Really New York?

Is this necessary?

On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blaise of New York City announced that online learning would be “eliminated” for fall classes in the entire New York public school system. (Here is the article from the New York Times reporting on the announcement).

I can’t even put into words how appalled and disappointed I am by this. But I feel like I have to try.

The article is jam-packed with troubling quotes, based almost entirely on misinformation and a misunderstanding of online learning. For starters, when asked why he made this decision, Mayor de Blasio said: “You can’t have full recovery without full-strength schools.” What does that even mean? What is a “full-strength school?” What makes a school strong - just butts in seats?

The City of New York has the largest public school system in the country, and thus other school systems look to it for leadership and good decision-making. Decisions made there inevitably impact decisions made by other school systems around the country. And - the Times reports - this decision has already spread to school systems in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, and San Antonio. Florida is likely to follow suit, although the article reports that Houston and Philadelphia plan to keep a remote option for fall.

But this feels like a political decision not an educational one in which students are placed first. We not only were unprepared for the disruption of the pandemic, we did not spend the last year learning what works well, and what doesn’t, in our K-12 schools. So instead, we’re going to give up, and go back to the way things were. After initially resisting, both teachers’ unions in New York are reported to be “on board.” One of the union presidents said:

There is no substitute for in-person instruction. New York City educators want their students physically in front of them.

First, there are plenty of online and hybrid substitutes for in-person instruction, and some of them have been shown by empirical evidence to work as well or better than in-person, particularly when properly designed and funded. Second, doesn’t that quote sound a little bit like prison? “Stay where I can see you, and no sudden movements.” It is as if the last two decades of educational research suddenly did not exist. It’s bizarre.

The Times article also quotes a high-school history teacher, one Patrick Sprinkle (sorry, but can you imagine the nick-names his students have for him?) who had a medical waiver to work from home this year, but is said to be “eager to return,” and believes the city needs to reach out to families to encourage them to come back, saying:

We have to show that the instruction that is going on is inherently superior to what’s going on remotely.

That’s either drastically ill-informed or a self-indictment. Not knowing Mr. Sprinkle, I don’t know which one.

The Times further reports:

Though some students and families have said a remote option has worked for them, and allowed students to focus on classes without distractions, online learning has been frustrating for the vast majority of students and disastrous for others, including many children with disabilities. Mr. de Blasio, who has been criticized for not doing more to improve the quality of online education, has argued that remote learning is inherently inferior, a view shared by many experts and teachers.

That paragraph is so breathtaking, I barely know where to start. Mr. de Blasio - not an educator but a politician - makes a political decision that has no nuance, and completely ignores those students for whom remote learning has worked well. He then justifies his political decision by trashing remote learning categorically, and the article - without citation or nuance - posits that “many experts and teachers” also believe that remote learning is inferior.

Yes, it has been frustrating for many students, because it wasn’t well designed, and we missed an opportunity to learn how to do it well in advance of the pandemic. Agreed that for young students, and those with disabilities, it has not worked well at all. By all means, let’s bring them back as soon as possible, and be decisive about it.

But soon we get to the nub of the problem: “It has also been extraordinarily complex for the city to run two parallel school systems, one in-person and one online, with many students switching between the two every few days.” Well, duh. Of course it has. Again, good planning could have solved that.

New York City is my hometown, and I remain close to it in spirit (even though I live far away) and visit often. I have for the most part withheld judgment on Mr. de Blasio, while many have attacked him for being incompetent over the years of his mayoralty. I appreciate that it is an incredibly difficult job. But I also know what an incompetent Mayor looks like - I lived through the Abe Beame Administration after all - so I am sorry to say I have lost any shred of defense of Mr. de Blasio I might have made in the past. This here is incompetent decision making. A categorical decision, ignoring the evidence to the contrary, unwilling to make the more nuanced - harder - decision, just to be decisive. And trashing years of good and important work about online and hybrid learning on his way out.

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Letters of Recommendation

This week, I am going to recommend a book for Mr. de Blasio to read, but by all means if it is helpful to you too, dear reader, that’s great. There are so many to choose from, but I will settle on Essentials of Online Course Design: A Standards-Based Guide, by Marjorie Vai & Kristen Sosulski. Please leave a comment if you have another book about online learning that you would like to recommend that the Mayor of the City of New York read during his upcoming retirement. I will send all recommendations directly to him via email.

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Quote, perhaps the saddest thing in the entire article referenced above. It is from Shino Tanikawa, a parent activist in Manhattan:

When the pandemic hit, we thought this was really the wakeup call for us to do better, to really restructure the system. I don’t see that happening.