A lot of what Leonhardt said in ‘Not Good for Learning’ is just wrong

I usually agree with David Leonhardt’s analysis in his New York Times newsletter “The Morning” because I think he does a good job of pointing out how both the left and the right have certain beliefs about issues– Covid in particular for the last couple years, of course– that are sometimes at odds with the evidence. But I have to say that this morning’s newsletter and the section “Not Good For Learning” ticks me off.

While just about every K-12 school went online when Covid first hit in spring 2020, a lot of schools/districts resumed in-person classes in fall 2020, and a lot did not. Leonhardt said:

These differences created a huge experiment, testing how well remote learning worked during the pandemic. Academic researchers have since been studying the subject, and they have come to a consistent conclusion: Remote learning was a failure.

Now, perhaps I’m overreacting to this passage because of my research about teaching online at the college-level, but the key issue here is he’s talking about K-12 schools that had never done anything close to online/remote instruction ever before. He is not talking about post-secondary education at all, which is where the bulk of remote learning has worked just fine for 125+ years. Maybe that’s a distinction that most readers will understand anyway, but I kind of doubt it, and not bringing that up at all is inaccurate and just sloppy.

Obviously, remote learning in the vast majority of K-12 schools went poorly during Covid and in completely predictable ways. Few of these teachers had any experience or training to teach online, and few of these school districts had the kinds of technologies and tools (like Canvas and Blackboard and other LMSes) to support these courses. This has been a challenge at the college level too, but besides the fact that I think a lot more college teachers at various levels and various types of institutions have had at least some prior to Covid experience teaching online and most colleges and university have more tech support, a lot (most?) college teachers were already making use of an LMS tool and using a lot more electronic tools for essays and tests (as opposed to paper) in their classes.

The students are also obviously different. When students in college take classes online, it’s a given that they will have the basic technology of a laptop and easy access to the internet. It’s also fairly clear from the research (and I’ve seen this in my own experiences teaching online) that the students who do best in these formats are more mature and more self-disciplined. Prior to Covid, online courses were primarily for “non-traditional” students who were typically older, out in the workforce, and with responsibilities like caring for children or others, paying a mortgage, and so forth. These students, who are typically juniors/seniors or grad students, have been going to college for a while, they understand the expectations of a college class, and (at least the students who are most successful) have what I guess I’d describe as the “adulting” skills to succeed in the format. I didn’t have a lot of first and second year students in online classes before Covid, but a lot of the ones I did have during the pandemic really struggled with these things. Oh sure, I did have some unusually mature and “together” first year students who did just fine, but a lot of the students we have at EMU at this level started college underprepared for the expectations, and adding on the additional challenge of the online format was too much.

So it is not even a teeny-weeny surprise that a lot of teenagers/secondary students– many of whom were struggling to learn and succeed in traditional classrooms– did not succeed in hastily thrown together and poorly supported online courses, and do not even get me started on the idea of grade school kids being forced to sit through hours of Zoom calls. I mean honestly, I think these students probably would have done better if teachers had just sent home worksheets and workbooks and other materials to the kids and the parents to study on their own.

I think a different (and perhaps more accurate) way to study the effectiveness of remote learning would be to look at what some K-12 schools were doing before Covid. Lots and lots of kids and their parents use synch and asynch technology to supplement home schooling, and programs like the Michigan Online School have been around for a while now. Obviously, home schooling or online schooling is not right for everyone, but these programs are also not “failures.”

Leonhardt goes on to argue that more schools that serve poor students and/or non-white students went remote for longer than schools. Leonhardt claims there were two reasons for this:

Why? Many of these schools are in major cities, which tend to be run by Democratic officials, and Republicans were generally quicker to reopen schools. High-poverty schools are also more likely to have unionized teachers, and some unions lobbied for remote schooling.

Second, low-income students tended to fare even worse when schools went remote. They may not have had reliable internet access, a quiet room in which to work or a parent who could take time off from work to help solve problems.

First off, what Leonhardt seems to forget that Covid was most serious in “the major cities” in this country, and also among populations that were non-white and that were poor. So of course school closings were more frequent in these areas because of Covid.

Second, while it is quite easy to complain about the teacher unions, let us all remember it was not nearly as clear in Fall 2020 as Leonhardt is implying that the risks of Covid in the schools were small. It did turn out that those settings weren’t as risky as we thought, but at the same time, that “not as risky” analysis primarily applies to students. A lot of teachers got sick and a few died. I wrote about some of this back in February here. I get the idea that most people who were demanding their K-12 schools open immediately only had their kids in mind (though a lot of these parents were also the same ones adamant against mask and vaccine mandates), and if I had a kid still in school, I might feel the same way. But most people (and I’d put Leonhardt in this camp in this article) didn’t think for a second about the employees, and at the end of the day, working in a public school setting is not like being in the ministry or some other job where we expect people to make huge personal sacrifices for others. Being a teacher is a white collar job. Teachers love to teach, sure, but we shouldn’t expect them to put their own health and lives at any level of risk–even if it’s small– just because a lot of parents haven’t sorted out their childcare situations.

Third, the idea that low-income students fared worse in remote classes (and I agree, they certainly did) is bad, but that has nothing to do with why they spent more time online in the first place. That just doesn’t make sense.

Leonhardt goes on:

In places where schools reopened that summer and fall, the spread of Covid was not noticeably worse than in places where schools remained closed. Schools also reopened in parts of Europe without seeming to spark outbreaks.

I wrote about back in February: these schools didn’t reopen because they never closed! They tried the best they could and often failed, but as far as I can tell, no K-12 school in this country, public or private, just closed and told folks “we’ll reopen after Covid is over.” Second, most of the places where public schools (and universities as well) that went back to at least some f2f instruction in Fall 2020 were in parts of the country where being outside and/or leaving the windows open to classrooms is a lot easier than in Michigan, and/or most of these schools had the resources to do things like create smaller classes for social distancing, to install ventilation equipment, and so forth.

Third– and I cannot believe Leonhardt doesn’t mention this because I know this is an issue he has written about in the past– the comparison to what went on with schools in Europe is completely bogus. In places like Germany and France, they put a much much higher priority on opening schools– especially as compared to things like restaurants and bars and other places where Covid likes to spread. So they kept those kinds of places closed longer so the chances of a Covid outbreak in the schools was smaller. Plus Europeans are much MUCH smarter about things like mask and vaccine mandates too.

No, the pandemic was not good for learning, but it was not good for anything else, either. It wasn’t good for our work/life balances, our mental health, a lot of our household incomes, on and on and on. We have all suffered mightily for it, and I am certain that as educators of all stripes study and reflect on the last year and a half, we’ll all learn a lot about what worked and what didn’t. But after two years of trying their fucking best to do the right things, there is no reason to through K-12 teachers under the bus now.

One thought on “A lot of what Leonhardt said in ‘Not Good for Learning’ is just wrong”

  1. I read Leonhardt’s piece with some trepidation because the program I retired from in the midst of the pandemic was entirely online and has been for almost 30 years. Our demographics are middle class and above who are well connected, computer literate, K-12. We are not a school. Students sign up for individual courses. They may take as many courses as they can stand.
    We had a big bulge of enrollment (essentially double) spring of 2020 and managed to find enough instructors (that’s another story). Our students did as well as usual. Our noncompletion rate is always below 8%.
    So, very my niche population, nothing went wrong, nothing was lost.

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