Equity and Education in the Age of COVID 19

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On March 23, 2020, Ms. Betsy DeVos, the head of the federal department of education, issued a “guidance” on special education and distance education. According to an NPR article, the directive is a response to the many districts and states that have said online learning for K-12 students should be enrichment-only because not all students have access to the internet, or to the specific educational services outlined in their IEPs. The directive states:

“this reading of disability law [is] ‘a serious misunderstanding.’

“In bold type, the publication declares: ‘To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) … and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.'” https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/03/23/820138079/education-dept-says-disability-laws-shouldnt-get-in-the-way-of-online-learning

I am very concerned about this directive. It seems to say that it is acceptable to provide educational opportunity to those students who can be classified as “haves” and not those who are “have nots”, AND it says that those who, though no fault of their own, require specialized educational services can be ignored or “left behind”.

Should we allow the current crisis to move us backwards to when PL94-192 was first passed in 1975?

Many do not recall what education was like for “exceptional needs” students before that law was passed. Consider this: students who were failed and failed year after year because they did not learn at the same pace as “normal” children; students who were refused an education in districts and told they must be institutionalized instead; students who were labeled dumb or sub-normal.

Do we really want to return to those days?

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Since the passage of PL94-142, society and education have changed how it views equity for children with exceptional needs and for other students as well. We have embraced the idea that all students, no matter their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, creed, beliefs, or disability have the right to a free and appropriate education.

In fact, the Department of Education website declares:

“The Department of Education’s (ED) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces several statutes that protect the rights of beneficiaries in programs or activities that receive financial assistance from ED. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), sex (Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972), disability (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), and age (Age Discrimination Act of 1975).

The state in which I live, Iowa, has expanded upon this, requiring that all school districts comply with non-discrimination policies that include: race, color, national origin, sex, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, creed, religion, socio-economic status in its educational programs or hiring practices. https://www.educateiowa.gov/sites/files/ed/documents/2015-2016%20Guidance%20for%20Nondiscrimination%20Notices.pdf

To be sure, society has not yet achieved equity in all of these protected areas in education throughout the United States. However, should we, as a society, be willing to erode the gains we’ve made?

John F. Kennedy said, “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Yes, he was of an era that used the term “man” to mean “human beings”, yet the meaning is clear: if we ignore the educational rights of students with disabilities, whose rights shall we relinquish next?

What’s Up with Curriculum, Part 2

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Last week, I discussed some trends in curriculum, focusing on “pacing guides”.

This week, we look at technology.

The U.S. Department of Education says:

Technology ushers in fundamental structural changes that can be integral to achieving significant improvements in productivity. Used to support both teaching and learning, technology infuses classrooms with digital learning tools, such as computers and hand held devices; expands course offerings, experiences, and learning materials; supports learning 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; builds 21st century skills; increases student engagement and motivation; and accelerates learning. Technology also has the power to transform teaching by ushering in a new model of connected teaching. This model links teachers to their students and to professional content, resources, and systems to help them improve their own instruction and personalize learning.
https://www.ed.gov/oii-news/use-technology-teaching-and-learning

One cannot dispute the fact that technology can open up a world of information accessible at our fingertips.  In fact, I am not at all sure what I would do without being able to check email, touch base with people around the world through social media, or relax while watching a streaming service. 

However, does technology itself live up to the promise of engaging and motivating students, teaching 21st century skills, all the while saving school districts money?

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Let’s look at these in turn:

Technology saves money – online textbooks are cheaper than buying paper and ink textbooks.

There is no doubt that online textbooks save districts money.  Paper textbooks cost money to print and bind.  Online publications do not have to include those costs.

In addition, online texts can incorporate video and links to further information.

Some studies claim that about three quarters of students (K though college) prefer reading digital textbooks.  However, many of these studies have been funded by online publishers, so we have to take those findings with a grain of salt.

Other research has a more dire warning:  if one is reading more than 500 words, the equivalent of a very short article, then one is more likely to retain the information when one reads from an old-fashioned paper textbook.  ( https://hechingerreport.org/textbook-dilemma-digital-paper/ )  Despite this, students themselves tend to believe they retain more from digital sources.

More research needs to be done, especially research looking at kinds of reading (informational or fiction) and age groups.

The research right now, though, shows that more learning takes place when reading an actual textbook.

Image: World Economic Forum, New Vision for Education (2015)

Using technology is supposed to prepare students for the 21st Century
There is an assumption among educational thinkers and curriculum directors that the so-called “digital generation” consume information best through screens.  Further, they assume that because the digital generation uses technology so much that they understand it, know how to use it, and are acquiring 21st century skills.

As a former college professor, I can attest to the fact that there are young people who do, indeed, know and understand technology.  Yet there are even more, in my experience, who do not. 

Further, the digital divide is real.  Some families have not embraced technology because of poverty or beliefs.  Some live in areas where WiFi is unavailable, prohibitively expensive, or patchy at best.  Others belong to cultures that put more emphasis on face-to-face or personal communication and interaction.

These lines seem to be along racial, cultural, and economic lines.

In my opinion, even those who have had access from a very young age rarely understand technology at the level professed by those who describe the so-called digital generation. 

The ability to use social media and download music do not mean that one has 21st century skills!  I have had college students who do not even know how to change the margins of a paper, let alone how to determine whether or not some tidbit of information found online is true.

Bri Stoffer ( https://www.aeseducation.com/blog/what-are-21st-century-skills ) lists the skills employers want and need.  She says these are

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Creativity
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Information literacy
  6. Media literacy
  7. Technology literacy
  8. Flexibility
  9. Leadership
  10. Initiative
  11. Productivity
  12. Social skills

Note that only points 6 and 7 really refer to technology.

In fact, the very expensive private schools, the Waldorf schools, do not use much technology at all.  In Silicon Valley, parents say “technology can wait”, that their children need to learn much more than how to use a computer.  ( https://www.cnbc.com/2019/06/07/waldorf-schools-teach-without-technology-heres-what-it-is-like.html )

If the twelve points above are the skills employers are seeking and companies predict they will need when this generation begins their careers, then we educators have much more to do than wrestle with whatever the “flavor of the month” technology is!

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Technology is supposed to engage students.
Educators were given multiple reasons why, supposedly, technology was supposed to cure the twin ailments of disengagement and apathy.  Yet if my K-12 teacher contacts are correct, then technology has exacerbated those problems:  students use their “one-to-one” devices to engage in almost everything except academics throughout the school day, and mobile phones have become teachers’ worst nightmare.

In fact, recent studies show that having a cell phone in the classroom, even if it is turned off, kept in a pocket or backpack, or turned face down on the desk, poses a distraction.  ( https://www.edutopia.org/video/theres-cell-phone-your-students-head )  These studies say that students are able to concentrate more fully on class when their phones are out of the classroom altogether.

Why?  Our brains are not constructed in a way that allows for them to multi-task despite the belief of many.  Instead of really multi-tasking, our brains merely flip back and forth between tasks.  Each time that “flip” occurs, the brain must recall what it was doing and refocus on the task at hand.  Doing this actually decreases the ability to “deep focus”, the mental state needed for learning and for creative problem-solving.

Other studies have shown that a screen, any screen a student has is distracting to other students in the room. It seems we just cannot take our eyes off of those screens!

Cell phone “cages” found in a thrift store by the author.

Please do not take all of this as a condemnation of using technology in schools!  I do not think that is the answer at all! 

What I am saying is that we cannot expect technology to be a panacea for all educational problems.  In fact, I would recommend that our curricular focus should extend beyond using technology for technology’s sake.  Instead we must help students with the following:

  • Knowing how to use technology beyond causal skills.
  • Knowing how to use technology wisely and ethically.
  • Understanding how to evaluate the information they see online or read in traditional sources.
  • Knowing how to study efficiently and effectively.
  • Learning the whole spectrum of 21st Century skills.