May 16, 2020

Distance Learning Pulls Back the Curtain on What Teachers Have Always Known

By Kara Cisco

This post is the fourth in our Education at a Distance series, centering the voices of students, parents, and educators during the COVID-19 crisis. 

We are six weeks into distance learning, and for 44% of my students, it is not going well. They are not on track to pass and master what I know they are capable of. That is not a reflection of the effort of my school, my pedagogy, my commitment as a teacher, or my students’ will to succeed. It is an indictment of public policy and leadership’s fundamental lack of consideration for the well-being of my students and their families.

We must own the fact that all of our students would be infinitely more successful at distance learning if any policymaker or political leader outside of our schools cared enough about children to muster the will and skill to demand change and invest in students’ potential, from birth through college.

As we sit steeped in the complications, pain, and barriers of a pandemic, I challenge all of us to reject the tired and misguided belief that failure rates reflect only teacher effectiveness. Instead, we must own the fact that all of our students would be infinitely more successful at distance learning if any policymaker or political leader outside of our schools cared enough about children to muster the will and skill to demand change and invest in students’ potential, from birth through college.

I’ve made profound adjustments to my curriculum—without lowering my expectations. I’ve reduced the number of standards in my civics and economics class to focus on essential learning targets. I’ve rewritten my curriculum so it’s thematically centered around our new COVID-19 reality—working within what is essentially a living lab. (And interest is high.) I’m differentiating with formative data as best I can in a way that is similar to what I would be doing in the classroom. And I’m doing so to compensate for the reality that nothing—absolutely nothing—could ever replace the impact of the direct support of a teacher or paraprofessional for multilingual learners, students who are significantly below grade level, and students receiving special education services. The way I communicate with students and families has transformed to include regular newsletters, text messages in multiple languages, postcards and letters home, and more phone calls home in two months than I’ve made in two years.

And I am the norm, not the exception, among my professional colleagues—both in my building and across the state. I feel certain of this as a teacher who is widely connected to others around the state and nation.

And yet, 44%.

The reasons that our students are struggling right now are widely reported … This information is not new, and many of us have been screaming about these injustices for years, not weeks or months.

The reasons that our students are struggling right now are widely reported: a litany that includes the digital divide, which significantly delayed learning for students waiting for school-issued devices or hotspots, economic instability, mental health concerns, food insecurity, etc. This information is not new, and many of us have been screaming about these injustices for years, not weeks or months. COVID-19 is simply laying their outcome bare for a wider swath of the population.

I’ve spent the better part of my morning thinking about that 44% failure rate. My instinct—like most teachers—is to take it personally. What am I doing wrong? Who do I need to call or reach out to? Are my expectations too high? Am I asking too much? No. That doubt—so common and familiar for any teacher—is a reflection of a culture that blames teachers and schools first and foremost.

Public policy that promotes the notion that needs should be met for some, not for all, is to blame, and it’s time to make a change.

It must be understood that 44% of my students are currently failing and the person that is to blame for that is you. Us. The state, the country. Our elected officials—even the good ones. Because right now, all of us—our elected officials in particular—need to scream louder. Public policy that promotes the notion that needs should be met for some, not for all, is to blame, and it’s time to make a change.

We know our students would not be failing at these rates if the right to consistent internet access was acknowledged years ago—around the time that the internet became a necessary utility for employment opportunities and critical communication from schools and social service agencies. We know that a larger percentage of students would be engaged with distance learning if housing was stable, pantries were full, healthcare was a right, not a luxury, and financial security in a pandemic was not dependent an individual family’s ability to save enough to cover several months of rent and utilities. These things – so critical for learning – are not the responsibility of schools, and yet schools grapple with them every day. Teachers have always understood that the economic prosperity which the state of Minnesota prides itself on will cease if we fail to meet the basic needs of Minnesota’s next generation of adults in the workforce. In the landscape of distance learning, I can only hope our elected officials and public policymakers will begin to understand this too.

It is so important that right now—in this moment—non-educators are forced to look at what we have known forever: The problem is not the teachers, it’s not the students, it’s not the parents. It never was.

I’m confident that my 44% failure rate will decrease considerably in the coming weeks, thanks to consistent efforts made by teachers and our school to connect with students and provide support. And my hope is that we as teachers do not succumb to the ubiquitous pressure to achieve a high passing rate by significantly lowering expectations. Because it is so important that right now—in this moment—non-educators are forced to look at what we have known forever: The problem is not the teachers, it’s not the students, it’s not the parents. It never was.

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