If public schools go virtual, what happens to private schools? And how well does online schooling work? – American Enterprise Institute - Freelance Rack

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Saturday, August 1, 2020

If public schools go virtual, what happens to private schools? And how well does online schooling work? – American Enterprise Institute

It seems lots of public schools will be totally virtual this fall because of the COVID pandemic. So what about private schools? Can they hold in-person classes even if the public schools in their district or country go online?  This bit of conversation from the AEI online discussion yesterday — “COVID-19 this fall: Public health, the economy, and schools” — might prove insightful on this issue. Here is an exchange I had with AEI education scholar Rick Hess:

Pethokoukis: What about private or parochial schools that want to stay open but they’re in districts or counties where they’re just doing distance learning? Will they be allowed to open their schools and have kids come in person?

Hess: It depends on the state. It’s going to be an executive power, statutory kind of question. Because there are two dimensions. It’s what the school feels comfortable doing and what families want, and there are also the larger public health ramifications.

One of the policy pieces of all this is that there are about 35,000 private schools in the US, and folks sometimes have this picture in their mind of the famous ones — the St. Albans or the Exeters, these places that have hundreds of millions of dollars in endowments and charge a ton of money. These are a tiny fingernail fragment of the 35,000. The vast majority of private schools charge less per year than the local public schools spend. Public schools across the US spend about $14,000 per year. Most private schools generally charge tuition that’s less than half of that. So these are schools that don’t have endowments — that are running pretty thin margins. If these schools don’t open this fall, there is a huge chance that hundreds or thousands of them won’t be around to reopen in fall 2021. And that would be a devastating blow to these communities, to these families.

So I think part of the conversation about federal education aid as we think about the bill that Congress is debating, is it’s really gotten framed as privates vs. publics. The point is that a small fraction of the money that we are talking about putting into public education — maybe 5 billion a year or 8 billion a year — could be a life saver for hundreds or thousands of these incredibly valuable community institutions that don’t have the wherewithal to figure out how to use PPP, which won’t be sufficient to see some of them through. But we’ve really got to be thinking, “What are the long term implications for education in these communities?”

Fairfax County school buses sit in a depot, a day after it was announced the county would begin the school year all online, in Lorton, Virginia, U.S., July 22, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

More generally, who is pushing to keep kids at home?

Part of what’s going on here is that the most vocal and influential interests in education have been saying, “Hey, let’s put our thumb on the scale of not opening.” So the teacher unions, for instance, have said, “Look, we want schools to reopen as long as they’re safe. But that’s going to cost hundreds of billions, it’s going to require extraordinary efforts. If there is any doubt in how we weigh this out, let’s not open.”

You’ve heard the same thing from superintendents associations. Parents themselves are justifiably nervous. So I think one of the things that’s happened in the calculation around schools, which has not happened with commercial enterprises, is we have had a lot of active, vocal interests raising all of the legitimate concerns, and there’s really not been any visible or organized or forceful push to say, “Well, wait a minute. We need to think about what it means for kids to not be in school.”

When you’re talking about groups pushing for online schooling, keeping the schools at least partially closed, where does potential counterweight come from?

It’s a great question. You know, President Trump obviously saw — his pollsters presumably saw — an opening here in July when he suddenly started demanding that we send kids back to school. But in classic Trump fashion, he did this in a reckless, unhinged way and was openly dismissive of the health concerns. In a way, he was presenting the folks nervous about going back to school with the perfect foil.

You’ve seen relatively few politicians stand up. Governor Polis in Colorado, I think, handled this real nicely, talking very deliberately in a disciplined fashion about, “Look, we can’t be scared out of doing what we need to do for kids, but we have to be cognizant of all the risks.” We’ve seen very little of that kind of political leadership.

Parents themselves are deeply split. Depending on how you ask the question, it’s really 50/50 between parents who want to send their kids back to school and parents who absolutely don’t want to send their kids back to school. So you haven’t seen a lot of energy there.

The advocacy and reform community is, right now, very caught up in questions of social justice, which turns out to play out very weirdly on this. On the one hand, as Mike mentioned, the kids who are suffering most from this are the kids who don’t have highly educated parents, don’t have a lot of resources to pay for supplemental materials, and are in small homes without good learning space. These are exactly the kids on the wrong side of the opportunity gaps. But these are also parents who in many cases are the most nervous about sending kids to school. So the reformers and the advocates are on the sidelines.

And then you’ve got a mass culture — you have these pods emerging — especially in affluent communities, where parents are getting together and figuring out how to pay money to hire tutors, to get their kids together. But instead of this being greeted as American ingenuity and parents being eager to stand up and find a way for their kids, what you’re generally seeing in the New York Times and in the NPRs, is these parents lambasted as selfish examples of everything that’s wrong with privileged culture. So it’s right now really hard to see where that leading edge on making sure we’re being fully cognizant of what kids need is going to come from.

How effective is virtual schooling?

The problem is it turns out to be really hard to design virtual education well under any circumstances. Most of what districts were offering in the spring and will be rolling out in the fall is duct-taped and stuck together with whatever they can get their hands on, with faculty who don’t know what they’re doing and are operating under collective bargaining agreements that are highly restrictive in the things you need to do to make this work.

And it turns out that while virtual learning environments work really well for some learners, for lots of students — especially young students — it’s the human dimension of schools that makes it all work. They go to school, and they kind of sit in class because they like to see their friends, because they like their teacher, because of all the other tissue that’s wrapped into schools.

Here’s a really simple example of this: About a decade ago, there was an explosion in higher education of these things called MOOCs. They were offered by faculty at places like Stanford and MIT. They were free online courses where you got to watch the video and take it. These were adult learners who are choosing voluntarily to take these courses. Tens of thousands of people signed up for some of the courses taught by the leading authority in the entire world. Generally speaking, when Harvard did an evaluation of its students, about five percent of students actually completed the courses. So even for motivated, interested adult learners, the rate at which people are actually able to lock in and benefit from virtual learning is quite limited and hugely dependent on design.

Now, we are asking schools in a helter skelter fashion to do this for tens of millions of kids with teachers who aren’t actually trained in it and may not be comfortable. I think when we think about the educational implications, for all the happy talk that folks are going to get from their local superintendents and their local teachers, I think they should be very concerned about how this plays out in practice.



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