Why Remote Learning Failed

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S1: It’s been almost 100 days since I was last in Slate’s office in New York. My producer, Ethan and I left after finishing an episode on March 12th. Every show we’ve done since then has been recorded from my closet in Brooklyn. That last studio episode, the one back in March, had the title. What if they close all the schools? Which just seems totally naive. Now, the person I talked to actually sat across the table from for that episode was New York Times education reporter Dana Goldstein talking to you now versus March. She’s like, we’re on a different planet.

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S2: I know. It really is crazy, isn’t it? Yeah. And just on a personal level, I think that was my last in-person professional meeting back in the spring.

S1: Dana was thinking and writing about education during the pandemic, but even she and her sources had a hard time wrapping their heads around the scale of what might happen.

S2: When I wrote my first piece about the impact of the pandemic on schools, it was, I think, February 27. And I had a line in there like we may be about to embark on a mass experiment and unwanted homeschooling. And I have to admit that when I wrote that line into my article, I didn’t think that that would actually happen.

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S3: And in fact, that is exactly what happened. It did become the reality within a few days of my last speaking.

S4: In the interim few months, millions of kids and parents and countless teachers and administrators have been plunged into a vast educational experiment, working from home with their own toddler around. Diana herself got COPD 19 and recovered, and the country school systems have changed in ways were just starting to understand. I wanted to talk to Dana again, because more than anyone, she’s the person who’s helped me make sense of all these changes.

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S1: And also because of something she said in that last interview back in March that I keep thinking about. We were talking about New York’s public school system here in the city. The biggest one in the country. And you said it would be completely catastrophic to shut down the schools here. Has it. Has it been. Is that how you describe it now?

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S2: I do think it’s been a catastrophe and not just here, but across the country. I mean, we’re starting to see data on how achievement gaps have grown between affluent and lower income kids, between racial groups. Many schools provided very little instruction. Only about a festive schools nationwide out of hundreds and hundreds that were surveyed were requiring actual teaching to be going on during this crisis, as opposed to just sending home worksheets for parents and kids to kind of muddle through on their own. So this has been a crisis in many, many different ways.

S1: Now the school year is coming to an end. It already has in many places and districts have to figure out what they’re doing in the fall.

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S2: The education system right now is kind of torn between two things that they have to do.

S3: One is to get a lot better at remote and online teaching because it didn’t work out that well for most kids this semester. And the second is to try to reopen the physical school. Both jobs are really complex. Both jobs are expensive, and they only have a couple of months to get this right. Both have to be done.

S1: Well, today on the show, what the pandemic cost American schools, why remote learning mostly failed, what it meant for kids and parents and how a generation of students may be changed forever.

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S4: I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to What Next, TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

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S1: Back in May, after schools around the country had shifted to remote learning, Dana wrote a story comparing how two schools were doing a private school. Chicago Jewish Day School and a public one, Spruance Elementary in Philadelphia. Specifically, she reported on first grade classes at each school and she chose these schools because she wanted to contrast a typical remote learning experience with one where there were almost no constraints in terms of money, time or technology, which is pretty much what she found in Chicago.

S2: So the private school in Chicago is unusual in that it is doing something that looks a lot like a regular school day. The kids sign on for live video and instruction over Zoom. Around nine 30, and they’re there with a lunch break. And so, you know, three ish in the afternoon, they have all their specials. Different teachers come on to the chat for art, for music, for foreign languages. And they are providing reading, tutoring and small class discussions. And they have professional parents that are working from home and able to assist them through this. Some parents have even, you know, gone into the kitchen to help their kids with a baking project over Zoome that the teacher is facilitating. And what really surprised me interviewing the moms and dads is that they said after a couple of weeks of this, their kids were independently going through as parents were telling me they were getting hours of uninterrupted work at their own jobs while the school was providing this live instruction at Spruance Elementary in Philadelphia.

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S1: It was a completely different story.

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S2: They were providing just about one hour a day of lives video instruction. Now, it’s important to note that that school is doing more than as typical as well in the public system. There, you know, the teacher was going through great minutes just to try to find her students.

S3: This is something that I think everyone needs to understand. You know, in a lot of urban public school districts, about 15 percent of the kids are lost to schools right now that teachers don’t know where they are. They have tried multiple ways to reach out to the kids, reach out to the parents, email, telephone and sometimes even envelope in the snail mail. And they are just having trouble finding just nothing.

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S4: They don’t know where the kids are.

S3: Not sure the family may relocated because of job loss or some other problem, but they’re definitely not signing on to these digital classrooms. So that teacher had sort of a lot to do with she had language barriers, communicating with her students parents. She had to bring other adults in the school system and to assist her with that as she was working just as hard as the teacher who was teaching five hours lives per day. But the job was just extremely different.

S1: I think one of the things that I was so struck by in that story was the amount of time that the school in Philadelphia. Time and effort that they spent on getting the remote learning curriculum up and distributing meals and laptops and all of that infrastructure. And I guess I wonder how having to do that affected learning. Whereas a team like the school in Chicago was able to move pretty quickly into actually instructing children.

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S2: Yeah. In Chicago, it sort of took less than a week for them to ramp up the system. And I took multiple weeks in Philadelphia. They were doing two big things, as you say. One was getting device and connections out to families that didn’t have them at home, and the other was moving their free and reduced priced meals program to be a sort of pick up, drop off thing that could be accessible to families for whom that is a main source of nutrition. Some people in the education world are really blaming schools for not being more prepared to be able to do this faster. But I find it really hard to blame the public system when they just had so much that they had to deal with all at once. Superintendents, principals waking up in mid-March to this crisis. They definitely had to think about the lunch program first.

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S1: Once the technology was in place in the school in Philadelphia, for example, were there differences in the ways these schools were actually able to use or decided to employ the remote learning tech?

S2: I don’t think the technology is really still in place. And I’ll say why? So you need a few different elements for the technology to be in place. You need the device and then you need each child in the house who’s participating in remote learning to have access to the device when they need the device. So it’s very common that multiple siblings will all be using mom’s cell phone. And, you know, the cell phone can’t necessarily handle all the interactions, not just to watch a streaming video, but to fill out a worksheet or to write an essay. And you need electricity. And that’s another thing. If the electricity is turned off. If there’s problems paying that bill and just understanding that families have had mass economic panic and change during this time, so many parents have lost their jobs. You need space. You need quiet space to use the technology. You know, not every kid has their own room. All that needs to be in place.

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S1: In most states, the remote learning experience is closer to what Dana wrote about in Philadelphia than what she described in Chicago. Limited or no live video instruction. Technology shortages and overwhelmed parents. And now, with the school year at its end, educators and researchers are trying to grapple with the effects of all of that. We are now at a point where they’re starting to be some data about the effect of corona virus on learning and kind of how remote learning has gone. You recently wrote about it, I guess. Can you tell me about some of the research and what it’s showing?

S2: Pretty much all students will have lost out on learning that they were supposed to have done this year. So it looks like the average American student will have lost about seven months of learning, even though it was only March, April, May realize that we lost school. And, you know, there’s a few reasons why that is. I think it’s the fact that this came at the end of the school year. So it sort of got added on to summer break, which is a time when kids forget a lot of what they’ve learned in any case. So it was kind of a double whammy in that way. And then also a lot of researchers who are looking at this are saying this is kind of maybe more like a Hurricane Katrina or the wildfires in California than a fun snow day because of that trauma that so many families and kids have experienced. In addition to the closures of the school. So if your family has had job loss during this time or had to move homes or just the effect of social distancing from friends for young children, all of this may impacts their ability to retain what was taught to them either earlier in Europe before this happened or what was taught during that period of remote learning.

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S3: For some kids, especially low income, black and low income Hispanic kids, it looks like it’s going to be closer to a full year of loss. And there’s many reasons why they are disproportionately impacted, some of which has to do with, you know, lack of connectivity they have in their homes, and some of which has to do with whether their schools and teachers are really providing them with what they could have been during this time.

S4: I want to talk specifically about some research from John Friedman, an economist at Brown University. He looked at data from an online learning platform both before and after the school closures. Can you tell me what was measured in that data and what it showed?

S2: Sure. So the program is called Zerner and a lot of parents may be familiar with. That’s a math software. I asked him specifically, could he take a look at classes that use discern both before and after this crisis? Because I wanted to be able to see for those who kind of had been using it the whole year. How did the students progress through this curriculum change? And it seems that for the most affluent kids living in the richest zip codes in the country, there was really no change. They continued to pace through this mass program quite similar early as they had before. But from there for the middle class zip codes in a low income zip codes, there was quite a lot of loss of the speed and effectiveness with which kids were experiencing the math curriculum in the lowest income. Kids and also black students lost a lot. You know, more than half of what they were expected to learn. So this research kind of comports with everything else we’re seeing here.

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S1: How are you looking at? And I guess how are researchers looking at the consequences of what has happened over the past few months and the potential for sort of a permanent mark on a generation of kids and education?

S2: Well, I think everyone hopes it can be turned around. But unfortunately, there is some evidence from other sort of traumatic disruptions to learning like Hurricane Katrina that it can have a long term impact in the wake of some of those other school closures and disruptions, the high school dropout rate went up. If students miss out on sort of core early learning concepts, especially early literacy or learning to read if you don’t really get there by third or fourth grade. That, unfortunately, leads to a lifetime of being a subpar reader, which impacts your ability to do basically any type of job. So, yes, there is the potential here for a very long term crisis for some students.

S1: America, at least, seems to be reckoning with racial inequity right now when you have written a lot about racial inequities in schools over the years. Do you see or anticipate this being a focus going forward or is there a risk that kind of dealing with these huge chasms gets pushed aside in the just sort of general concern about getting schools reopened?

S2: I just sat in earlier today on a large city school district that will remain unnamed for now. But they were having meetings about their plans for September, whether they were going to be reopening in person or continuing remote learning. And I will say that racial inequity was a framework for their entire discussion. And this is a very diverse district that has a very significant number of white students as well. But in this particular moment, I think because of the protests that we’ve been seeing across the country and because of this research coming out about the achievement gap and the pandemic, there was a sense from all the adults in the conversation that taking racial equity lines was going to be really crucial. So I do expect those conversations to continue. But it’s a it’s a challenge for schools because of all they have to do right now.

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S1: Dana says that at the same time, schools are working to address racial inequity. They’ll need to do it amid an avalanche of other pressing issues if they’re going to reopen their buildings even part time.

S2: And I think most of them will open them at least part time. There’s so much I mean, they have to get stuff installed by hand sanitizer and PPE dispensers on the walls and they have to create barriers so that parents are socially distanced during drop off and pickup and they have to get no touch, one thermometer or things. And they have to really just rethink the whole entire school day. I mean, even for those places where kids take buses to school. That’s a whole other crisis to figure out how to get them safely. Are there enough masks, gloves? Well, teachers faces be covered with what? How do you pay for it? It’s it’s a lot. It’s going to be a very challenging school year.

S1: At the same time, all of this is happening. Many schools are facing budget cuts. Why is that happening? And do we have any sense of what services might be the first to go in a tighter budget universe?

S2: Yeah, this is really scary because schools are going to have to do more with less. The reason the budget is going down is because the total crash of the economy and many cities and states has led to decreased tax revenues as businesses are shut down and people aren’t buying and selling homes. So sadly, oftentimes when schools do need to cut budget, they will cut things like after school programs, tutoring, reading specialists, librarians, social workers, guidance counselors. So these are the types of support staff at May really helped all the kind of stuff kids need right now.

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S1: Yeah, yeah.

S2: So all the things they need to catch up. The federal infusion of stimulus dollars for schools here will be helpful, but it’s not going to close the local budget gaps.

S1: You’ve covered education for a long time and you are a parent yourself. Are there things about this whole kind of experiment in learning that really surprised you that you didn’t see coming when you and I talked in March?

S2: Well, I think for the 15 years I’ve been covering schools, there’s been this sort of head in the clouds, desire to use technology to sort of get away from maybe this moribund practice of kids sitting in chairs, in a foresighted room with teachers. And I think this experience, not for everyone, but for most people, has reminded us of why we do things the way we do them and why that form of education has, in fact, lasted for millennia and is a very effective way to to teach children. So I don’t know. I just think, you know, if there is something here that’s a silver lining, it’s that I think people are appreciating how important schools are.

S4: Danica Goldstein, thank you very much.

S3: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

S4: Dana Goldstein is a national correspondent for The New York Times. That’s it for our show today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and hosted by me, Lizzie O’Leary, and is part of the larger What Next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. Today is Juneteenth. So I recommend you go back and listen to yesterday’s episode of What Next? Mary Harris talked with Adam, sir, of The Atlantic about why some places are only just embracing the holiday now. Mary will be back on your feet on Tuesday. I’ll talk to you next week.