Bad Leadership Drove Schools into Crisis

Michael Barbour, a professor at Touro University California and an expert on K-12 online learning, believes that more than half of the nation’s school superintendents “should be fired.”…

Michael Barbour, a professor at Touro University California and an expert on K-12 online learning, believes that more than half of the nation’s school superintendents “should be fired.”

His blistering criticism stems from the fact that, deep into the 2020–2021 school year, many schools are still struggling with virtual learning during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, when support for teachers would seem to matter most, their wisdom has too often been overlooked.

Stories of school districts’ online learning systems crashing are widespread. Teachers complain about being excluded from decisions regarding online curriculum and pedagogy. Alarming numbers of students are not engaged or not showing up, especially in low-income areas and among communities of color.

The chaos is especially concerning given that 76 percent of parents say their children are attending school remotely, either full or part time. “Any school leader who didn’t reach out to teachers to ask what had worked well and what didn’t and then use that [to prepare for the fall reopening],” Barbour tells me, “committed a dereliction of duty.”

Barbour’s ire might be justified. In California, for example, fewer than 10 percent of school districts offered more than sixteen hours of training for teachers during the summer, when schools could have been preparing to reopen with online learning.

Improving remote learning, many experts agree, would mean creating spaces for teachers to collaborate and share models of effective online instruction and lesson planning.

“The disregard of teachers’ shared professional expertise and practical knowledge is no accident,” wrote Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz, an education policy historian and author of Blaming Teachers, on the debacle of fall school reopenings.

This disregard is all the more galling given the #Red4Ed wave of teacher rebellions that took place in 2018–2019, when educators—mostly in politically red states—held sickouts, walkouts, and street demonstrations to protest a lack of funding, attacks on teacher professionalism, and threats to close and privatize public schools.  

The teachers’ actions led to increased teacher pay, smaller class sizes, and more nurses and counselors in schools. But during the pandemic, when support for teachers would seem to matter most, their wisdom has too often been overlooked.

“In the spring, we had to come up with creative ways to support our families,” says Milwaukee, Wisconsin, educator Glenn Carson. He describes an intense effort to deliver devices and hotspots to homes, learn new technologies, and conduct family outreach.

“I video-recorded my lessons and arranged one-on-one virtual meetings with students,” says Kathy Dorman, a high school teacher in Providence, Rhode Island.

Despite these innovations, online learning has never been as effective as in-person classes. The rapid switch to going virtual made that mode of instruction even more challenging, especially for low-income, Black, and Latinx students.

And at least seven million students with disabilities and learning impairments were being left behind due to school closures. This is on top of the nearly sixteen million students who had no reliable Internet connection when the pandemic began.

But school superintendents aren’t solely to blame—policy leaders have also completely failed schools, teachers, and families.

In March, when Congress passed the CARES Act with $13.2 billion for schools, it was widely acknowledged that it was insufficient to meet most schools’ needs. It wasn’t enough to pay for free broadband access and laptops for students, hire more teachers and school staff, and overcome school budget cuts.

Yet President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Senate spent months doing nothing. Most of these top-down failures, in turn, trickled down to teachers. And now, in schools that have decided to reopen in-person (either full time or partially), 86 percent of teachers say they must purchase their own personal protective equipment, and 11 percent buy it for their students.

What the pandemic revealed about public education is that schools have become the essential safety nets for families, that access to education services is grossly unequal, and that the education process, at its very core, is about the relationships between teachers and their students.

If education policy leaders want to improve the way they run schools during a pandemic, maybe they should start with that.


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