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Are All Teachers Equally Good? What Parents Can Learn From Watching Their Child’s Remote Instruction

When speaking about what was learned regarding teaching and studying in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Robert Pondisco summarized the situation nicely in this tweet: 

That’s pretty much what we saw in New York City, as well.

Some kids thrived under remote learning.

Others lost months of instruction time and possibly up to a year of content.

What I heard from the dozens of parents I work with is that how much and what kind of remote learning their child received didn’t just vary system by system (i.e. public, charter, private) or school by school, but grade by grade, and even class by class within the same grade or school.

Some teachers logged on every day and attempted to lecture by Zoom, assign homework, grade it, offer feedback, and even periodically reach out to students by phone or offer private online tutoring sessions. Others put up workshop sans instruction, grading the assignments without comment. Some merely put up homework but didn’t quite get around to the grading it part, while still others went radio silent, perhaps posting some YouTube video to be watched, or not even that much/little.

In May, when I wrote about the Department of Education losing a day’s worth of Gifted & Talented score sheets, I got pilloried on Facebook by a commentator who wrote:

Why are you always writing negative things about the DOE? All of our educators are heroes right now, I find it dismaying you can’t find a positive thing to say about our educators even during this pandemic…. (P)eople are going to… think our public schools are always a disaster, why are you perpetuating that myth? Public education is already being decimated, and I don’t want it to all turn into charter and private schools and our kids get left behind. Why are you working so actively to ruin the reputation of our wonderful public schools? 

I’m not the only one this happened to. As Alexander Russo reported in The Grade:

On Friday, fresh off the news that she had received a Pulitzer Prize for her much-admired 1619 Project, New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones shared some thoughts about the remote learning her daughter was experiencing and the stories she was hearing from other parents:

“It was understandable in March why children with internet access weren’t getting virtual instruction,” tweeted Hannah-Jones. “But we are nearly two months in and school is in session even if the buildings are closed. There is no excuse why teachers cannot be offering some virtual instruction during the school day.”

Hannah-Jones’ comments set off something of a social media firestorm, resulting in a series of criticisms and denunciations from educators and others on social media.

I have disagreed with Ms. Hannah-Jones about many things. And she has disagreed with me.

But we’re in agreement on this. And so were our critics: We were teacher-bashing.

Here’s a fact: Some teachers did a better job offering remote instruction than others. 

Whether it’s because they were more technologically inclined, or they’d received better training, or better guidance from their heads of school. Whether it’s because they weren’t distracted by needing to take care of their own children or other at-home responsibilities, or whether it was because they were more motivated to ensure their students received as much instruction as possible even under less than ideal circumstances, the fact remains: Some teachers did a better job offering remote instruction than others. 

They didn’t have to do it. As The New York Times reported:

New York City has seen perhaps the most drastic display of unions pushing back against the new expectations placed on teachers…. Union officials said they were fighting to make sure New York’s teachers were not forced to work more in a day than the six hours and 20 minutes in their contracts. A politically progressive caucus within the union is calling on its leaders to push for “less academic work” during the coming months, and to lobby for a moratorium on student grades and teacher evaluations.

The New York Post summarized: 

The United Federation of Teachers has told teachers that they are under no obligation to conduct live teaching, even if administrators press for it.

Many private and charter schools teachers were required to keep working remotely. But any public school teachers who pressed ahead with live teaching did so for no other reason than because they wanted to. Because they felt obliged to. Because they saw it as their job. (Maybe they accepted the COVID-19 as war metaphor and remembered that front-line soldiers don’t get to clock out after six hours and twenty minutes in the middle of a life or death battle.)

In his book, How Schools Work, President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan wrote: Actual student learning was nowhere in the definition of a ‘good’ teacher.

In NYC, 97 percent of teachers are rated effective or highly effective.

While over 50% of kids aren’t performing at grade level.

Here’s a radical thought experiment I would like you to join me in: If some teachers proved better at remote instruction than others, does it not also stand to reason that some teachers are better at face to face instruction than others? And that, consequently, some teachers are worse at it?

We believe it about doctors and lawyers and plumbers and cops. We believe there’s a spectrum of competency among those professions. So why doesn’t the same belief apply to teachers? 

Previously, most kids’ classrooms were a black box to parents. We dropped our kids off, and then we waited for teachers to tell us how they were doing in there. If teachers told us they were doing fine, we took their word for it. Because that’s what we were told to do. Even in schools where the majority of kids are getting A’s and B’s… but failing the state tests in droves, parents are told to believe the teachers’ evaluations over any standardized assessment.

Now that parents have been given a peek behind the Great and Powerful Oz’s curtain, and we’ve seen how much instructional quality can vary among teachers, isn’t it time to question and push back on the idea that literally “all our educators are heroes,” during a crisis… or at any time?

And isn’t it time to demand that they should be?

This piece first ran here at New York School Talk.

What Do You Think?
Alina Adams
Alina Adams is a New York City mom of 3 school-age children and a New York Times best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, figure-skating mysteries and romance novels. After going through the NYC school application process with her own children and realizing just how convoluted, Draconian and needlessly complex it was, Alina resolved to help make all parents aware of all their school choices—and how to get them—via her books, “Getting Into NYC Kindergarten” and “Getting Into NYC High-School,” as well as her podcast, “NYC School Secrets: Parents Helping Parents.” Read more and listen at: www.NYCSchoolSecrets.com

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