Good Teachers Will Know How to Help Our Children Thrive after a Year of COVID-19 Disruption

This spring has been filled with a debate about whether or not standardized testing in public schools should be continued or cancelled. And right now there seems to be a widespread obsession with measuring students’ “learning loss” in this disrupted COVID-19 year. A lot of this anxiety about whether the COVID-19 generation will ever be able to catch up has less to do with the students themselves, however, and more to do with the fact that many people don’t really know what teachers do. Some people think of teachers essentially as babysitters; others imagine teachers merely lecturing all day in front of classrooms of students taking notes or dozing as they sit in rows of desks. Lots of people seem to imagine that teachers won’t know what to do with their students unless they see the scores on the federally required standardized tests in English language arts and math.

Back in the winter, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a letter from 74 national public education advocacy organizations and ten thousand individuals to the recently nominated education secretary, Miguel Cardona. In the letter asking Cardona to cancel standardized testing in this year of COVID-19 school closures and disruption, the writers concluded: “To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

Last week, as part of a series of columns this spring on how teachers can support students once back in school, Valerie Strauss published a wonderful piece by Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento.

As he reflects upon the students who spent much of the current school year online or on hybrid in-person/online schedules, Ferlazzo supports research showing that remedial classes—which go back and start with the basics one step at a time—are a bad plan. Ferlazzo agrees with researchers who have demonstrated that “accelerated” learning is a good idea, but he advises school districts not to spend a lot of money at the publishing houses and online companies promoting their expensive “accelerated learning” products:

“‘Accelerated Learning’ appears to be the buzzword of the day in education. It’s what all schools are supposed to be doing to help students recover from another buzzword—‘learning loss.’… I suspect that a fair number of people are going to try to make a lot of money off of ‘accelerated learning’ products and professional development over the next year and more.  And, though I agree that accelerated learning is what is called for right now (and always!), I also don’t think it’s anything new, don’t think it’s anything magical, and don’t think it’s anything that districts need to spend a lot of money to learn about. It is, in fact, what good teachers of English Language Learners have been doing for years. Good ELL teaching is good teaching for everybody!”

Of course, Ferlazzo is not writing about some of what teachers do in classes for non-speakers and non-readers of English. He isn’t writing about pattern practice drills or conversation “dialogues” that reinforce the rudiments of English syntax and help students learn the nuances of conversation. These parts of English language classes are more like mind-numbing remedial education.

Instead, Ferlazzo writes about something more complicated and more subtle: “ELL teachers know that whatever kind of schooling their students received or did not receive in their home countries, they nevertheless bring a wealth of experience and knowledge into the classroom. This knowledge includes social emotional learning skills like resilience, and understandings that can be connected to academic content. (They might not know specifically about Mardi Gras, but they will know about cultural celebrations; they may not know about the American Civil War, but they will know about conflicts in their home country/region; they may not know about the specific details of climate change, but they may know that one of the reasons their families were forced to leave their country might have been due to more recent drought conditions.)  During the pandemic… all of our students have acquired an enormous amount of other knowledge and skills.”

Ferlazzo suggests that good teachers know “how to look at their students through the lens of assets and not deficits.”

He suggests that good teachers will build their students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and explore. They will make “students feel they have some control over what they are being taught and how they are learning. Providing choice is an easy way for teachers to incorporate this quality” including well designed writing assignments and homework options. Good teachers build confidence instead of threatening students about falling behind: “Research says that no matter how much we say that people learn a lot from failure, most do not….”  Good teachers make their classrooms into settings for relatedness, “where students feel like the work they are being asked to do is bringing them into relationship with people they like and respect” including the teacher and other students through group work.  Finally, good teachers know how to make the subject matter of the class relevant to students’ lives, to their personal interests, and to what’s happening in the world.

Good teachers activate and provide prior knowledge. “Prior knowledge is not just what students bring to our classrooms. It is also knowledge that we strategically provide so they can access even newer content that we will be teaching… (W)e are better learners of something new if we can connect it to something we already know.”

Ferlazzo adds that good teachers make students comfortable emotionally by emphasizing supportive relationships, and organizing classes according to predictable routines. Good teachers use all sorts of “formative assessments”—“low stakes tools” that show the teacher what students can do and where they need help. Good teachers provide study organizers—charts and graphic organizers, note-taking strategies, writing frames and other techniques to help them be independent learners.  And finally, Ferlazzo advocates the use of some adaptive online instruction tools, though in this case, he is very clear: “Tech has its place in education, and it also has to be kept in its place… Really, if we were going to be able to ‘technify’ ourselves to academic excellence, wouldn’t that have happened in many places over the past 15 months?”

I am struck with the similarity of Ferlazzo’s definition of great “accelerated” learning as students return to school post-pandemic with education professor and writer Mike Rose’s basic definition of good teaching. Rose’s book, the 1995, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (with a new edition in 2006), is the story of a four year trip he took across the United States to observe excellent teaching.  Possible Lives came right before our nation fell into the trap of No Child Left Behind and the era of corporate, test based school accountability.  It is the very best book I know about great teaching.

Nearly 20 years after the publcation of Possible Lives, in an extraordinary 2014 article pushing back against the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top era’s school reform, Rose summarizes what he has learned about teaching over a career of observing great teachers: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

Mike Rose, a scholar who has studied good teaching over a long career, and Larry Ferlazzo, an experienced and thoughtful high school teacher, warn us not to underestimate what good teachers know how to do.

Will New California Law Banning For-Profit Charter Schools Make a Difference?

Many of the states passed charter school enabling legislation back in the 1990s, before there was any understanding of how these privately operated schools—naively imagined as innocent incubators for innovation—might take advantage of public goodwill and access to pools of tax dollars to find ways to make a profit. By now we ought to have learned a lesson.

There are a few instances of fledgling regulation—notably last week, when California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that is supposed to ban for-profit charter management companies and for-profit “sweeps” management contracts under which for-profit management companies take over and operate charters that are formally not-for-profit.

Living in Ohio, however—where the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow stole what is now known to be well over a billion dollars over a seventeen year period while legislators and potential state regulators looked the other way as campaign contributions flowed from the school’s founder and operator—I am skeptical about any state’s capacity to develop the political will to stop the ripoff.  Strong, ethical leadership by politicians would be required.

The problem with California’s new oversight law, according to those who have studied it, is that it really only pretends to impose oversight.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss fills in some history: “California has permitted charter schools—which are publicly funded but privately operated, sometimes by for-profit companies—since 1992.  Since then, the charter sector has grown so much that the state now has the most charter schools in the country, and the most charter school students.  It is estimated that there are about 1,275 charter schools, with a collective student population of about 630,000 students in California. Nearly 35 charter schools, with some 25,000 students are run by five for-profit companies. Though the number of charter schools has grown in California, oversight has not….”

Governor Jerry Brown, the founder himself of two charter schools in Oakland, has never been a fan of regulation.  In fact in the past, he has vetoed legislation that would have increased regulation. Last week, Brown, uncharacteristically, signed a law which bans for-profit charter schools, like the state’s affiliates of online schools operated by K12, Inc. The new law also prohibits the practice of nonprofit charter boards of directors’ hiring for-profit management companies to operate their schools. Gov. Brown has received widespread praise for signing—finally—a law regulating his state’s charter school sector.

But Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, spent months researching and writing Charters and Consequences, a blockbuster November, 2017, expose of what she dubbed, “California charters gone wild.” I urge you to review this fascinating report about charter school operations that, you would think, ought to have been banned by law a long time ago. In her response to Jerry Brown’s recent signature of Assembly Bill 406, however, Burris regrets that California’s new law will not effectively control some of the worst practices in California’s for-profit charter sector: “Assembly Bill 406, no matter how well intended, will not shut down California’s for-profit schools anytime soon. In some ways, it may make matters worse by obscuring the reality of what many charter schools are—schools run by private corporations that receive public funding with insufficient oversight and supervision.  And whether they are for-profit or nonprofit, there will still be ample opportunity in the charter sector for profiteers to take advantage of the public treasure and trust.”

In her report last November, Burris described tiny, broke and underfunded elementary school districts that have turned themselves into charter school authorizers and subsequently chartered affiliates of the largest national chain of for-profit charters, K12 Inc. The purpose is simple: Despite that the students in the online school are not required to reside within the boundaries of their school districts, these districts have been permitted to authorize big online charter schools merely for the purpose of collecting authorizing fees to pad their own school district budgets. Now that Gov. Brown has signed the new law, Burris still worries that unscrupulous operators will continue to find ways to negotiate around the details of the regulations.

She describes the Dehesa Elementary School District and an action the district took just last week to get around the new law before it takes effect: “It (Dehesa) has one tiny elementary school of 145 students, yet the district shows a total enrollment of 8,677 students due to its authorization of nine charter schools that can pull students from anywhere in San Diego County and adjoining counties… What is most interesting to note is that three K12 Inc. University Prep online charters, including those in Dehesa… were granted their operational number by the California State Education Department on September 9, two days after Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill banning for-profit charter schools. That is because the bill does not go into effect until July 1, 2019, giving K12 Inc. and other for-profit corporations nearly a full year during which they can work with authorizers to submit applications for new charter schools… And once they are authorized, they can’t be shut down until they are up for renewal in five years, which gives them a pass until 2024.”

At the Education Law Prof Blog, Derek Black tries to be optimistic. Considering the new California law, he concludes: “(I)t bars the most egregious and problematic behavior out there. And if this is just the first step toward more reform, we should welcome it. On the other hand, this bill leaves an enormous number of problems untouched and, if the public is left thinking those problems no longer exist, California is in a worse position now than it was before the bill.”

Reporting for California’s EdSource, John Fensterwald quotes Michael Kraft, a senior vice president for communications at K12 Inc., who doesn’t seem particularly worried that the new California law will curtail the operation of the affiliates of the nation’s biggest for-profit online charter school. Kraft explains that K12 Inc.’s relationship with its California operator, the California Virtual Academy, “has evolved over the years to the point where they (the affiliates of the California Virtual Academy) are independently run schools and the company does not believe that the bill would change how it currently delivers products and services.” Fensterwald paraphrases Kraft describing K12 Inc.’s plan to continue operating in California: “If it has to make changes to meet the requirements of the bill, then it will.”