The Frontline of Education Reform

I finally have some time to sit down and get several thoughts out into a blog post. I know I am not alone, but the last five months have been crazy, and writing a blog post has not been my priority. I’ll start by setting the scene. My district started back on August 10th with full five-day attendance for all students. We have no special schedules; it is all kids, every day. I was concerned that the required mask-wearing would be a huge issue, but students are wearing masks for the most part. There are currently four categories of students in the district. 

Home-Schooled Students: These are the students/families who have chosen not to attend school. Our certified staff has no contact or responsibility for these students. I am not sure if there are any services provided for this group, but families are essentially responsible for their children’s learning.

Remote Learning Students: These students have chosen not to be at school but have the district provide them with their learning experiences for the first semester. Our school district has chosen to contract with two 3rd party vendors. One vendor is for K-4th grade and the other for 5th-12th grade. These students use our iPads to learn on these platforms. We provide technical support for these devices. While this support has been challenging, we are muddling through it. There is a certified teacher who students are assigned that act as a guide through the curriculum. These teachers are not responsible for the actual teaching of the material. Ideally, these teachers are a point of contact for these remote students.  

Quarantined Students: This group of students is fluid. They are waiting on COVID 19 tests to come back and might only be out for a few days while some were in close contact with a student who had tested positive. These students could be out for up to fourteen days. Quarantined students are learning right along with those students who are attending school in person. They also have a district-issued iPad.

In-Person Students: Think traditional school setting, except with masks and one-way hallways and stairs. The district encourages a three-foot social distance, though that is difficult for some classrooms. Students who are in school are issued an iPad. Both quarantined and in-person students are using Schoology as the LMS, which is new to all of us. 

Enough about the background of my district…I want to turn to the blog’s title, “Frontline of Reform,” because one hope that I have for our collective experience since March is that education will change for the better. I hope that teachers, administrators, and even parents will self-reflect and see that there might be a better way of “doing” school. The schedule rolled out by my district gets students back into school, but at what costs? I want to skip over the overall health concerns and get to the pedagogical concerns. Over time many teachers have worked on implementing new strategies that involve collaboration and student voice and choice. Like any district, not all teachers embrace these new strategies, but I can see that we are making strides in thinking about what it means to educate our youth effectively. Social distancing rules are making classrooms look a lot like they did when I started teaching in 1991. Desks are back to straight rows with students facing the front of the room. Gone are the creative classroom layouts that promote more student interaction. There are fewer opportunities to do group work, and, as a result, collaborative activities are harder to plan and implement. I am worried that these changes will set us back in terms of pedagogy.

As more and more in-person students quarantine, it is evident to me that this is the group that might drive education reform. I think these quarantined students, and the teachers trying to teach these students, are on the front lines of education reform. The fluidity is problematic because teachers don’t know who will quarantine on any given day. More importantly, these students have been stressful because teachers don’t know what/how to provide for them. Do they record lessons and send them to students? Do they make them a part of the class by having them join a Google Meet? When and how do they take tests and quizzes? The answer to each of these questions depends on the teacher. These types of questions are common. When do I have time to record lessons when I am also teaching a classroom of students? Is there a privacy issue with having a live class meeting? Can I require a student to attend my Meet at the time of my class? How can I guarantee the integrity of my tests if they are at home? Is it fair to give the same test to students who might be able to use Google to find the answers? Can I just wait until they return to school to make up the assessments? 

I could go on and on with the questions that teachers have about this group of students. Here is the thing, I think teachers working through these problems and the answers they come up with can make school better. Our district is lucky to have coaches that teachers can turn to to help navigate these questions. For the teacher who can’t imagine giving the same test to at-home students as in-person students, they might start to think about the purpose of assessments. If a student can look up answers on Google, is that the most effective type of assessment? A self-reflective teacher might start to think about ways of designing assessments that focus more on application rather than knowledge. A teacher engaged in self reflection might begin to ask if a recorded lesson is effective for students who are home, maybe it would be just as effective for in-person students. That same teacher could explore different possibilities of what class time looks like. Perhaps it is less direct instruction and more student conference-based. Ultimately, I think if we do it right, we can make some significant strides toward making schools more relevant than they have been for some students.¬†

For this period to not be a lost opportunity, teachers have to be given time and be willing to self-reflect. If teachers are always just putting out fires and working one day at a time, they will not be able to leverage this new experience for their students’ betterment. Administrators and Board members have to be creative by figuring out ways of giving teachers time to start to be proactive rather than reactive. The onus isn’t just on the official school leaders; educators need to take a hard look at what and how we have been running our classrooms and make changes that will benefit students moving forward. One of my fears is that when all this is “over,” we will wipe the sweat from our brows and go back to the way that we were. I don’t want all of the work of teachers to be in vain. 

Don Sturm

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