Over the last several weeks, I’ve partnered with numerous districts, schools and leadership networks. I’ve watched and listened carefully as they make sense of the pandemic and its impact on schooling. And as the father of two teenagers, I’ve watched my own district plan and re-plan how they will best meet student needs in a distance learning reality.
Simultaneously, I’ve watched the media, community members, and pundits discuss the pandemic’s impact on schools. As I’ve listened, I’ve heard and reheard certain ideas, often without evidence or context. Below are some of the myths I’ve most often heard.
Myth 1: Educators are sitting at home doing nothing and getting paid. On the whole, I’ve seen a groundswell of positivity for educators. With young people at home all day, parents are appreciating the expertise, patience and structure that teachers, administrators and schools offer their children. Parenthetically, I hope that this positivity lingers well past the reopening of schools. On occasion, however, I’ve heard members of particular communities wonder what educators have been doing during the government-ordered shut down, all while “collecting a steady paycheck.”
Based upon my experience working with numerous districts across multiple states, let me report that many educators are working harder than they ever have in their professional lives. Even when state direction and district plans were absent, numerous teachers and administrators began reaching out to families to ensure the well-being of students. Others took on additional responsibilities, helping districts move from a traditional curriculum to one that could be delivered from a distance. And, let’s be clear, many are doing it while caring for their own children at home.
On a regular basis I hear educators describe their state of exhaustion. They are not complaining, they are merely explaining—everything is new, the emotional and intellectual stress is elevated, and their time commitment is high.
Myth 2: Educators are not thinking about equity. Several prominent advocacy organizations have appropriately stepped up to ring the alarm about the pandemic’s disproportionate and negative impact on our most vulnerable children. I’ve also read as some of these organizations have penned op-ed articles and manuscripts—often with very little practical guidance—that subtly suggest educators do not hold equity at the fore of their mind.
My sample might be biased, but in the early days following the shutdown, equity was paramount in the concerns of most district and school leaders with whom I spoke. Educators worried about the trauma of the pandemic and its short and long-term impact on students facing food and housing insecurity. Others worried about the effects of long-term stress on families, as experts predicted a spike in domestic violence. District and school leaders worried about how to get technology—devices and internet signals—into all homes within their respective communities. And, from day 1, I heard educators worried about how to provide high-quality distance learning for students needing special accommodations or who are second-language learners. With remarkable nimbleness, districts and schools became primary food sources for students, and sometimes entire families, providing “touchless” pickup locations across our communities.
And the worry is not gone. Educators recognize that there will be learning loss, and many are already planning for how to address this reality for each and every child.
Myth 3: We are doing enough to solve inequity. All that said, we have so much to do to address the inequities that this pandemic has revealed in such stark terms. Let’s be clear, equity involves so much more than making sure that all students have access to technology at home.
We must, as a society, create a safety net that protects youth. Schools, as the public institution that consistently reaches the most young people in America, need to be a substantial aspect of this safety net.
In too many places, our schools unknowingly (and sometimes knowingly) replicate the inequities of our greater society. We must ignite an urgency and foster a consciousness for recognizing and addressing inequities in educational structures, policies and practices. We must expect schools to actively disrupt inequities and accelerate learning and achievement for students furthest behind.
Given the research on the impact of summer recess, it is reasonable to suspect that many of our most vulnerable will have lost significant ground in content and skills once this pandemic is over. We’ll need to redouble our efforts to shrink the gaps that plague our society and schools.
Myth 4: The Most Important Challenge Before us is Getting Back to Normal. The national and local news media seem obsessed with the timeline between now and when schools are back up and running (or, more generally, when our lives can get back to normal). Some celebrity pundits have posited the levels of loss (in terms of student life) that should be considered tolerable so that we can get schools open and American back on its economic feet. Task forces are busy putting together plans for how to social distance within the schoolhouse, perhaps welcoming back classrooms and grade levels in shifts and re-configuring the day to reduce concentrations of students in any given place at any one time. Moreover, educators are working closely with public health officials on cleaning protocols to slow potential virus spread.
Yet there are important questions remaining should we choose to listen. Take, for example, grading.
In the weeks after schools were shut down—especially when it became clear that most of us would experience extended breaks from face-to-face schooling—district and school leaders contemplated the most appropriate grading policies given what students are facing. Do we continue our traditional grading policies? Do we move to temporary pass/fail models like many colleges and universities have adopted? Do we shift to a mastery-based grading system? Do we calculate 4th quarter grades into GPAs?
I’ve fielded numerous calls and emails on this topic, and since have reviewed the relevant scholarship. What is clear to me is that many traditional grading procedures are in place simply because they are that—traditional. We’ve been assigning grades to students as a fundamental staple of schooling for a century. But why?
To some, grades are intended to motivate students so they will work harder in their studies. For others, grades are ways of communicating with families about how students are progressing. Some educators, especially at the secondary and higher education levels, see grades as a needed signal to external stakeholders in a vast attainment game—high marks on assignments lead to strong semester grades, which lead to higher relative GPAs and increased chances of studying at selective colleges.
The problem is that vast numbers of studies raise serious questions about these articulated purposes. We know that grading practices are highly variable among teachers and between schools and districts. Grades seem to have a positive motivational effect on higher performing, grade-focused students, but they can have a discouraging impact on students who are furthest behind. Grades may even encourage students to adopt short-term strategies simply to earn a high mark, sometimes inhibiting meaningful and lasting learning.
As COVID-19 has disrupted the traditional, perhaps it is time for us to revisit some of the givens—what David Tyack and Larry Cuban called the “grammar of schooling.” We—educators, policymakers, community members—should have meaningful debates about the purpose of grading.
And we should debate the purpose of our curriculum, instructional delivery approaches, extracurriculars activities, and, while we are at it, public education.
Richard W. Lemons, EdD
Executive Director, CT Center for School Change