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Smack Down Response to NYT Op Ed

In the December 23, 2020 issue of The New York Times, Harvard University Professor Jal Mehta wrote an article in the Sunday Review section titled “On Education: Make Schools More Human.” While reading the article, I found myself wanting to respond to most of Professor Mehta’s topic sentences using a version of the National School Reform Faculty text rendering protocol. So here are my responses to selected text by Professor Mehta:

JM If a measure of a society is how well it takes care of its young, the past nine months are a damning indictment of our nation.

[SVB The truth of the matter is that we haven’t taken care of our young for some time now. The only thing the pandemic has done is to make that fact more pronounced than ever before.]

JM Parents and teachers have been working overtime under impossible circumstances, and states have prioritized keeping gyms and restaurants open over keeping schools open.

[SVB Are we working overtime now because we didn’t adequately prepare for out of school learning before the pandemic?]

JM There is little doubt that going to school is, on average, better for students.

[SVB Where is the data to back up this claim? I can share many examples of out of school learners who can compete academically, socially, and emotionally with in school students.]

JM These are not new problems – they are just newly visible because of the pandemic, and in some cases exacerbated by it.

[SVB Agreed! See the response above to JM’s first topic sentence.]

JM It’s looking as though all schools should be able to open fully in the fall.

[SVB Until when? Until the next virus forces us to spend time away from large group gatherings like schools? What if ongoing health concerns force us to find a different way to educate our young learners than sending them to places called schools? When are we going to learn to prepare for these types of disruptions by learning how to learn outside of these places called schools?]

JM The first lesson that the pandemic has revealed is the limits of one-size-fits-all schooling.

[SVB Agreed! Then why are we so anxious to go back to these one-size-fits-all schools?]

JM A second lesson is the necessity of making schools more human.

[SVB I don’t think schools, as they are presently organized, have it within themselves to become more human. I think new structures will need to be formed to give humanism a better shot at working for kids.]

JM As one seventh-grade teacher in New Jersey, William Stribling, said to me, “When we’re on campus, our schedules don’t allow us to be as human-centered as we are in this environment.”

[SVB That’s why most learning relationships need to build outside of schools. Schools are not organized to promote human-centeredness as its cultural core. Schools are organized to take attendance, teach content, take tests, assign grades, and engage in other types of sort and select activities.] 

JM We often are in such a rush in school – from one class to the next, from one topic to another – that we don’t remember that the fundamental job is to partner with families to raise successful human beings.

[SVB I don’t think most schools think their fundamental job is to partner with families to raise successful human beings. I think most schools think their fundamental job is to get kids to pass tests. If we want the fundamental job to be partnering with families to raise successful human beings, then we need a new set of learning structures for that to happen, and that probably won’t happen in these places called schools.]

JM Another part of making schools more human is having them start later; some studies show that teenagers’ mental health actually improved last spring, and researchers think one of the most likely explanations is that the students got more sleep.

[SVB Agreed! But anytime, anywhere learning is about as far away from traditional schools’ adopting it as Earth is from Mars, and that’s a long way away.]

JM Classrooms that are thriving during the pandemic are the ones where teachers have built strong relationships and warm communities, whereas those that focus on compliance are really struggling without the compulsion that physical school provides.

[SVB Agreed! But Americans are so desperate for wins in the public education arena we often celebrate “boutique success,” or in other words we applaud classrooms when schools are broken, and schools when districts are broken.]

JM Creative teachers are allowing students to choose music during breaks, scheduling one-on-one check-ins, and designing assignments that give students agency, choice and purpose in their work.

[SVB Agreed! See my previous comment on “boutique success.”]

JM Some results have been spectacular.

[SVB Agreed! See my previous comment on ‘boutique success.”]

JM Smart schools are making significant organizational changes to become more human.

[SVB Agreed! See my previous comment on “boutique success.”]

JM La Follette High School in Wisconsin has reorganized itself during the pandemic so that every adult in the building is responsible for 10 to 15 students.

[SVB Great! See my previous comment on “boutique success.” And, it would be great to learn more about how La Follette defines their “responsibility” when it comes to those 10 to 15 students. If the adult has academic responsibility for those 10 to 15 learners, then that is impressive. If the adult has social/emotional responsibility, then these types of programs, usually called advisories or advocacies, have been around for years.]

JM A third critical issue is that we cannot set the needs of students against the needs of adults.

[SVB Agreed! The fact that this us vs. them dynamic is actually happening speaks to the weakness of the traditional school paradigm. What would happen if learners and their adult learning leaders were able to adopt agreements and protocols about how, when, where, and what learning looked like moving forward? Those agreements and protocols between learners and their leaders might eliminate pitting the needs of students against the needs of adults.]

JM The pandemic created a difficult conflict: Parents wanted teachers in school; teachers were fearful for their safety.

[SVB I don’t know about this statement. The parents we work with didn’t necessarily want or need teachers in schools. Most parents told us they were concerned about the decision to send teachers, and students for that matter, back into schools during the pandemic. What parents told us they wanted was a positive learning environment for their kids, and most hoped that schools would be able to provide that online. Schools couldn’t and therefore didn’t. That’s why our parents felt teachers should return to school.]

JM Fourth, there is the question of how to catch students up on what they missed during the pandemic.

[SVB I don’t understand what is meant when we say “catch students up.” Are we catching students up according to a curriculum pacing guide generated by a school district to prepare the kids to take a high-stakes test? My training tells me that learning does not happen in predictable increments. Learning depends on time and support. If a learner hits a plateau, then extra time and support should lift that learner off their plateau. One final comment on this topic statement – based on my experience, if we are worried about what students have “missed,” then we should be worried about 50% of what is presented during a normal school day. I say this because I am convinced that, in the best of schools, only 50% of a regular school day is fodder for valuable learning. The rest might be categorized as wasted time.]

JM The right choice here is to get very specific on what needs to be made up and what does not; teams of teachers and administrators could work together to decide what is essential to keep and what can be pared.

[SVB DISAGREE! DISAGREE! Where’s the learner and their family in this process? Why is it only the teachers and administrators that get to decide what is essential to keep and what can be pared? This sentence is why school-centered models are doomed to fail, and why learner-centered models will rule the day in the not so distant future.]

JM The pandemic is giving us an opportunity to make a pivot that we should have made long ago.

[SVB But we won’t make the pivot because we have millions and millions of dollars, not to mention political and professional reputations, wrapped up in the traditional public school system. Lots of people have asked a similar question as Professor Mehta does here, but few have given us any evidence that plans are currently underway to radically change the way public schools do learning in the not too distant future.]

JM The same is true for teachers – they need to feel physically safe; they need support; they need their work to be recognized and honored; and they need working conditions that make it possible for them to succeed.

[SVB The teacher role needs to go away. We need to stop focusing on teaching and start focusing on learning. A direct teach piece should be part of a learning plan. Today, too often, learning is the by-product of teaching. We have thousands of talented adults in schools today that can be developed into a new type of adult learning leader – the Learning Coach. Learning Coaches directly teach some times, but their primary focus is to develop a learning design by which their young learners can perform at high levels. Learning Coaches feel physically safe because they have developed relationships with their learning cohort, i.e. a set of young learners. Learning Coaches feel supported because they design, in consultation with their young learners and their families, a plan that compensates the Learning Coach well, provides for a great environment for the young learners, and results in high levels of learning and performance on the part of the kids. Working conditions make it possible for all to succeed because the Learning Coach, the learners, and their families define the working conditions. In a 3-year trial, sponsored by Houston A+ Challenge from 2014 to 2016 for 50 young Houston learners aged 11 to 13, learning coaches paid themselves nearly $100,000, based on a $7,500 per pupil expenditure, with plenty of money left over for learner support. Can any public school district say today they pay a teacher $100,000?]

JM Districts could embrace this shift by moving away from top-down edicts and instead inviting teachers, students and community members to codesign the structures that affect them.

[SVB Here’s a question Professor Mehta: Why would districts move toward what you suggest above? What would the motivation be for districts to make this change? Greater student learning? Experience tells us that the adults in power inside a school district might be motivated by improved student learning, but their fear of losing power when it comes to decision-making often trumps their desire to see increased levels of learning.]

JM States could help by following leading international jurisdictions like British Columbia in honing standards to focus on the truly essential, enabling opportunities for local adaptations and greater depth on fewer topics.

[SVB I wish, but here’s the problem. Existing “Carnegie Units” (think seat time here) seriously stand in the way in most states between the status quo and “honing standards to focus on the truly essential, enabling opportunities for local adaptations and greater depth on fewer topics.” We haven’t been able to crack the Carnegie unit nut for 100 plus years. If you think it’s going to happen now, see my response above to your idea of districts moving away from top-down edicts.]

JM In the very short term, if state constitutions guarantee students access to school, and if school is virtual, then states must provide students a working internet connection and a laptop or tablet.

[SVB Agreed, but will states do this facing pandemic financial deficits for kids (think black, brown, and poor here) who historically have been given the short end of the stick by state legislatures, state boards of education, and local school boards?]

JM There has been considerable attention to the health crisis, and some to the economic crisis. But there hasn’t been a serious commitment to the corresponding educational crisis. We need to rebuild and reimagine schools. We now have a chance to do both.

[SVB Ok, I broke my rule of responding only to Professor Mehta’s topic sentences by sharing his entire closing paragraph. Professor Mehta, we’ve been attempting to rebuild and reimagine schools for at least 40 plus years. Are we to believe that, because of this pandemic, this country will wake up and now succeed in rebuilding and reimagining schools? I think not. Students should leave the current system to become smarter and stronger learners. States should defund their existing public school systems and begin funding a new structure called Community Learning Centers. Community Learning Centers would be filled with learning coaches, both generalists and specialists, able to support young learner’s academic work, as well as their social and emotional needs. Learning coaches, along with the young learner and their family, would fund (with money coming from the down-sized public school system) design a learning plan, using their community as their classroom and the world as their school. Rebuilding and reimagining an archaic, broken down system isn’t going to work. It’s time to create a new “learning” system.]

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