethical ways) and have been working long hours doing it.
- Though the work of teachers needs to be highlighted, the work of parents who have had to double as teachers during this pandemic deserves kudos this year (and, of course, many teachers are also parents with children at home and I have no idea how they are managing).
- Students deserve applause too for trying to do schoolwork in miserable conditions. Many have had to take on close to full-time jobs to help families economically survive the recession and/or take care of younger siblings or relatives — all while taking a full class load at school. Students, though suffering, have shown extraordinary grit and courage.
- Trump’s electoral defeat — and the departure, soon, of DeVos — brought a huge sigh of relief to many teachers. His incompetence in combating the pandemic and his unwillingness to support economic aid to states and schools resulted in thousands of additional deaths and also in the closure of many more schools than would have been necessary under capable leadership. President-elect Joe Biden’s victory relieved many teachers, who believe they will get more support during the pandemic. Anticipation of having a teacher in the White House — soon-to-be first lady Jill Biden — was a boost to educators too.
- Two important education-related ballot initiatives were successful: Arizona voters approved additional education funding, and a very ambitious preschool program was funded in the Portland, Ore., area.
- The Trump administration did allow states to forgo annual standardized testing last spring, and now some educational researchers are looking at other ways to evaluate school effectiveness. (It’s about time!)
- At long last, more attention was finally paid to the disproportionate punishments meted out to Black girls at school. Though it’s unclear who was the originator of the comment, “The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that it does exist,” I hope it applies in this case and that steps will be taken by many schools to make major changes.
- It’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic to finally wake up policymakers and others to the terrible state of ventilation systems in our classrooms, and its impact on students and teachers, but that should be one big change this year that will impact schools for years to come.
- The University of California began a move to end use of the SAT and ACT in its admission requirements. This change should benefit many low-income and vulnerable students, especially English-language learners.
You might also be interested in previous editions of this list: