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Education officials see opportunity in Massachusetts’ remote learning moment

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Education officials see opportunity in Massachusetts’ remote learning moment

Since school buildings closed in March, students across Massachusetts have been engaged in remote learning, with varying degrees of success.

While teachers are working to adapt to a new way of learning, modifying curriculums and engaging students and parents with varying degrees of success, state education officials are looking to the future, viewing the current shift to remote learning as a test laboratory for innovation in education.

“There is an opportunity to change how we think about education,” state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said during a meeting with the board of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last week. “There is an opportunity to think about, ‘How do we personalize education a little bit more than we’re currently doing?’ We still are kind of operating from a factory model.”

Riley’s call for personalized learning and his denunciation of the so-called “factory model” of education mirror a national discourse around education reform that has picked up steam during the global coronavirus pandemic. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has long voiced disdain for public schools, recently announced $180 million in grants for states to re-think K-12 education.

“The current disruption to the normal model is reaffirming something I have said for years: we must rethink education to better match the realities of the 21st century,” the Michigan billionaire said in an announcement of the funding last week.

The federal funding is to provide states with dollars for microgrants to enable parents to purchase remote learning options from public or private schools or providers, enable states to develop or expand online “virtual schools” and enable states to devise their own strategies for remote learning.

Whether or not Massachusetts receives any of that federal funding, the state is knee-deep in its own remote learning experiment as it works out what’s expected of schools since the coronavirus pandemic forced school closures in mid-March. Riley has approached the challenge with a four-phase plan to standardize instruction in the state. In the first phase, the state issued guidance to districts on remote learning, helping schools make the shift to online learning. In the second phase, districts were directed to focus on material that students were already taught in the first two-thirds of the year as teachers settled into the routine of remote learning.

In phase three, DESE established essential standards for each grade level to learn in May and June.

“In many ways this is an interesting opportunity for us to really go deeper on what we think are the core essential standards,” Riley said. “Typically, in May we’re doing a lot of testing, and so we’re teaching less. Now, we’re going to be able to focus on those standards that we think are crucial for students’ success for May and June.”

In the fourth phase, districts are to prepare for students returning.

“We need to figure out what this will look like for students coming back,” Riley said.

DESE board member Amanda Fernandez, CEO and co-founder of Latinos for Education, urged Riley to incorporate into the state’s COVID response a fifth phase — longer-term planning for changing instruction modalities in Massachusetts.

Several people who gave testimony in last week’s DESE board meeting echoed Fernandez’s call. Brown University instructor Monica Linden argued for individualized curriculums and “computer-adapted diagnostic assessments which can provide good data with less than 60 minutes of testing.”

“We can use the current crisis as a prompt to restructure teaching and learning into a better education system for today’s children and for future generations,” she said.

Riley suggested that the remote learning experiments school districts are currently engaged in could complement the work he’s promoting through his project, the Kaleidoscope Collective — a program that promotes a project-based instruction modality called “deeper learning.”

In the Kaleidoscope model, Riley said, students learn through working on projects, rather than through rote memorization of facts.

“It ties in nicely to the Kaleidoscope work — this idea of task-based activities that are extremely engaging to children, that are connected to the real world, often tied into project-based learning,” Riley said of the state’s ongoing work with remote learning. “That could be a vehicle for us to go deeper and explain that.”

What is personalized learning?

“Personalized learning” is a term often used to refer to a set of strategies including proficiency-based instruction and project-based learning designed to help students learn at their own rate.

Rather than earning a C or D in a subject, then moving on to the next unit or grade level, students are required to demonstrate proficiency in the subject area before moving on. Because many efforts to implement personalized learning in recent years have been tied to students learning on computers, many advocates, including DeVos, see the current moment as an opportunity to expand the new modality.

While computer-based personalized learning has been used extensively by for-profit charter schools, it remains controversial and there’s little data demonstrating the efficacy of such classrooms. Critics say proponents of personalized learning rely too heavily on technology that conveys sensitive data on students to for-profit education companies.

Freelance journalist and public education advocate Jennifer Berkshire said the cost of instituting personalized learning effectively can present a daunting challenge. She points to Maine, where a drive to institute a form of personalized learning ended in failure, plagued by uneven implementation and a miniscule 0.1 % funding increase to implement the change.

“The idea that you’re going to make learning more personalized at a time when there’s no money for it — it starts to sound like the more ideological views you hear from Betsy DeVos,” she said.

Funding for expanding personalized learning in Massachusetts may be limited. Although the state last year passed the Student Opportunity Act, which aims to invest an additional $1.5 billion into local school districts, the state budget next year could lose an estimated $4 billion as businesses have closed during the statewide stay-at-home order.

Riley’s Kaleidoscope network, which is in its beginning stages, calls for a form of in-classroom personalized learning instruction. Earlier this year, 15 BPS schools were involuntarily added to the network as part of a memorandum of understanding triggered by a state audit of the district.

Remote learning

While districts across the country have adopted remote learning in the midst of the COVID pandemic, there is a growing recognition that there are real limitations for many families. While Boston Public Schools distributed 30,000 Chromebook laptop computers to students and made mobile hotspots available to families who don’t have internet access, many districts in Massachusetts lack the resources Boston has.

Even with access to the internet, students who require greater hands-on instruction — including those in kindergarten and early grades and students with disabilities — may have difficulty completing their assignments or even logging on to a computer without hours of assistance from a parent. In families where one or both parents are working from home or working in so-called essential professions outside the home, instruction may be difficult or impossible.

“There is so much that can’t be done in remote learning that’s done in a classroom,” said Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang. “So much of students’ learning is through interaction. What parents and teachers are learning is that in-person learning is irreplaceable.”

Tang points out that students are missing out on science laboratories and collaborative learning.

With students experiencing varying degrees of success learning remotely, BPS officials have decided that teachers will grade students on their work for May and June, but that no students will be held back due to poor grades.

There is a growing consensus among educators and education activists that online instruction will likely exacerbate the disparities between students from low-income families and those whose families have better access to resources. With students no longer in school buildings, it has become more difficult to assess their needs.

“We know that some students currently are disengaged, some students are only intermittently engaged in their remote learning,” Riley said during the meeting last week. “We’re asking districts to reach out to families in a supportive way to try to get them any supports they need.”

But teachers have traditionally relied on direct observation to assess whether students need school-based support or state intervention, noted at-large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, a former East Boston High School teacher.

“Teachers are often the first line of defense, recognizing a learning disability that hasn’t been diagnosed or helping connect them to mental health support services,” she said. “We know that during this time, there’s a rise in domestic abuse. Teachers are trained to identify that with their students.”

In her own household, Essaibi-George and her husband are balancing work with facilitating remote learning for their three sons in eighth grade and one in ninth grade.

“We’re certainly doing the best we can,” she said. “But none of what we’re doing replaces classroom time.”

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