By Larry Ferlazzo
It appears that our schools, and communities, may be — and I would like to emphasize may — approaching a return to “normal” or “near-normal” times.
If this return becomes a reality in the coming months, many of us might be wondering what our schools will look like in the near future.
Does a return to “normal” mean a return to the same good and not-so-good aspects of our educational system? Or might it mean that many school leaders will have learned lessons from this experience to increase the “good” and reduce the “not-so-good”?
I’m saddened to say that I think it’s a fairly safe bet that — as far as schools are concerned — that we will have learned little from the past year and that many of our students will suffer because of it.
Here is a list of what I believe are the most important education-related lessons that we should have learned from the pandemic and how those lessons should be applied, along with what I actually expect to happen.
Perhaps a few district leaders might see themselves in some of these “shoulds” or in the reality-based predictions, and either feel reinforced in their decisions or have second thoughts.
Or perhaps they will just be dismissed as the ramblings of a well-intentioned teacher who supposedly doesn’t understand how a school district system actually operates …
Summer school should be about enrichment and “acceleration” — field trips, reconnection with classmates and teachers, small group tutoring on high-interest topics, social-emotional learning.
What is more likely to happen in many districts is either a slapdash program put together by districts who are too preoccupied with physically opening schools during the last two months of the school year, or one almost entirely focused on the deficit-model of making up “learning loss” — even though plenty of research shows that adding more time to school when you’re just doing the same thing you usually do is not very effective.
Treatment of teachers
Education leaders should recognize that the few districts where teachers and their unions were viewed as genuine partners over the past year were more successful in a number of ways than where their judgment was not trusted. Districts should work with us as partners in determining next steps and using the wealth of talent in our ranks as resources for professional development.
What is more likely to happen is that insecure district leaders will continue to feel threatened by teachers and will not learn the lesson all good community organizers know: Power is not a finite pie — when you give up a little of your power, the whole “pie” gets bigger and more possibilities are created for everyone.
Reconnecting with disconnected students and families
Districts should provide funds to individual schools so they can hire local community members and counselors to reach out to students and their families who became disconnected from schools over the past year. These local staff will have neighborhood relationships and ones with teachers and administrators, and those trusting connections can go a long way! This should go hand-in-hand with developing community schools where social services and community support are based on the school site.
What is more likely to happen is that many districts will fund a centralized system of disconnected — though well intentioned — social workers and other staff to follow up on students and their families, and tout “metrics” and “data” as measures of success instead of genuine connections that bring students back.
Districts should emphasize social-emotional learning through an equity lens, and recognize that many educators who implemented this strategy during the pandemic had successful learning and teaching experiences. Districts should encourage schools to not use the typical store-bought SEL curriculum that just emphasizes kindness without justice. Districts should work with teachers to either find or develop standards, lessons and resources that make equity the center of SEL practices. Districts should recognize that there are many ways that SEL can also contribute to — and intersect with — student academic progress.
What is more likely to happen is that many districts will, as they have in the past, focus on the “being nice” part of SEL and even give short shrift to that in the name of making up for as it is called “learning loss.”
Dealing with 'leadership loss’
Perhaps instead of all the preoccupation with student “learning loss,” we should, as Boston teacher Neema Avashia suggests, instead be concerned with school district “leadership loss” during the pandemic (or acknowledge that in many cases it has just made lack of skilled leadership more transparent). District leadership, including school boards, should reflect on how well they practiced listening and collaborative skills, and how much of their talk about “equity” was more words than action as they tended to confuse it with “equality.” (In fact, some districts are even now complaining that the distribution of stimulus moneys does not demonstrate “equity” because higher income districts receive less).
What is more likely to happen is self-justification that districts did “their best” in a difficult situation, and that critics don’t understand the challenges of running a complex school system.
Before the pandemic, though they were growing in number, as it is called “one-to-one” schools, where all students were provided with a laptop or iPad, were still more the exception than the rule. Now, however, most of us teach in a one-to-one school. Districts should provide intensive professional development over the summer to teachers (and pay them to attend) in effective instructional strategies when all students have a device.
What is more likely to happen is that teachers will be left on their own to figure things out, or they will be provided with off-the-shelf video tutorials. That’s what most of us got during a pandemic year, so why should we expect anything different now?
Many schools used far fewer textbooks this year because hard copy books didn’t work well online and/or online versions of them were not very accessible. Education leaders should provide schools the resources and the opportunity to expand on what many teachers did — combine engaging authentic texts online with online multimedia, including having students develop “textbook” chapters for future classes.
What is more likely to happen is that many schools will just buy electronic versions of the same boring textbooks.
Schools should use substantial amounts of stimulus moneys for teachers and school librarians to purchase hard copies of engaging books for classroom and school libraries. Research shows that young people still prefer hard copies, and after a year of online text I would predict that desire becomes even stronger.
What is more likely to happen is that many school budgets will continue to be overly frugal when it comes to purchasing high-interest books, purchase electronic editions of a few of them, and encourage students to get e-editions from their local municipal libraries. That will drive teachers to turn to Donors Choose — again — to ask the public for help.
Schools should go back to emphasizing the “old school” definition of “personalized instruction”: small group instruction, spending time getting to know students, developing relationships with them, emphasizing differentiation and doing hands-on learning
What is more likely to happen is that many districts will continue to become enamored of the high-tech push for personalized instruction which involves more-and-more screen time — exactly what our students don’t need right now.
Schools should maintain the very high standards of cleanliness and hygiene that has been taking place during the pandemic, with an increase in the number of custodians and in their pay. Every teacher knows that students respond better to a room and a facility that appears to be cared for and respected.
What is more likely to happen is that many districts will almost immediately revert to their typical lack of emphasis on cleanliness and lay off classified staff who are responsible for doing much of it. Teachers will, again, return to having to use more of their time wiping down desks and keyboards and sweeping and spot-mopping floors.
What should happen is that districts and schools finally put their actions where their mouth is and start providing resources, respect and culturally responsive teaching to all of our students. As mentioned earlier, all too many districts have provided lip service to the idea of equity before and during the pandemic and our students have been hurt by it. The people who were not vocal about the needs of students of color until they began demanding “Open Schools” during the pandemic should maintain their advocacy and ensure that equity rises to the top of district priorities.
What is more likely to happen is that many districts will continue to provide lip service to equity because they will consider the changes needed to actually do something about it to be too hard.
Student mental health:
What should happen is that schools should double or triple the number of on-site counselors — including ones who are multilingual — and put time and energy into developing a long list of outside specialty staff who students can be referred for additional support.
What is more likely to happen is that many school districts will choose not to increase the number of counselors and continue to expect the ones they have to maintain overwhelming caseloads that will not provide them with adequate time to support students.
What should happen is that teachers develop a stronger commitment to unions. The pandemic clearly demonstrated that the unions were one of the few groups consistently fighting for their safety and the safety of students and their families. District leaders should also have learned the principle of subsidiarily — that those who are closest to issues are best equipped to make decisions related to those issues — and recognize that they should learn from teachers’ expertise.
I do believe that more teachers have recognized the importance of union representation and are likely to develop a stronger commitment to supporting them. And, I believe that this, along with stronger community alliances, will increase the odds that some of the other “shoulds” on this list will actually happen.
In terms of the second part — district leaders learning the principle of subsidiarily — I’m not holding my breath. What is more likely to happen is that many school district leaders will continue to believe that they “are the smartest people in the room.”
Despite the content of this article, I am an optimistic person. But having spent the 19 years before becoming a high school teacher as a community organizer has shown me the importance of tempering optimism with a healthy dose of realism.
Despite my bleak “more likely to happen” predictions, I and millions of my colleagues will continue to provide the best support and education possible for our students in any and all circumstances, just as we have done before and during this pandemic.
It would be nice, though, if districts didn’t make it harder for us.