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Teaching First Grade in the Shadow of COVID-19

My daughter-in-law Stephanie is a veteran first-grade teacher. If you close your eyes and dream of the teacher you would like your grandchildren to have as they begin their years in school, you would be dreaming of Stephanie: warm, caring, smart, hard-working, dedicated, always going the extra mile for her students. Recently, I called her to see how it is going as school starts under the conditions imposed by COVID-19.

Stephanie teaches in one of the best-performing elementary schools in one of the best-performing districts in her state. Most of her students are White, a few of color. Four of her 23 students are special education students. Most parents are in the upper reaches of the income spectrum, but some are not. Many are working from home and are therefore in a position to help their children. I knew that, in speaking to Stephanie, I would get some insight into a school that had many advantages over others facing much more serious issues in coping with the virus, but I wanted to get a realistic feel for what a school in a better position than most to cope with the virus looked like.

When the students were sent home suddenly last spring, the district closed schools for two weeks as it worked feverishly to improvise a curriculum for home study. The district curriculum specialists had training in curriculum development but not in distance learning. The online learning consisted of pre-recorded video lessons while printed versions of the lessons were sent to students who did not have access to devices or to the internet. In both formats, the content was the same for all children.  

It was, Stephanie said, really bad content. It was hard for her to believe that much learning was going on, but, in the circumstances, she could hardly blame the people on the district staff who had hardly any time at all to put this improvised curriculum together.

Over the summer, the district, like so many others around the country, was caught in the throes of the state’s political battle between a governor who wanted all the students back in school at the start of the fall term and the teachers union and school officials, who were deeply concerned about the safety of the teachers, the students and their families.

As the summer ground on and the conflict over where the students were going to go to school—in school, at home or both—continued, the district was looking to the state department of education for clear guidelines about what schooling should look like under any of these conditions. But all it got, in effect, were bulletins from the state about what various districts were thinking about doing.

As the summer went on, Stephanie’s anxiety rose. She did not get word that the district would be going back to virtual learning until August 14, just two weeks before school was to start. And then, at first, she heard nothing about what she would be expected to do and how she would be expected to do it. The district, understandably, was focused on getting machines to students and teachers and all the other aspects of system infrastructure that had to be in place whatever the curriculum was going to be.

All the teachers had been required to take 20 hours of training to prepare them for the fall.  Some of the training sessions were mandatory, others were optional. Three of the hours had to be on the mechanics of the Google platform the district was using: how to use Google-meet, set up the virtual classroom experience, and use a shared virtual writing space, for example.  

Two hours of instruction on equity were also required. These offerings ranged from discussions of institutional racism to expressions of concern about the inequitable consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic as it was unfolding and the need to be alert to those inequities and do as much about them as possible.  

I asked Stephanie what that meant. She said that the state and district authorities were—quite reasonably—deeply concerned that a combination of institutional racism and poverty would result in many children getting little or no education at all, while children from majority and wealthier families would be likely to have better access to the right technology, parents in a position to stay at home when their children were home, a quiet place to study and so on thus widening the already large gaps in performance. In the top-performing countries NCEE had been studying, this was producing strong efforts to get the extra resources needed by disadvantaged students to reach the high standards that more advantaged students were reaching. But, evidently, the concern about equity in this case was resulting in the development of a detailed one-size-fits-all curriculum, without any resources for remediation or extension. It was, Stephanie said, a very basic curriculum, set to a very low standard. Equity would be accomplished by bringing the top down, not by bringing the bottom up.

Stephanie ended up taking 40 hours of professional development to prepare for the fall, twice as many as were required. But none of the offerings provided any help on what she most needed—how to use this technology to teach the content she was responsible for teaching, who to conference in and teach in small groups, how to help the kids know when to rejoin a ‘meet’ when they can’t tell time, how to assess their learning in this environment, how to help them write when you cannot see what they are doing, how to help students decode the text they see on a computer screen…. Some of these issues apply to students of any age in this environment, but many are specific to young children, and there was no help on them at all.

The district went with a design that calls for four hours of daily live instruction, divided into 30 minute blocks. The teacher can use one of these blocks for ‘flex time,’ when she can pull small groups together or go over some material with all her students that she thinks they did not get.  This half hour block is for all subjects in the curriculum. There is a half hour devoted to a packaged math curriculum and another that is split between a combination of Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell’s phonics program and interactive read-alouds. In the remaining time, Stephanie must cover science, social studies, writing, cultural arts, and social/emotional lessons.

The math program is an interactive program that monitors closely what the student is doing, identifies problems the student is having and provides additional help on those issues, so the student can go through the instructional program at his or her own pace. It is in this sense individualized. 

When Stephanie saw the lesson plans, she was overwhelmed by the dual challenges of squeezing the content into the time allotted as well as navigating the online platform. On top of this, the lessons were inappropriate for her students, set to a level well below where they are and deadly boring. So, night after night, she works well into the evening to craft better lessons for her students, lessons that will get them engaged and enable them to learn what they need to learn.  

But the task, as she describes it, is virtually impossible. As we talked, Stephanie’s concern for her students poured out. She had, as I said above, plenty of instruction on how to use the Google platform and plenty of instruction on equity but no instruction on how to teach reading and writing using this technology. It is not at all clear how one can teach a student to read in an environment in which you can’t sit with the student and follow along with her as she tries to make sense of the symbols on the page. Her students are too young to use a keyboard. This means she cannot see what they write, and she cannot provide any immediate feedback on their writing. In normal times, she says, learning in classrooms is really a social process that involves much more than just the teacher and the student. The students are constantly looking at what the others are doing, exchanging ideas, helping one another. All of that is gone in this new environment. The only face the students can see on the screen is that of their teacher. The software math program has not been implemented yet and Stephanie did not know how it is supposed to work.

Stephanie describes what it takes to teach under these circumstances as exhausting. Whereas in a normal classroom, a teacher might talk with the whole class for a while, ask the students to do something in particular, walk around the classroom for a few minutes to see how they are responding to the task just assigned, call on a student to go to the front of the class and do something, and so on, in this environment, the teacher is on constantly. Her ability to gauge the responses of her class to what she is doing is greatly attenuated and her ability to walk around the class to see what the students are doing and talk quietly with them about it while they are doing it virtually disappears.

But, as Stephanie sees it, it is even worse for her students. They are forced to sit, hour after hour, by themselves, alone, in front of a screen, without any interaction with others their own age, in an environment that is boring, getting little or no immediate feedback on the work they do. They can see the teacher and no one else. They can speak only when they are unmuted. What was once a very social experience for students is now an experience of unremitting isolation.

While Stephanie is very concerned that many of her students will not develop the core skills they should be getting now, and is deeply concerned about her special education students, who have few of the vital supports they normally get, she knows that some, perhaps many, of her students will get a lot of help from highly educated parents every day and will be fine. Her biggest concern is not for her students, but for the students who are not as fortunate as hers, youngsters who do not have access to the devices they need or to dependable internet, who don’t have teachers who have the capacity or time to throw boring, unchallenging lessons away and build better ones, students who just don’t show up for their distance learning classes and students whose parents either aren’t there because they have to work outside the home to support their family or don’t have the education they need to teach their children what they cannot get from this technology.

For me, it is truly heartbreaking to listen to Stephanie describe the world she lives in. None of this needed to happen. In Taiwan, with a population of nearly 24 million people, seven people have died of COVID-19. All of its students are in school. Singapore started the development of a system to deliver the superb Singapore curriculum to students at home five years ago. It was intended for students who, for various reasons, could not attend school. When the virus sped around world, Singapore trained all their teachers to use this very well-designed system to deliver their curriculum to all their students. They did not skip a beat. Taiwan’s plan was developed by an epidemiologist trained at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Singapore’s home learning system was developed on principles and technology that are available anywhere in the United States. Yet, even in the situation I have just described, we continue to behave as if we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world.

Well, perhaps I have that wrong. There are some who are now calling our attention to education systems abroad that are reopening their schools for in-school teaching again, in an effort to persuade our schools to follow their example. They choose to forget that the countries that are doing this successfully have brought their infection rates down to very low levels, while ours are still raging in the very states that seem to be most insistent on returning their students to school. What is particularly striking to me is how the rest of us are hanging on daily reports from these other countries on their infection rates, death rates and strategies for dealing with the virus while still displaying little or no interest in making similar comparisons of student achievement and strategies for improving it based on those comparisons.

The problems I have described are not the fault of the teachers and school administrators. All the Stephanie’s in this country—and there are many—are my heroes and heroines. They have been working night and day, under appalling conditions to do their best for their students. But they have been let down by a system made weak and criminally ineffective by the hubris of its leaders, by the notion that we are an exceptional people who have nothing to learn from the rest of the world—in both education and public health. That is Aristotle’s definition of tragedy.  He did not think of tragedy as what happened when bad things happened to good people. He thought of tragedy as what happened when good, noble people were destroyed by their own failings, chief among them hubris.