Pandemic Exposes the Limitations of Online Education

Schools are closed for the rest of the school year in most places, and despite herculean efforts of school teachers to transform school activities online, there are widespread problems.  What are the challenges for the nation’s over 90,000 public schools and 50 million public school students?

Schools everywhere are trying to adapt but are handicapped by the limitations of online education and vastly unequal access to broadband internet.

Learning online, whatever the platform, isn’t the same going to school.  Spontaneity and personal connection are harder to achieve, however skilled and imaginative the teacher. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss quotes Jack Schneider, Assistant Professor of Leadership in Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Director of Research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education, commenting on overall problems children have with remote learning: “Face-to-face interactions, personal relationships and human cues matter tremendously in the education of young people…. While virtual schools may be cheaper to operate—a major attraction for those looking to wring a profit out of public education—they are hardly an adequate replacement for their brick-and-mortar counterparts… Across time… the public has valued a broad range of outcomes—from the nurturing of creativity to the fostering of interracial friendships—that go well beyond content standards. Mindsets, dispositions, social skills and the like are simply much harder to teach online.”

Even more daunting is children’s unequal access to the technology that makes online schooling possible.  As online learning was launched in New York City two weeks ago, NY Times reporter Nikita Steward profiled a child discovering that she couldn’t use her iPad because the homeless shelter where she lives entirely lacks broadband access: “Shuttering the vast system, which includes 1,800 schools, was a serious challenge for the city, and the large-scale, indefinite school closures are uncharted territory, altering the lives and routines of 75,000 teachers, over one million children, and well over 1 million parents… On the first day of remote learning, while some parents in the city were posting cute photos of their children waving to their classmates and teachers as lessons were streamed live, Allia and thousands of other children living in New York City’s shelters and in overcrowded apartments did not have devices with built-in internet. There are about 450 shelters for families and single adults in the main shelter system, and most of them do not have Wi-Fi available for residents.”  Stewart reports that the school district is scrambling to provide devices for wi-fi access. In the New York City schools, the number of homeless students reached 114,000 again this year, 10 percent of the student population.

In school districts across the country, as in New York City, the coronavirus-driven school closures are exposing alarming inequality.  Last Friday for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell examined disparate access to education across the Cleveland Public Schools and some of its thirty neighboring suburban school districts: “In some cases, the differences between district plans are minor. Schools may be using different programs with different features. Some are distributing laptops to students this week, while others had already made one-to-one technology—providing an Internet device to every student—part of their academic plan long before the pandemic. Some teachers are offering ‘synchronous’ lessons online, classes in which both teachers and students are online at the same time and teachers can respond to questions as they lecture. But in most cases, teachers are recording short lessons in advance, letting students view them on websites like Google Classroom or even YouTube at any time. They then hold scheduled office hours on Google Meet or Zoom to talk to students or parents.”

The Cleveland School District seems to have fallen behind: “While other districts already have been giving online lessons and told parents of their rollout plan long ago, the Cleveland schools had not announced any plan for next week as of Friday morning. The district’s only official lessons have been paper packets of exercises, though students and parents have reported that some teachers have done more on their own. After a few days of paper lessons sent home when schools closed, parents and students must pick up new lessons at the 22 schools giving out free meals.  But with fewer than10% of district students picking up meals each day, it is unclear how many also picked up lessons, let alone completed them. This week, the district and the Cleveland Teachers Union had teachers trying to collect updated phone numbers addresses and email addresses for students—a challenge in a district whose students move frequently.”

O’Donnell adds that the Columbus School District has made a little more progress: “Columbus, Ohio’s largest district, had enough laptops and tablets for every student. But it has not solved the problem of Internet access for its poor students. One solution: upgrading wi-fi at its schools so students can do online lessons outside the locked buildings.”

For the Los Angeles Times, Sonali Kohli and Howard Blume report: “When school shut down last month, the district began distributing computers and arranged for free internet access—moves that have helped many. But the swift transition to online learning has presented massive challenges in the nation’s second largest school district, which serves mainly students from low-income families… About 15,000 Los Angeles high school students are absent online and have failed to do any schoolwork, while more than 40,000 have not been in daily contact with their teachers since March 16, when the coronavirus forced campus shutdowns… The 40,000 who are not in daily contact with their teachers represents about a third of all Los Angeles high school students.”

Kohli and Blume quote Janelle Scott, a professor of education and African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley: “Certainly there are kids that are just disengaged from school… but a lot of it has to do with hunger and housing insecurity…. This crisis has laid bare what we always knew—how equitable opportunities are so dependent on parental background and wealth and access to resources… These inequities do become deeper and broader during this time…. Having a physical school does really matter and having caring adults around who can support children and family is vital.”

Recently an unforeseen issue has arisen: security problems with Zoom, one of the online teleconferencing platforms adopted by thousands of school districts. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports that at the end of last week, the New York City Schools banned the use of Zoom for online schooling.  Strauss explains that last week: “The FBI issued a warning to the public… about the ‘hijacking’ of online classrooms and teleconferences after it received reports of disturbances by people shouting racist and threatening language and displaying hate messages It said saboteurs were hacking into online meetings in a phenomenon now called ‘Zoombombing,’ because Zoom has become the most popular teleconferencing choice for K-12 schools and colleges and universities during the pandemic.”

Strauss describes Zoombombing of online schooling at the University of Florida and in public schools from New York City to Los Angeles to the Alpine School District in Utah to the Edmonds School District in Washington state.  Strauss  reports that Zoom appears to be addressing security problems.


Exposing the Effects of Child Poverty Hidden in Plain Sight

While there is widespread agreement that family poverty is highly correlated with low achievement at school, it is a difficult issue to discuss because people immediately become defensive.  “Don’t tell me poor kids can’t learn,” people say.  Many children living in poor families do thrive at school. But life circumstances present challenges that too often interfere.  Here is long-time education researcher David Berliner explaining that, in the aggregate, poverty lowers school attainment:  “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives…  But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American… But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.”  There is much to read this week that elucidates the kind of crisis poverty imposes on poor families and explains how families’ circumstances affect children in school.

What would it be like to raise children while living in extreme poverty? In their new book $2.00 A Day, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer follow some of the 1.5 million American households (including roughly 3 million children) living without any cash income—only food stamps. (This blog covered Edin and Shaefer’s book in January when it was published.)  Too often families in extreme poverty cannot find anywhere they can afford the rent:  “Every family whose story is told in this book has doubled up with kin or friends at some point, because their earnings haven’t been sufficient to maintain a place of their own. While living with relatives sometimes offers strength and uplift, it can also prove toxic for the most vulnerable in our society, ending in sexual, physical, or verbal abuse.  The trauma from this abuse is sometimes a precipitating factor in a family’s fall into $2-a-day poverty, or the calamity that keeps them in such a state for far too long.” (p. 73)

Edin and Shaefer report that parents discover that the jobs they find—and they do work—are hard to keep and almost impossible to manage for single parents due to unpredictable schedules that change from day to day:  “Work schedules are often variable, meaning that the days and times you are required to work can shift from day to day or week to week.  To get enough hours at any given job, an employee has to be flexible… Even more challenging for workers than an unpredictable schedule are abrupt ups and downs in the number of hours a worker gets.  Many employers with a large low-wage workforce engage in a practice termed ‘work loading,’ which responds to downturns in demand with informal layoffs: employers keep employees on the payroll but reduce their scheduled hours, sometimes even to zero…. The extreme of this phenomenon is the growing prevalence of ‘on-call’ shifts. In recent years, many service sector employers have begun requiring workers to be available on certain days and at certain times even when they aren’t working… If they are not needed, they get no compensation for the time spent on call.” (pp. 43-46)

A new book by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, just published this week, will help us learn more about the shortage of affordable housing and the effect of serial evictions on families.  Desmond is an ethnographer who studied evictions in Milwaukee as the topic of his Ph.D. dissertation.  This blog covered a short excerpt published in the New Yorker from Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.  And currently the New York Review of Books features a review of Desmond’s book by Jason DeParle, a respected reporter whose own noted book  American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare (published in 2004), traced the growth of extreme poverty among Milwaukee’s families following the 1996 elimination of the federal welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Reading Desmond’s book will be essential, but one should also attend to DeParle’s insightful article: “It is odd that the shortage of low-income housing gets little attention, even among experts on the left. Decent affordable shelter is a primal human need, and its disappearance is one of the most troubling results of growing inequality. Housing patterns shape more visible issues like schools, jobs, and crime… A major point to keep in mind is that the US spends huge sums to subsidize housing for people who are well-off (through the mortgage interest deduction and other tax breaks) while most poor renters get nothing: only one of four low-income households that qualify for assistance gets it.” “Part of the message is that evictions are much more common than previously thought.  Desmond’s survey found that more than one in eight Milwaukee renters faced a forced move in the course of three years… The numbers sound extraordinary but not in light of the shelter burdens that low-income households carry.  The government says that rent and utilities are affordable if they consume no more than 30 percent of a household’s income.  Analyzing census data, Desmond finds that the majority of poor households pay over 50 percent of their income for shelter and more than a quarter pay over 70 percent.  Among the tenants in housing court, a third spend at least 80 percent.  Evicted‘s families double up with strangers, sell food stamps, and pirate electricity but inevitably fall behind.”

In his review DeParle traces the impact of  what he calls “the eviction industrial complex” on neighborhoods and on lives—the ways poverty affects the prospects of children at school by disrupting their lives and undermining the stability of their parents.  DeParle explains that one child profiled attended five different schools in seventh and eighth grade: “He once missed seventeen consecutive days.  The disruptions cause workers to get fired.  Letters sent to wrong addresses cause people to miss appointments and lose public aid.  Evictions mar the tenants’ records…. One in two recently evicted mothers reports multiple symptoms of clinical depression…. Eviction isn’t just another hardship… but a detour onto a much harder path—“a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”  And the shortage of housing for poor families has  grown more serious in the past quarter century: “Demolition and gentrification claimed the cheap units, and sputtering incomes swelled the number of needy renters.  In 1970, the US had nearly a million more affordable units than poor households, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Two decades later, the situation had reversed: there were five million more poor households than affordable units.  Housing was better but cost a lot more.  The severe recession that began in December 2007 delivered a double whammy.  Foreclosures turned millions of homeowners into renters, which kept rents rising even as incomes fell.”  “The big problem is that it costs more to build even modest housing than millions of households can pay….”

DeParle examines Desmond’s thesis that our society should provide universal housing vouchers and presents studies that question the value of what would be an enormous public investment.  But he also presents the data from a study last year by Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz, who demonstrate, with historical data, that children younger than eight years old showed statistically improved life chances after their families moved from poor to middle income neighborhoods.

Finally—Growing residential segregation by income across America exacerbates challenges for schools and for families.  This week, in The Concentration of Poverty in American SchoolsThe Atlantic directly examines the impact of economic segregation overlaid on racial segregation on students’ attainment at school: “In about half of the largest 100 cities, most African American and Latino students attend schools where at least 75 percent of all students qualify as poor or low income under federal guidelines.  These stark results emerge from an analysis of data from the National Equity Atlas.  The Atlas is a joint project of PolicyLink and the University of Sourhern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity…. (O)verall, concentrated poverty is tightly correlated with gaps in educational achievement.  ‘It’s the measure of segregation that is most strongly correlated to the racial achievement gap,’ said Sean F. Reardon, a professor at Stanford University’s graduate school of education and one of the nation’s leading experts on residential and educational segregation… The latest figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics show that nationwide about three-fourths of both African American and Hispanic young people (compared to about one-third of white students) attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as low income.”

Reardon believes that our society must recognize and face the daunting challenges of poverty and racial-economic isolation of children in America’s public schools: “We don’t have much evidence that we can make major improvements in educational equality solely through school policy alone.  Educational policy has to be part of the picture.  But we need more than that.  We need to think about residential integration… we need to think about school integration, which gets easier when you have more residential integration; we need to think about increasing economic parity between blacks and whites.”

NY Times Series Is About Homelessness, Poverty, Inequality and Public Education

This week’s New York Times feature series, Invisible Child, about a gifted Brooklyn preteen and her life for several years in a decrepit homeless shelter with her parents and six siblings, explores—from the point of view of the child herself—the mass of ways opportunity can be crushed.  Andrea Elliott, the reporter, traces Dasani’s journey from crisis to crisis over the several years her large family resides together in a 520-square-foot room.

This is also a story of the role of a public school in the life of a child who lacks another anchor.  At school she has her own place to hang her coat.  School is a place where much of the time she can hide the fragility of her family’s stability and where the principal and a special teacher willingly care for her and her siblings.

Here is a child whose parents both struggle with drug addiction and whose mother counsels her to fight to secure her place.  But Dasani also listens to the teacher she respects, someone who grew up in the neighborhood, and who advises, “I don’t ever wanna hear, ‘Well, my mother told me to do this,’ unless you know that’s the right thing.  I am telling you, as sure as I’m sitting here, you’re gonna be held responsible for the choices you make.” “You care about your life.  There are people out there who are so hurt they don’t care about leaving here. They are looking for an opportunity to do something crazy and ridiculous.  They have nothing to live for.  I am telling you to listen to your internal barometer.  Think about your next move before you make your next move.”

At a time when schools are judged by the average test scores of their students and when teachers are being evaluated by the econometric value-added formulas that consider cumulative test score growth of all the students in each teacher’s class, it is easy to forget what teachers really mean in the lives of the children in their classes.  Dasani’s teacher—the young woman from the projects who made it out on a scholarship to the State University of New York at Cortland and then came home to be a public school teacher—serves as an extraordinary and believable role model for this child who confesses at one point, “I don’t dream at all. Even when I try'”

Family homeless is a serious and growing worry in New York City.  Elliott explains: “Children are not the face of New York’s homeless… Their homelessness is hidden.  They spend their days in school, their nights in shelters…  Their numbers have risen above anything in the city’s modern history, to a staggering 22,091 this month.  If all of the city’s homeless children were to file into Madison Square Garden for a hockey game, more than 4,800 would not have a seat.”

The series of articles, Invisible Child, is long and heart wrenching.  I recommend taking the time to read and think about it.