2020-21 is the asterisk academic year

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about helping our children cope with distance learning as we hide from COVID-19. Since then I’ve watched the progress of my own children -- Cole (16) and Fallon (14) are still at home -- and I’ve spoken to friends and teachers all over the world. It isn’t going well. In fact, the whole distance learning experience has been a disaster that will ultimately result in this academic year being forever assigned an asterisk to separate it from every other academic year, before or after.

I hope your experience is better, but I doubt that is the case. And the fact that people aren’t generally saying what I am here is because there’s lag in the system and the teachers and school administrators, frankly, don’t want to admit just how bad things are. But shit will shortly hit fans all over the world, I assure you, and the impact will last for years to come.

Nobody likes distance learning. Kids miss their friends, parents miss sending their kids off to school each day, and teachers miss their traditional classroom settings, systems, and power structures. For the most part none of us had a choice in this, nor did we have a chance to prepare. Yes, we had a few weeks of distance learning last spring, but that year mainly ended intact and most of us didn’t expect to still be doing it six months later.

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This is NOT an argument for reopening schools. There is still a pandemic, after all. Reopening schools at this point would just cost more lives, so we shouldn’t do it yet. But we also have to face the fact that distance learning has societal costs.

The vast majority of students do better in an actual classroom. While distance learning may have been a novelty last spring, this fall that novelty is long gone, replaced with dread and a sense that something is very wrong. We’ll see it when grades start coming-in, because those grades are going to be terrible.

And if the grades aren’t terrible, that’s probably even worse because they should be terrible. In most cases good grades will be lies.

There are too many cracks in this system and too many kids falling through those cracks.

Among the many problems of distance learning is that there’s no tradition of it and no training. Teachers were hired with no thought to how they’d do as distance educators. It’s a completely different skill set, I assure you. While Sal Khan of Khan Academy fame may be a perfect distance teacher, we have no idea how he’d do in an actual classroom. By the same token, a teacher with 30 years of classroom experience may or may not (probably not) be able to transfer much of that expertise into distance learning.

Teachers and students alike are pissed-off and tired.

I see with my own kids that systems aren’t working very well. I try to monitor their progress, but that requires my using four separate systems here in Santa Rosa, California -- the school web site, Google Classroom, and Illuminate and Jupiter Ed (two digital grade books). That’s too much, too complex, too stupid. Why have two different grade books? This makes no sense.

Google Classroom is set up for teachers and students, not parents, for example. Try to log-in and it asks if you are a student or a teacher? Well I am neither. It turns out there is a way to get an account as a guardian, but you have to really dig to find that and hardly anyone even knows the capability exists. Ask your school. This has to change because without parents the whole distance learning system falls apart.

Just getting your kids reliably to class is a challenge. When they are actually in a physical school building, it requires real effort on the student’s part NOT to be in class. With distance learning, missing class is as easy as over-sleeping. And 14-16 year-old boys are EXPERTS at over-sleeping. You can remind them 10 minutes before class and they still may miss it.

Worse still, some teachers are so bad at using the technology that your kids can make it to class yet their attendance still goes unrecorded. We’ve had that happen several times. I get an email saying my son missed class. It’s always a day late, too, when it would make sense to send out the emails at the halfway point of the class so I still have a fighting chance of getting my kid into the room. Why wait a day? This makes no sense.

I sent emails to all seven of Fallon’s teachers. Two replied immediately, two more in a week, and the last three took 10 days and three follow-ups. Nearly all of them promised me information that I have yet to receive. Are they really too busy? I don’t think so.

Teachers can be remarkably bad at grading homework, too. Did they receive the homework or didn’t they receive it? Why do these grading systems automatically give a zero grade if the teacher hasn’t even looked at the work? Who is that supposed to motivate? It doesn’t seem to be working.

Remembering my own student days, my mother thought teachers were infallible. In sixth grade I remember complaining all year about my crazy teacher, Mrs. Connolly, who was, well, crazy. For the entire year all we studied was math, which isn’t bad in itself but how, then, did she give me a grade in English? Mom said I was just a lazy little shit and Mrs. Connolly was great. How did Mom know that? The next year, when my sister was in Mrs. Connolly’s class, the teacher had a mental breakdown about a month into the school year and was institutionalized. Oops. My point here is that not only aren’t we hiring teachers with distance learning skills, we have no good ways of monitoring either student OR TEACHER performance.

One might argue, since everything is digital, that I am precisely wrong, that we have total access to everything, but that’s simply not true. Is that zero really a zero? Did you go to class or didn’t you? For that matter, what are the criteria for grading and how closely are those criteria being followed? There is absolutely no way of knowing.

So while we might assume that everything is going smoothly I can tell you absolutely that it isn’t, because even perfect performance with this system is just barely adequate in terms of student and teacher involvement. If your kid is struggling with distance learning it is very possible -- very LIKELY -- that his teacher doesn’t even know that.

What does this mean for next year, when presumably we’ll have a vaccine and everyone will be back in class? It means that we won’t be able to count on our kids having learned what they were supposed to have learned this year. They’ll have to learn it all over again. OR we’ll just say that it doesn’t matter. At the very least (very best) we’ll have to add a new layer of testing that absolutely doesn’t yet exist.

We’re in an education crisis that won’t go away with another economic stimulus package and won’t even go away with a vaccine. In fact it is going to only get worse. That’s why I predict this will be an asterisk year.

Think of the effect on college admissions. What used to be a pretty organized system with transcripts and essays and standardized tests like the SAT and ACT has been turned on its head. For this year at least, we’ll need to come up with some other way of deciding who gets into universities and who doesn’t. There will inevitably be victims of this bastardized system. We’ve told our children for 12 years this is what you need to do to get into UC Berkeley only now it’s all changed. Sorry.

The education system will repair itself over time. The pandemic will end, wounds will appear to heal, but the class of 2021 may go for another 40+ years with the stigma of that asterisk. It’s not their fault, but they’ll still be held responsible.

Or maybe the problem will simply disappear, in which case the facade of educational superiority may disappear with it. I know my kids are questioning the whole system: Why can’t we spend Grandma’s 529 money on surfing lessons?

Why, again, are we doing this, especially if we’re in a world where the idea that we’re preparing our kids for careers could be completely wrong? With career skill sets that now last less than a decade, it’s a question that will take years to definitively answer.

Remember you heard it here first.

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