Without a doubt, virtual education technology has improved by leaps and bounds. Although it’s a stretch to say that schools were entirely prepared for the impact the COVID pandemic would have on their operations, virtual education was not a new concept, which made the transition to 100% virtual learning possible when it became necessary. Because we live in an era of great education technology solutions such as VILT, artificial intelligence, machine learning, internet research, cloud computing, webinars, podcasts, virtual reality, and a long list of other innovations, one might assume that effective online education has become accessible to virtually (excuse the pun) everybody.
But has it? Studies have shown that the virtual learning environment isn’t currently accessible to or ideal for low income students, which comprise 53% of the US student population. In addition, although it has undeniably expanded teachers’ repertoire of teaching tools, education technology hasn’t been sufficiently leveraged to deal with the issues that standardized testing has caused. Nor does it (yet) provide a solution to pervasive problems like parental disengagement, untrained or under-trained teachers, and the rising numbers of youth suicide cases.
Poverty and Distance Learning
According to a recent survey, student engagement in low-income areas reached an all-time low when classes moved online at the beginning of the pandemic. Although school districts were quite timely in distributing virtual learning software, laptops, tablets, and internet hotspots, it turned out that the availability of educational technology was not the only issue.
One problem that arises with online learning in low-income households is that both parents usually have to work outside the home and are therefore unable to offer educational support to their children. A subsequent section of this article will discuss this issue in greater detail.
Another factor to consider is that low-income families are often housed in dwellings that accommodate more people in fewer and smaller rooms. In that scenario, finding dedicated space to work and study becomes difficult, if not impossible.
Of course, digital readiness at home is still an issue, despite educators’ efforts to ameliorate the problem. Hernan Galperin, an associate professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism says, “Our findings show that students without appropriate connectivity or devices for distance learning are less motivated and are able to complete fewer assignments than their peers. If schools are expected to … create lifelong opportunities for all children, there needs to be a concerted effort at the federal, state and local level to address these disparities.”
Standardized testing was implemented as national educational policy to discern 1) what students were learning in school, 2) how well teachers were doing their jobs, and 3) how schools were faring at the institutional level. While those learning analytics would certainly produce some useful information, the problem is that these tests have become an end in themselves, instead of a means to an end.
W. James Popham, Emeritus Professor of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies wrote an article titled, Why Standardized Tests Don’t Measure Educational Quality. In this article he states, “Employing standardized achievement tests to ascertain educational quality is like measuring temperature with a tablespoon…. Standardized achievement tests have a different measurement mission than indicating how good or bad a school is. Standardized achievement tests should … not be used to judge educational quality.”
Critics claim that high-stakes standardized tests:
- Stifle creativity and imagination
- Suppress teachers’ individuality
- Encourage rote memorization instead of critical thinking
- Are being used to punish teachers and justify their low salaries
- Promote a culture of cheating
- Ignore student individuality
- Force teachers to “teach to the test”
- Are not an accurate measurement of student learning
- Do not teach students college or “real-world” readiness
- Are racist and sexist
- Exist solely to enrich the companies that produce them
Of course, student testing has its supporters as well, but rising opposition to these assessments supports the notion that they are problematic at best. For that reason, increasing numbers of parents (currently between 5% and 11%) opt out of their children taking these tests at all.
Unquestionably, teachers have a tough row to hoe. They have to deal with increasing class sizes, low pay, long hours, standardized testing, and increasingly difficult students. They are also too often the scapegoats when a student or students don’t “achieve” or do well in the classroom.
For some reason, society seems to think that in the few hours a day (depending on what grade they teach) a teacher has charge of a student, said teacher should be able to overcome every deficit that student has in the way of IQ, home life, disabilities, mental and physical health, personality, attitude, and life experiences to produce a student who performs as expected on an arbitrary standardized test. If the student doesn’t cut muster, society and the government says, the fault lies with the teacher.
However, research unequivocally affirms that parents are more important to students’ academic success than teachers. These findings make it clear that parental disengagement in childhood education is of far greater concern when it comes to the state of American schools than teacher quality.
J. Richard Gentry, an expert on childhood literacy and author of Psychology Today’s article, “A Lack of Parent Engagement Helps Create Failing Schools,” asserts that to make a difference in their children’s education, parents need to “communicate with teachers, attend meetings, help their children complete homework and prepare for tests, pay attention to absentee and tardy rates, and send kids to school rested and well-nourished.”
What too many parents are actually doing, however, is a stark contrast. Consider the following disappointing statistics, keeping in mind that globally, the U.S. ranks 14th in science, 17th in reading, and 25th in math:
- Nearly one-third of students say their parents don’t know how they are doing in school.
- About one-sixth of all students report that their parents don’t ask or care about their grades.
- Only about one-fifth of parents consistently attend school programs.
- More than 40 percent of parents never attend school programs.
- About 50% of parents rarely or never log in to their children’s schools’ electronic portals to check on grades and assignments.
Clearly, for this country to rise in the worldwide academic ranks, not only American teachers, but American parents must step up to the plate.
Poorly Trained/Untrained Teachers
That said, we are in no way trying to imply that teachers get a free pass. It takes the proverbial village to educate a child. Well-fed, well-rested, and well-loved students who receive support from well-intentioned parents are halfway there in the pursuit of a meaningful, effective education. At that point, it becomes the teachers’ responsibility to take them the rest of the way.
But what happens when the teachers aren’t present? According to federal data, 40 of the country’s 50 states are experiencing a growing teacher shortage, particularly in subject areas like math, science, ESL, and special education. The causes for this shortage are numerous and complex, but they include the following common factors:
- Low morale/burnout
- Low pay
- Lack of resources/funding
- The pressures of stringent standardized testing
- Lack of prestige
- Poor working environments
As a direct result of the shortages, many school districts find that they have to allot increasing numbers of emergency alternative teacher certifications. These certifications are issued to individuals who may have certain content knowledge but lack the specific training necessary to meet state “highly qualified” teacher standards. The get-certified-as-you-teach approach isn’t necessarily always bad, but it does have some drawbacks.
For instance, these teachers go into the classroom with far less preparation. They haven’t completed student teaching, they haven’t spent years in teacher training courses, and they may not understand the rigors of the profession. For this reason, teachers operating under an alternative license have a far higher rate of turnover; in fact, they are two to three times more likely to leave the profession than their highly-trained counterparts.
The result of this turnover is a vicious cycle. A teacher shortage results in the issuance of more alternative teacher certifications (in Oklahoma, the state Board of Education had approved 2,153 emergency teaching certificates for the 2018/19 school year by September of 2018, whereas in 2011 they approved only 32), which in turn results in a greater teacher shortage when the untrained teachers eventually flee. It’s a self-feeding loop.
What’s the solution? Well, that could be a separate long article for another day, but the short answer is to focus on teacher retention. Teachers who feel fairly compensated, safe, and respected, and who have access to the supplies and technologies they need to be successful will stay in the profession. If we can find a way to implement these solutions, teaching will once again be considered an appealing profession.
Childhood suicide has experienced a tragic and alarming upward trajectory. Consider the following statistics:
- Suicide is the secondleading cause of death for youths aged 10-24.
- More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.
- Each day in the United States, an average of over 3,703 young people in grades 9-12 attempt suicide. If these percentages are additionally applied to grades 7 and 8, the numbers are higher.
- Four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs.
We mention youth suicide in this article not as a cause of the deterioration of public education, but as a symptom of it. A recent study by Professors Benjamin Hansen and Matthew Lang, published in the Economics of Education Review is entitled “Back to School Blues: Seasonality of Youth Suicide and the Academic Calendar,” and has linked youth suicide rates among American teenagers with the stresses, pressures, and heartaches they experience in high school. It is a chilling read.
The condensed version of their findings is that the rate of youth suicide increases during the school year and decreases markedly during summer vacations and holidays. Professors Hansen and Lang studied other factors (weather, age, gender, and racial, ethnic, and income groups to name a few) to determine whether those factors influenced their findings, but they found that the suicide rates remained steady regardless of these dynamics.
Basically, the stress, anxiety, and depression that take such a heartbreaking toll on our young people tend to be exacerbated by their experiences at school. Such experiences might include:
- Peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol
- Competition for popularity
- Isolation and feelings of not belonging
- Romantic entanglements/Unrequited love/Questions about sexuality
- Body shaming
- Money shaming
The list could go on for pages. In addition, problems students might be experiencing at home (domestic violence, abuse, unemployment, parental pressure, etc.) can make it difficult for them to be at school, where the last thing most of them want to be or feel is different.
The answer, of course, is certainly not to abolish school attendance. The answer (and again, this is the short answer) is to make schools a safer place emotionally and physically and find solutions to help young people learn to handle the pressures that arise in their trek to adulthood.
Some possible solutions might include:
- More school-based mental health experts
- Smaller schools/classrooms
- Virtual classrooms (VILT-virtual instructor led classes)
- More school-endorsed-and-provided family counseling
The key to fixing what’s broken in the American public education system is finding solutions across all relevant sectors. No one person, program, or plan can do it. Virtual education software solutions have a tremendous capacity to enhance education, but they can’t stand alone in the fight against the declining US public education system. Teachers, parents, administrators, students, and the community at large need to work together toward the common goal of improving education using the best available technology to its fullest capacity. Jigsaw Interactive works with a number of schools by providing virtual classrooms. These classrooms offer a safe virtual learning environment where teachers and students work together in a classroom setting. Things like small group work, in-class assessments, multiple levels of engagement, differentiated learning and analytics are what makes the Jigsaw technology unique in the marketplace. Whether traditional school systems, charter schools or virtual schools are looking to improve or provide a robust virtual program, Jigsaw Interactive is a unique and innovative solution for all.