Some Schools Are Rising to the Challenge. Guess Which Ones Aren’t?

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I wrote last week about Princeton Regional Public Schools’ high expectations for students during this pandemic in comparison to the low expectations for students who attend nearby Trenton Public Schools. If these school closures were (as originally predicted by our commander-in-chief) a short hiatus from traditional brick-and-mortar classroom instruction, we’d call it an inconvenience. But for students who attend districts like Trenton, both within and without New Jersey, lengthy school closures due to COVID-19 are a calamity.  

Example: In Princeton “students will be provided with an alternate learning experience to continue to progress with the content and skills of the course or grade-level curriculum.” (And some parents, no doubt, are shelling out $124/hour for private tutors.) 

But how about students in Trenton? From an article today in  Advance Media:

Just 7,600 [out of 12,600] had logged on to the online platform where the district’s teachers and students could keep track of assignments and complete coursework digitally, said interim Superintendent Ronald Lee. Five thousand students — 40% — had never accessed the site, leaving their progress a question mark.

That’s the chasm: Some schools — disproportionately wealthy –are planning to keep students learning. Others–disproportionately poor– are hoping for maintenance, that students won’t regress. Whenever NJ districts reopen, the achievement gap between low-income and wealthier students — already one of the highest in the nation —will be that much more gaping.

This is not the fault of teachers or students. The bulk of the blame lies at the feet of our institutional culture of low expectations (see Ed. Comm. Repollet’s “64 Floor”) as well as ZIP code-determined placements. “There is a very real possibility,” said Matthew Feinstein, the executive director of NJ LEEP (which helps low-income first-generation Newark students prepare for college), “of so many kids being left so much more behind.”

Speaking of Newark and low expectations, the district website explains that students will read textbooks and fill out worksheets for some unclear amount of time. However, there are higher expectations for students in the three selective magnet schools  which have “Individual Learning at Home Plans.” For what it’s worth, at one of those magnets, Technology High, 14% of students are Black while the district as a whole is 40% Black. (I also looked at the two largest charter school operators in Newark, KIPP and Uncommon, which almost exclusively serve low-income students of color. There, all students have already been supplied with laptops and broadband internet; starting today, new learning for KIPP and Uncommon will commence and student work will be graded once they return to school.)

In Paterson, another low-income NJ district, Superintendent Eileen Shafer says the district “can’t afford” to give computers to all students and 25,000 will remain without them. The district is relying on homework packets. Shafer says, “while the worksheets allow students to review concepts they’ve already learned, they offer little new instruction” and she fears “the school year will simply be lost.”

(Note: This is not about money. The total annual cost per pupil in Paterson is $30K/year.)

We can stop beating up on NJ. This is happening throughout the country as already-privileged students continue to learn while, for most underprivileged families, all they can hope for is that their children won’t lose ground.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE)  has started compiling a nationwide database for how districts are implementing online instruction in order to “provide transparency so decision-makers can find solutions as quickly as possible.” Here are the current highlights:

  • Most districts are still not providing any instruction. The majority provide links to general online resources but no direction on how to use them. Some districts (38% of those reviewed) go further to provide formal curriculum, but not instruction. Five districts (6%) have released no information about distance learning plans or access to general resources. More districts have rolled out new plans, however, so we can soon expect to see a larger share providing some kind of instruction.
  • Of those providing instruction, few provide something akin to a comprehensive educational experience. This week we looked more deeply to assess how many districts seem to be providing what could be considered a coherent instructional experience. Just four districts (less than 5% of those reviewed) provide formal curriculum, online instruction, and student progress monitoring. 
  • None of the 82 districts we reviewed say they are attempting fully “synchronous” learning, where students engage in live discussions with teachers and classmates—though efforts in Cobb County, Ga., where educators are building community via Microsoft Teams, come close. The other districts appear to be engaging in “asynchronous” or “hybrid” remote learning, where students view daily instructional videos from their teachers, or receive daily assignments and feedback. 
  • Connectivity remains a nagging question. About 40% of districts reviewed are providing devices, up from a third last week. About 15% provide mobile WiFi/hotspot access, a slight improvement from last week. However, as the New York Times underscored citing CRPE data in a recent editorial, students across the country remain shut out of digital classrooms, and this remains a major unmet need in many school districts.

It doesn’t have to this way. CRPE’s database includes Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island, where 80% of students are low-income and 95% are of color. Providence has a poor record of serving students (as catalogued by my pal and colleague Erika Sanzi) but seems to have risen to the occasion. Here’s CRPE’s description of Providence’s distance learning plan, which started a week ago:.

– Distance Learning Plan: Students must attend school from 8am – 3:30pm, and teachers must take attendance through Google Sheets. Plans are organized for Grades PreK-2, 3-5, 6-8, and high school, with online and offline options. Online options include links to education resources, such as Khan Academy. Offline options ask students to read, reflect via writing and journaling, and communicate with peers. Plans exist in both English and Spanish.

– Technology and WiFi Access: The district offers a variety of tools for families to take home, such as pencils, books, a Chromebook, and Wi-Fi/internet hotspots. Families can fill out an online form or reach out directly to their school principal to schedule a pick up.

– Student Training: The district’s website has a FAQ section for students, which outlines distance learning expectations and information.

Special Populations Support: The district has a plan for distance learning at home for special education-related services. Like the other distance learning plans, these include both online and offline options for students and are organized by grade level. Plans exist for speech and language, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. The district also provides links to assist families with Chromebook accessibility features and accomomdations. Specialized service teachers will also reach out to families during the week of March 23 to discuss what specialized instruction and support will look like during the closure.

Sure, it’s not Princeton. But it’s a far sight better than Trenton or Newark or Paterson, which have similar demographics. Whenever Providence students return to their buildings most likely they will have academically advanced from the school closure starting point. Why? Because they are progressing academically, not just marching in place.

This devastating pandemic, which experts predict will kill  200,000 Americans, becomes more calamitous when our leaders flounder. This includes educational leaders. There will be secondary coronavirus victims of all ilk. Some of them will be students whom we wrote off without even trying.

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