The halls are eerily silent. No slamming lockers, talkative teens, or stairwell make-out sessions. Right about now, I’d gladly take a student yelling an obscenity in the hallway—even one directed at me. Or maybe even a fight to break up.
Teaching this year is a lonely, ghost-town experience. In my physical in-person classrooms, I see fewer students in a whole day than I would normally teach in a single class. Visually, these spaces look like crime scenes, with caution tape delineating social-distancing sectors, and masks worn at all times. I’m told that Plexiglas dividers will soon be installed as well.
I’m not here to critique the effectiveness of these measures. Rather, I’m focused on some of the lessons we’re all receiving as educators. Yes, COVID-19 is creating new problems for public schools. But it’s also exposing old ones, much as low tide shows us what debris lies under the waves.
* * *
Last spring, when the first round of COVID-19 lockdown orders went out, we went old-school—distributing hard-copy, distance-education “student learning packets.” As was done in many districts nationwide, a “hold harmless” approach to grades was implemented, which, according to our published policy, allowed “students to use the rest of the semester to improve their scores, but their final grades [could not] drop lower than they were before schools shut down.” While one can argue this was a reasonable step under the circumstances, it didn’t give students much incentive to learn the material.
But perhaps the reason such concerns weren’t front of mind is that the “hold harmless” approach is really just an extrapolation of per-existing grade-inflation trends—a problem scathingly explored by American University Public Policy professor Seth Gershenson in a 2020 Fordham Institute study titled Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement (which Jay Mathews, education columnist for the Washington Post described as “the most damning indictment of grade inflation I have seen in 20 years”).
“Students of all racial/ethnic groups learn more from teachers with high grading standards,” Gershenson reports. And the effects of rigorous grading practices linger, improving a student’s performance in subsequent classes. And so it’s disheartening to imagine what effects the “hold harmless” policy will have on students. Grades are being given to students who do little work, and it’s hard to imagine that this won’t have a long-term effect on their work ethic.
Not surprisingly, many students who enjoyed pass-fail options in the spring semester have been demanding that these policies be continued. As Inside Higher Ed reports, some schools are pushing back, partly due to the high number of students who haven’t even met the low benchmark for a pass. Teachers are being encouraged to be flexible with deadlines and grading, which is understandable, especially in the case of households that face challenges getting kids online. (For my own part, I’ve decided not to deduct any points for assignments turned in late.) But the overall message students are getting is that grading is now more about mere compliance with the rules, and playing the game of school, rather than actual mastery of the course content.
I confess that I’ve become part of that problem: Like many teachers, I set up my courses so students can pass just by completing a majority of assignments, whether or not they really master the material. No teacher can completely buck the system, and we’re all cognizant of the importance of keeping graduation rates and other school-wide statistical indicators high—what I call the pass-students-along mindset.
Moreover, the whole experience has made me wonder what it really means to assign a student 93%, or an 87%, or a 61% anyway? Are my rubrics and grading metrics really precise enough to capture the essence of human learning in a certain subject area down to a percentage point? These are professionally existential questions that always have lingered below the surface. By knocking us out of our usual work routines, COVID-19 has sparked a reckoning with them.
The pandemic also forced us to deal with the reality that students come to school from widely divergent backgrounds, and that many lack the resources to keep up with their socioeconomically advantaged peers. In my own district, our appreciation of this reality made us realize that the spring learning packets were inadequate. Coupled with wider efforts to bridge the digital divide with free Internet service, we began offering more online options, and a hybrid digital/in-school model, featuring both online synchronous (i.e., live) and asynchronous (recorded) options.
But while this offered a definite improvement over the cobbled together, stop-gap packets used in the spring, it also led to further questions surrounding academic integrity. How can teachers ensure the integrity of a test taken in the home—a question that’s especially important to ask, for equity’s sake, when the students who choose to take their tests in person are still bound by normal test-taking enforcement protocols? How do students resist the urge to get answers from Google or Siri, or copy-and-paste third-party material when there’s no teacher in sight?
These are not new problems for schools: cheating has been on the rise for years. But until last year, teachers at least could try to manage the problem through in-person test supervision. But now even that is impossible in many cases. As a trio of academic authors explains in a newly published journal article on college-level testing, “given constant access to Internet-connected devices, some traditional cheating behaviors have become easier, giving rise to new styles of cheating that have not previously existed.”
The extent of cheating online during COVID-19 has surprised many educators. Online tutoring services such as Chegg, which offers “on-demand help on hundreds of subjects, whenever you need,” has been connected to countless cheating episodes on tests and final exams. Researchers have even observed statistically significant spikes in Internet searches for certain educational topics that correspond to the timing of exams last spring. As the aforementioned academics explain, the moral stigma associated with cheating has waned because many students think that teachers accept it on some unspoken level: “Students are insistent that the responsibility for mitigating the opportunity for cheating be placed on the institution and the instructor. It is imperative that faculty, staff, and administrators understand that the perceived responsibility of an institution is that unless cheating is being prevented and discussed, the institution is essentially tacitly encouraging it.”
We are even witnessing an evolution of the concept of “attendance,” a word that normally has signalled, in an obvious arithmetic way, a student’s physical presence in a classroom. The shift to online and hybrid learning has undermined this traditional “seat-time” approach to credits. And my own district has struggled with the question of how to record attendance for online learning this fall. What constitutes being “present”? Logging in during class time? Submitting an attendance form? Completing the assignment for that day? The challenge is nationwide, as Nicole Gaudiano reported for Politico recently: “Districts may be collecting some form of attendance data, but how frequently and what constitutes attendance varies.”
Again, these developments highlight pre-existing trends as much as constituting new ones. The issue of seat-time credits has been the subject of ongoing debate for years now, and requirements that tie credits completely to seat time already had been loosened in some parts of the country. In most states, schools have at least some leeway to grant “credits based on students’ proving proficiency in a subject, rather than the time they physically spend in a traditional classroom setting.” COVID-19 era schooling practices will only accelerate these trends, which may not be such a bad thing. Perhaps competency-based learning models are worth considering. As a report from the education non-profit Bellwether Education Partners concludes, “some students may be able to master content quickly, while others may need more time than standardized courses provide.”
* * *
One positive trend worth mentioning is that, even as early as March 2020, when the pandemic began, parents were expressing renewed appreciation for teachers (perhaps because they suddenly realized what their lives would look like if we weren’t supervising their children). Social media brimmed with praise for teachers and calls to increase our pay. I wrote about this in an earlier piece for Public Discourse, and offered reflections on how the pandemic provided opportunities to rethink the relationship between home, school, and work.
But since that essay appeared, public attitudes seem to have soured slightly, as anxious and overworked parents continue to face the challenge of tending to work while supervising their kids’ learning. In my district, parent chants for “five days a week” reverberated outside of a recent school board meeting, a sentiment shared by parents in many districts nationwide.
As a teacher, I think the word that best captures this whole mood is deflating. Teaching online and in-person concurrently is disorienting, and I spend the day fearful that I am doing a disservice to both groups. In my own state, not surprisingly, all of these challenges have led to a sizable number of teachers retiring early, or resigning outright.
The deflating experience also has drawn some families toward educational alternatives, as the decline in public school enrollment shows. For obvious reasons, homeschooling has suddenly become more mainstream. In mid-2020, homeschool co-ops like Classical Conversations reported that they’ve been receiving “up to five times more recruitment calls per day since the shutdowns.” Polls show that public support for educational choice has increased during the pandemic. Obviously, many families will be thrilled to send their children back to five-day full-day in-school education. But one consequence of the pandemic might be that we no longer view any one model of education as a universal baseline for all families.
School districts, administrators, and teachers (myself included) are all doing our best to deal with this unprecedented situation. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, we can’t blame all of our difficulties on COVID-19. In many cases, the pandemic has caused us to confront issues that have gone unaddressed for a long time. If we deal with them in a constructive and thoughtful way, then maybe some good will come out of this historic medical tragedy.
Joshua Pauling is a high school history teacher whose writings have been published in Areo, FORMA Journal, Front Porch Republic, Public Discourse, Mere Orthodoxy, Modern Reformation, and Salvo Magazine.