Learning loss complaints and teacher blame for school closures could be because the Covid-19 disaster plan to reimagine schools failed. Technology replacing public schools and teachers appeared to be the “leave no crisis wasted” plan, but it backfired.
After Hurricane Katrina, the late privatization guru Milton Friedman coordinated replacing public schools in New Orleans with charter schools (Klein, p.5). That dream came true for corporate school reformers.
But during the Covid lockdown, most parents hated online learning. They couldn’t wait for public schools to reopen, and teachers were rock stars.
Also, seemingly forgotten, at the beginning of Covid-19, when school buildings closed and students went online, the same people complaining today about the closure of schools during Covid-19 and squawking the loudest about National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) scores on CNN and Fox News, were on board for any place, anytime technology replacing the classroom.
The narrative changed from look how great technology can be at home to getting those kids back into the classroom no matter what. Americans became divided about schools reopening, masks, and the overall dangers of Covid. Public schools, teachers, and their unions became the villains.
Former Governor Jeb Bush, now slamming teachers and their unions, penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post at the beginning of the pandemic; it’s time to embrace distance learning — and not just because of the coronavirus.
Bush seemed less concerned about school building closures and more about replacing classrooms with technology, saying:
It’s time to learn the lessons from these heroic efforts [administrators who opened access to virtual schools] and plan for a future in which public education can continue without access to classrooms — not just because of a pandemic but because that’s the future of learning.
In the near term, many issues loom. A vaccine for covid-19 is months away. Even if schools are able to reopen this fall, rolling closures are likely when the pandemic reappears. Some parents simply won’t send their children to school — especially if family members have underlying health conditions — and will demand at-home accommodations.
Bush wasn’t the only one hyping virtual learning. Former (now disgraced) Governor Andrew Cuomo, during one of his daily solemn rundowns about Covid in New York City, praised the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and spoke of using the pandemic to replace classrooms with technology.
As New York begins to develop plans to reopen K-12 schools and colleges, the state and the Gates Foundation will consider what education should look like in the future, including, How can we use technology to provide more opportunities to students no matter where they are; and more.
The digital divide: Can we use this as an opportunity to close that, once and for all? So that children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status or zip code or income, can learn anything they want, anytime, anywhere, anyplace? Can we as a society start to take on these huge challenges?
Duncan is currently managing partner for Laurene Powell-Jobs’s Emerson Collective. Powell-Jobs also acquired Amplify, an online learning program that claims the Science of Reading, from Rupert Murdoch.
The trouble with these tech takeover plans became obvious early. Few parents liked online learning, and students missed the classroom, teachers, and friends.
Americans were also shocked at how many families were food insecure without meals the public schools provided, and they appreciated teachers for jumping into action, whatever their technological weaknesses.
The pro-technology teacher takeover crowd appeared to then change the narrative.
“We are trying to tear down the mindset that assigns students to a school based solely on the zip code of their family’s home. We advocate instead for as much freedom as possible. One long-term trend that’s working in our favor is technology. It seems to me that, in the internet age, the tendency to equate “education” with “specific school buildings” is going to be greatly diminished.”
But likely after seeing that parents were unhappy with their children online, DeVos cast teachers in Fairfax, Virginia, as incompetent for their use of technology.
In a report, Betsy DeVos calls online-only schools a ‘tragedy’ for kids, urges in-person learning, she visited a parochial school that stayed open and said:
“It’s a joy to see kids together in class, in-person, and to not only see that in their eyes but hear it in their voices as well.”
Then economist Emily Oster wrote Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders: Fears from the summer appear to have been overblown.
The fact that an Ivy League economist with no authority whatsoever over public policy became the symbol of the movement to reopen schools is somewhat bizarre, including to Oster. She says she never imagined that her data would be one of the only resources the country had on Covid-19 in schools.
So, the Mercatus Center is another Koch-funded institution, out of George Mason University. And in June, Mercatus started funding the research of professor Emily Oster, a Brown University economics professor and parenting blogger who has been really prominent throughout the pandemic calling on schools to reopen. She’s been amplified by The Atlantic, and Rolling Stone did a feature on her. Her views have been controversial. She was calling to bring children back into classrooms before we even vaccinated teachers, saying there’s very low risk and it doesn’t spread in schools. And, you know, her ideas, as well, I mean, have been shown to be wrong. I mean, when Delta first arrived in the U.S., one of the first places it spread were schools. And now we’re seeing again Oster reemerge. And her research is being funded by this Koch-backed institution.
It’s easy to forget, but initially, Covid-19 was a relatively unknown illness, and there are still concerns. Children not only got sick with Covid, including with the Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, but they were also seen as vectors, possibly taking Covid home to elderly and immune-compromised family members.
But teachers became the scapegoats for a pandemic, trying to keep students, families, and themselves safe, especially after the push for technology to replace them fell apart.
With the NAEP scores, teachers will continue to be blamed for learning losses, even though any drop in scores likely has a variety of meanings, including the reliance on online learning.
Americans have been coerced to blame teachers and their public schools and to focus heavily on questionable assessments.
Ironically, as teachers retire early and leave the classroom due to the blame, they’ll be replaced with nonteachers, alternatives, mentors, tutors, and a host of untrained, unskilled individuals who supervise children as they face computers.
The original disaster plan is still flourishing.
Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador.
Bush, J. (2020, May 3). Opinion: It’s time to embrace distance learning — and not just because of the coronavirus. The Washington Post, Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/03/jeb-bush-its-time-embrace-distance-learning-not-just-because-coronavirus/.
Oster, E. (2020, October 9). Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/10/schools-arent-superspreaders/616669/.