It might be up to ‘entitled’ NYC parents to fix this “distance learning” mess; well good!

“…Some parents at highly-regarded Forest Hill elementary school PS 196 said their teacher has gone weeks without personal interaction with their child…” — NY Post

I have spent enough years in public education (at multiple levels), to fully grasp the apartheid of quality educational learning opportunities that form the basic framework of America’s public school systems. Anyone who says different is either an enabler of that discriminatory system, or, well, I not sure what to say that would be nice.

When I became a superintendent in 2000 I inherited an ‘unofficial’ NYCDOE policy. It seemed that teachers who won their arbitration cases (and there were a lot of them), against principals who were trying to rate them ‘unsatisfactory’ were somehow sent to specific districts and schools (you can’t send them back to their original school for a lot of reasons). To be specific, they were sent to Title-1 school districts and schools. I only found out about this ‘process’ because one of my principals called me practically in tears one day saying: “Superintendent Johnson, we are working so hard to turn this school around; and we are making tremendous progress; please, I can’t take a teacher that’s going to hurt us!” She was right, this was a school that had one of the highest concentrations of homeless students in the city; and yet we were making some demonstrative academic achievement progress. I called in the Director of HR and she confirmed that indeed she had directed the teacher to that particular school. “Why?” I asked, “Clearly that’s a school we are investing a lot of resources (e.g. teacher center, extra AP & staff-developer, STEM lab and F/T science teacher, art & music programs, etc.) to turn-it-around; at this point, we can only send good instructional practitioners into that school!” (beside we would ‘own’ that tenured teacher next year!) Her honest and sincere answer was painfully startling as it was enlightening. “I know you are doing everything possible to fix this district and a lot of people are fighting against you, and so if I sent that teacher to P.S X, Y or Z; the parents would raise hell and give you problems.” I thanked her (at times as a leader you must focus on the ‘good intentions’) and then directed her to “send the teacher back”. This led to my receiving a call from an official from central who proceeded to explain to me “how things work in community school districts”; a not-so-subtle dig at my having come from that less politically driven “High School Division”. I listened politely, and then informed the official that: “This process does not work for me, and therefore I am not taking her; and will not take any like her in the future.” I continued, “the Chancellor charged me with turning around what is in everyone’s estimation the most underperforming district (CSD29Q) in the city, and that’s what I am going to do!” “I would be happy to meet with you and the Chancellor, and if he directs me to take the teacher I will!” Never heard from him again and the process of ‘dumping’ (from both bad ratings and rubber rooms) personnel into our district stopped! I did not celebrate over this victory because I was fully aware that my stand meant that my colleagues/friends in places like districts: 9, 12, and 16 would suffer.

School systems nationally, not just NYC, have different ‘response modes’ for different communities. I and many others have said from the beginning that this “distance learning” thing was more effective public relations then efficacious public education. And further, this school closure crisis, if not addressed in a radical and strategically smart way, would produce dramatic learning losers and learning winners*.

In fairness to the NYCDOE some of that learning winning and losing can’t be controlled by any school district. Those children who have parents with the financial resources, education, information, and time, will gain during this school closure time. And it would be professionally unethical to ask (even if they would listen) those parents to decelerate their home instruction program. But if the official ‘distance-learning’ program is not working in more ‘entitled’ schools; then perhaps (and unfortunately but true) NYC’s elected officials will be forced to take some affirmatively drastic actions to fix the situation. And this could greatly help those communities where distance learning is also not working and could very much be inflicting long-term educational harm.

*“I said that the Covid-19 school closure situation would greatly help some students, while badly hurting others, well…”: http://majmuse.net/2020/03/26/i-said-that-the-covid-19-school-closure-situation-would-greatly-help-some-students-while-greatly-hurting-others-well/

*“Long-term school closures will produce student winners and losers”: http://majmuse.net/2020/03/24/notes-from-in-house-exile-sadly-the-u-s-covid-19-virus-pandemic-will-expose-and-expand-the-prek-12-educational-learning-opportunity-gap/

Notes from In-house exile: Long-term school closures will produce student winners and losers

Long-term school closures will produce student winners and losers

(6) March 23, 2020

Sadly, the U.S. Covid-19 virus pandemic will expose and expand the PreK-12 Educational Learning Opportunity Gap. It seems that many school districts around the nation are closing, for perhaps the entire school year. Let’s just be honest for a moment in stating that even during non-pandemic times, there is a huge formal (things learned in school) and informal (things learned outside of school) Educational Learning Opportunity Gap (ELOG), existing between school districts, schools in the same or different district(s), and even different students inside of the same school building.

This ELOG can amount to conceptual-knowledge and performance-skills learning differences that can stretch over many years, even though two students on either end of the gap spectrum are ‘technically’ in the same grade. Thus, two students in the same 8th grade, but in different schools, could mean that one student has not yet received or is not proficient in the 5th grade curriculum learning standards; while the other student has mastered the 8th grade curriculum learning standards and could in fact be taking high school courses in middle school e.g. Algebra; and yet officially both of these students are referred to as being “8th graders”.

A Gap by its real name…

I prefer the phrase Educational Learning Opportunity Gap as opposed to the more popular “Achievement Gap”; because the “Achievement Gap” suggest, albeit subtly, that the gap is somehow caused by the students themselves. The ELOG however speaks to the inherent capabilities of students who are artificially under-performing academically because they are exposed to inferior school-building leadership and/or ineffective/inferior instructional practices; and of course this ‘under-learning’ is always accompanied by the low expectations of the child’s gifts and talents. And as we now know very well, students will naturally rise or sink to the expectations levels of the adults assigned to educate them.
Now I am sure (having heard it for so many years) that this will send some of my colleagues to screaming about the ‘causal factors’ of: poverty, parent’s level of education, and the level of parent interest in their child’s education.
First, it is my 11 year principal experience that ‘poor parents’, parents who are limited in or speak no English, those who for whatever reason were not able to take full advantage of formal schooling themselves; are in fact, the most clear (not having a great deal of financial wealth to pass on to their children), about the power and necessity of acquiring an education. They may not express it in the ‘perfect-parent’ phrasing format that we professionals want to hear, and they may not know how to effectively play the ‘parent as educational partner’ role; but their desire to see their child succeed academically is absolutely there; and it always depends on how the professional educator ‘reads the situation’.
But educating, encouraging and empowering the emergence of ‘positive-parent-push’ behaviors is part of that highly effective principal’s job, and it is desperately what these students and their parents need; even when those same parents push-back against it.

The most powerful, confidence and competence building service you can perform for a politically and/or economically disenfranchised child, is to make them high academic performers. Which is why that highly effective principal must also strategically design initiatives and programs that can counteract the deleterious effects of poverty and that child’s possible lack of quality informal educational exposures (e.g. museums, cultural institutions, music, dance, art and STEM lessons, etc.) It’s the school-building leadership operationalization praxis of In loco parentis (in the place of a parent).

All of the above leads me to make my unfortunate hypotheses: That those children who already live on the ‘short end of the formal and informal educational stick’, will suffer the most from ‘learning lost’ during this closed down period.
Many parents will have (one or more): the money, time, contacts, information, connections, education and access to hardware and internet technology, that will allow them to provide anywhere from a decent to excellent ‘emergency’ learning experience for their child.
Further, there are vast difference between students in their ‘personality approach’ to the ‘taking of control’ of their own learning concept; you can see it in the eyes and attitudes of incoming 9th graders (others will ‘catch that fire’ in the 10th grade); it is those ‘on mission’ focused eyes that are saying: “OK, I will be here for 4 years, I know where I am going next, I know what I need to do, I’m not here to play, let’s go!” Those students,* who are highly self-motivated, and practice good learning habits will trust me, make a ‘learning feast’ out of this down school time; as they knowledge acquisition sprint pass their less motivated peers; especially in the middle and high schools levels.
Finally, parents exert different levels of authoritative and inspirational power over their children when it comes to home-learning; and so, the school can do a great job in placing ‘school-work’ (and many districts, schools and teachers are doing just that) online; and the child could have an internet computer (or phone) connection; but who is going to make sure that the child is doing the work?

After the plague, what must schools do?

I have given some thought of late as if I was a principal today and what strategies would I employ in this present crises. And of course I always think about how I would be worried-sad about my kids being ‘in those streets’. But when I thought ahead to next year, I imagined my school engaging in an academic recovery and reclamation project on a large school-wide scale; something that we actually employed every year on a smaller scale. And that is how we planned during the summer as to how we would bring students ‘up-to-speed’ who were performing below grade level in middle school; and also how we would address the academic needs of those few students who came from countries outside of the US and were missing significant years of schooling due to war or a natural disaster.
My staff and I would probably come up with some amazingly unprecedented phenomenal plan** to address all of the incoming 9th graders as well as the ‘rising’ 10th , 11th, and 12th graders, who all essentially lost a year of school. The good news is that we would already have the ‘boiler-plate’ plan that was used for those annually arriving under-performing 9th graders; who although they did not physically miss a year of schooling, they definitely arrived missing one, some or a lot of effective learning years of schooling.

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*Report to the Principal’s Office:Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership; chapter 28; pg. 441: “Profile of a Good and Effective High School Student”.

** The “School access to supplementary financial and human resources gap” is also being displayed during the Covid-19 school closing crises and will be made even more obvious when schools reopen and attempts are made to seal the learning loss breaches, which will cause all students, regardless of performance level or ‘entitlement status’, to suffer academically. Many schools like my own, had a school 501c3 foundation and a fundraising (‘real money’, not cookies, candy and pictures money) plan, which could supplement the school’s centrally allocated (but always inadequate) district budgets. I would be quite surprised (no, extremely surprised) if after facing this major health crisis, that state governments will have the extra money to give schools what they will really need to ‘fix’ a missed year of learning. Particularly for our severe academically struggling students, and those students with IEP’s who really needed, but did not receive, a modified version or the required support for those online instructional programs.