Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Thoughts on schooling in the era of COVID-19

Well, a whole lot has changed since I returned to blogging a month and half ago. In case you didn't notice, and I'm sure everyone reading this did, there's a global pandemic. I also am going to suspend my new "brief post" practice for this one, so hang with me.

First, I will share some twitter threads I wrote at different stages of this.

1. This came before and during Virginia Governor Northam ordered all Virginia public schools closed for minimum two weeks, dated March 13th, and presented some rudimentary thoughts on Virginia school divisions' response to/navigation of COVID-19:

2. This one was written for anyone trying to navigate learning at home who has children in Virginia public schools, dated March 17th:
3. This one came on March 20th, at the end of the first week of the initial 2-week school closure and discusses what local school districts should keep in mind to prepare and discussed differences between "precaution" and "last resort":

Of course, by now, Governor Northam has ordered all Virginia public schools closed through the end of the academic school year. This has not been easy news for schools and families to process and it will have devastating consequences for Virginia's families and children, but as I explained in this thread, this is a measure of last resort focused on saving lives, meaning more people will die if the schools aren't closed:

As I explained in this thread, school districts were given guidance by the Virginia Department of Education to come up with food services and continuation of instruction plans during extended school closures. In terms of the continuation of instruction plans, we have been told and are being told to put together sets of activities that will last 10 days each through some point in April. As far as I understand, these activities cannot be graded, they cannot present new material, and they cannot require the internet, and they should be project-based and not worksheets. I teach US & Virginia Government to seniors so it's not so hard to put such a set of activities together. I am also pretty creative so it's not hard for me to think of projects (and in fact, I am looking forward to using some of these whenever I teach face-to-face again). But it is tough assuming no access to the internet. At some point, starting some time in April, as far as I understand, we will be able to present new content and to use internet resources and forums to do so.

Second, there's a great deal of discussion of out there about COVID-19 related school closures and the lack of equity given deep disparities in access to internet and other resources at home. This is especially true for many students with disabilities. Indeed, this situation brings up all kinds of ethical questions and thorny issues. Not all students have access to the internet, no matter where they live. Not all students have access to devices even if they have access to the internet. Not all teachers have school-district issued laptops, or access to devices. Not all teachers have access to the internet.

I and other Richmond-area teachers spoke to a Richmond-Times Dispatch reporter about this:
Rachel Levy, a Hanover County resident and Caroline County teacher, said she has also been putting extra resources online for students and sending daily emails to try to stay in touch.

Levy said that even in a district like hers where all teachers and middle and high school students have school-issued laptops, there isn’t a magical switch to flip when it comes to moving instruction online.
She called the requirements of teachers and students in this situation “uncharted waters” because teachers cannot introduce new material without leaving some behind.

“There’s going to be students left behind by this optional remote instruction and do you say, ‘We do the best we can for who we can reach,’ or do you say, ‘Hey this isn’t fair,’” Levy said.
Do you provide what you can and hope a few can and will access it? Or do you say, what you can not provide for all, you will not provide for some. This undoubtedly is a privileged versus not-privileged dynamic. But, there's another way of looking at it. Assuming access to the internet, kids who are home while parents are out working or whose parents can't be available to them for whatever reason,  may actually benefit more from the extras being provided. Privileged parents who can stay home with their kids can do their own activities with them.

Even when the policy or guidance makers air on the side of equity, as I always explain to my students, policies are just words on a page--they are not necessarily neutral in how they're worded and they are certainly not neutral when subject to differences in interpretation and implementation. I have witnessed it between and within school districts and individual schools--educators with the same guidance are doing very different things with it in terms of distance education.

Third, along with the the deepening of opportunity gaps comes the deepening of ed tech and unethical data collection creep. While many stakeholders are realizing more than ever how valuable and vital our face-to-face public schools are (and I hope they will consider that people who are food insecure should not have to be dependent on schools to not be), ed tech is excited to show us how valuable they are. Educators, administrators, and school district leaders, are being inundated with offers of "help" and free trials. There are great ed tech tools and digital resources--I use many of them. However, there are also a lot of bad materials out there (Have I talked to you about the materials that go with my digital textbook? Hint: They are really crappy) and there is a rush to use any and all materials without much vetting in the era of COVID-19 school closures. School districts, individual teachers, and students are casting aside privacy concerns and are already getting locked into online platforms and learning systems. Furthermore, as Richmond, Virginia, community activist and 20-year teacher of first- and second-year college students Kristin Reed, brought up in this facebook post, 1. Online teaching is a real pedagogy and a skill that can't be learned overnight and 2. Doing a needs assessment of school districts' communities may not show that hasty investments in ed tech are should be prioritized in a crisis where people are going to lose their jobs, homes, and lives.

Next, we must beware of (and there is some overlap with the ed tech creep here), the push for privatization. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has been talking about the possibility of giving grants to individual teachers and families during closures to go towards online learning:
"U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Friday that she would encourage Congress to provide "microgrants" to help teachers with online learning during coronavirus-related school closures and to help "the most disadvantaged students in states or communities where their school system has simply shut down."

"I've always believed education funding should be tied to students, not systems, and that necessity has never been more evident," DeVos said, echoing an argument she has used to promote a federal tax-credit scholarship plan that would fund private school tuition and other educational materials.
Gee, that sounds a lot like vouchers, doesn't it?

Finally, from my experiences and conversation, some educators and educational leaders don't seem to realize that we aren't just living new lives and offering the same education as we were, but just physically distant and from home. Lots and lots of Virginians have lost or are are going to lose their jobs and their housing. Lots and lots of Virginians are going to get very sick and that lots are going to die. This isn't homeschooling or online education; this is massive crisis schooling. Grades, test scores, and completing activity packets are going to become unimportant to a lot of people very soon. We should have transitioned a long time ago to schools that would shift operations to serve families of essential workers (grocery stores, people who have to work/can't work from home, medical services people) and students with severe disabilities whose parents cannot serve them at home, and we need to do what we can to get ready for an uncertain and pandemic-continued future.

This denialism is not just about the near future but about the more distant future. During this COVID-19 townhall hosted by Virginia State Senator Jennifer McClellan, Richmond parent, School Board candidate, and Henrico teacher Deanna Fierro asked about SOL testing. Well, it turns out that the Virginia Department of Education is considering granting school districts the option of administering the SOL tests waived for this spring in the fall (and then the next set the following spring!!!) so that schools can show growth. (See here at about minute 55:00.) This is a bad idea for a number of reasons--social-emotional, academic, financial, and psychometric--and doesn't reflect an understanding of the reality that's ahead for us.

Yes, we public school educators and workers should continue our missions as much as possible--to provide our students with sort of normalcy and to continue to serve the public and to provide families with structure and some sort of way for students to continue their education. But understanding and preparing for what's ahead and helping stakeholders to manage this crisis will be so much more important soon.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Love Grow Your Own (but not without the actual growth part)

The Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, recently announced a grow-your-own type of program for teachers. According to this piece:

On Monday, Governor Ralph Northam unveiled what he called a potential new solution to Virginia’s teacher shortage problem. Northam announced a proposed $1 million investment toward attracting STEM teachers from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  
It's called UTeach and it gives secondary teaching certificates to students who graduate university with degrees in things like biology or chemistry.
So, I am all for "Grow your Own," state-sponsored, and fully funded alternative teacher credentialing programs, and this one certainly will address three problems at once: low rates of teacher recruitment and retention, low numbers of teachers qualified to teach STEM subjects, and an insufficient number of Black teachers in our public schools. Furthermore, it won't cost the teacher candidates. And, we need more people of African descent in higher-level STEM positions, so having more Black STEM teachers should help with that.

That being said, I really hope the plan is not to just hand off teaching licenses to college graduates without giving them any sort of training/education, student teaching/apprenticeship experiences, mentoring, and support. Because that's a very bad idea. I'm afraid it will just perpetuate the cycle of high teacher turnover. Teachers in Virginia are already leaving the profession in high numbers, and unprepared teachers are even more likely to leave.

Fully funded, alternative programs for aspiring teachers of color are great; trying to to short cut our way to growing the profession and STEM fields in a much-needed direction is not.

On the Blog Again

I have decided to start using my blog again much more frequently than I was. I want to share most of the things I share and post on social media here. Many people aren't on facebook (with good reason) and many who read or would read this blog don;t see or don't have access to my facebook posts. 

If you're not already a subscriber, please go ahead and subscribe--my favorite RSS reader is feedly, btw. In the meantime, stay tuned for more frequent posting.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

My Testimony Regarding the Governor's Proposed Budget for Education in Virginia

I definitely owe the education blogosphere a post about my post-doc job market experience (hint: it was not good). For now, I will share that I am back in the classroom teaching high school U.S. & Virginia Government to seniors (and getting my butt whooped but in a humbling and valuable way, though), and have been since the start of the 2019-2020 School Year. I  need to write a post about that, too. Good things come to those who wait, right? In the meantime, I have been involved with VEU (Virginia Educators United) because, oh, wait, I am a teacher again, and I heeded their leaders' call to attend the General Assembly's House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees' public hearings to hear feedback on the Governor's budget priorities. The issues with the education funding in the budget are laid out very clearly here in VEU's talking points.

Here's a video of my testimony:

And here's the text from my spoken remarks:

"Good afternoon. My name is Rachel Levy and I am a Virginia public school parent, teacher, writer and activist with a Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy. I live in Ashland, Virginia, I am a member of VEA, Virginia Educators United, the Virginia PTA, and the American Educational Research Association.

The Governor’s budget proposal for education is a step in the right direction, but unfortunately, it’s not sufficient.

I have been a teacher on and off for most of my career. Teaching is the most meaningful, challenging, intellectual, and socially useful work there is. As a teacher and a parent, I have seen the quality of our facilities, the availability of our resources, and teacher retention rates drop significantly since I first stepped into a Virginia public school classroom in 2001 and since my own children first enrolled in them in 2009. Our schools are being held together by a thread--of educators and staff who do so out of a sense of obligation, duty, and service. We have less time, more responsibilities, and fewer resources to do the same job we used to, and there are, understandably, fewer people willing to work unpaid overtime and for diminished salaries and benefits, just to fulfill minimum requirements, because it’s not sustainable or manageable, nor is it fair.

As a state, we will never attract the best and brightest with these working and learning conditions, and with the current salaries and resources It is easy to work a ten-, twelve-, or fifteen-hour day as a teacher—I do this regularly—and still feel that it’s not enough, and to go home feeling like there was so much more you could have done. The best teachers know when their students are being short-changed, and they will leave (and have left and are leaving) rather than continue to experience that feeling of inadequacy day after day.

Adding more to the budget—at least 2 billion more is needed—for education is vital to our economy, to the intellectual, social/emotional development of our children, and to our democracy. Our public schools are our greatest public democratic institution and they are holding on by a thread. As the saying goes: if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

Thank you for your time and for your service to our Commonwealth."