Diane Ravitch: Communities may value schools and teachers more after coronavirus

Noted education scholar says parents now more aware of  vital role of schools

In early 2020 BC, before coronavirus, I interviewed education historian and public school champion Diane Ravitch about her new book, "Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America's Public Schools." The conversation occurred just five weeks ago, but it feels much longer.

We discussed the devastating impact on classrooms and students from opioid abuse, poverty and violence. What we didn't discuss: A worldwide pandemic that would force nine out of 10 children worldwide out of their classrooms.

About three weeks after we spoke, the escalating threat from the coronavirus shuttered Georgia schools, canceled proms, graduations and final exams, required thousands of K-12 and college educators to switch instruction online and recast parents as academic coaches.

Two weeks into this lockdown, we have parents, many of whom are now working at their jobs from home, wishing they could simply say, “Alexa, home school the children.” We have witnessed a flood of online resources, learning tools and internet lessons to the degree that kids can now learn everything from taekwondo to tuba on a screen.

The massive migration to distance learning has led to speculation this could be a technology transformation for American schools, which have only dabbled in digital education for the most part. While ed-tech may be salivating at the prospect of enlarging its share of education dollars, Ravitch questions whether we will see any seismic shift.

“I think this prolonged closure of schools may have a contrary effect. It has made parents long to be free to return to their own work. Except for those who are already committed to homeschooling, I doubt that many parents have been converted to the idea of home-teaching. The refrain from parents, at least on social media, is that they realize they are not teachers, they don’t feel competent as teachers, and they can’t wait until their children are back in school and they can return to their own work,” said Ravitch, after I reached out to her this weekend for her take on this nightmare. “From the view of students, what I hear is that they are bored, they miss their friends, they miss their teachers, and they miss the activities that happen in school.”

“Now that the entire country has had a stiff dose of distance learning, its faults are showing,” said Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under the first President Bush. “Parents and teachers are complaining about technical glitches, student privacy, and hacking of online platforms, as well as the sheer tedium of sitting in front of a screen for hours on end. My guess: ed-tech will continue to be a tool, but it will not replace the human interactions among teachers and students, among students and students. During the pandemic, we were reminded that life is with people, not machines.”

The pandemic’s onslaught pressed the pause button on standardized testing in most states, including Georgia where students will not be taking the Milestones tests this spring.

"The hiatus from end-of-year testing gave everyone a breather," said Ravitch, who once supported the No Child Left Behind Act but became a critic when she saw test scores used to batter teachers and schools.

“About now, if students were in school, they would be practicing every day to take the tests, then they would take them, but the results would not be available for months, and the information they provide has zero diagnostic value. The standardized testing regime that began nearly 20 years ago has not had positive benefits for anyone except the testing corporations,” she said. “If federal and state leaders gave any thought to change, they would drop the federal mandate for annual testing because it is useless and pointless. Students should be tested by their teachers, who know what they taught. If we can’t trust teachers to know their students, why should we trust distant corporations whose sole motive is profit and whose products undermine the joy of teaching and learning?”

A post-coronavirus America will confront drastic financial losses, which has already led Speaker of the House David Ralston to warn Georgia may not be able to afford the teacher pay raise that Gov. Brian Kemp sought this year.

“Teachers will have to make do with larger classes and fewer resources,” predicted Ravitch. But teachers may see a rise in what she described as “psychic income…the love, respect, and appreciation of the entire community, which has missed their physical presence.”

While Ravitch acknowledged teachers can’t pay the bills with increased good will, she said, “I believe a lasting effect of this terrible time will be a huge reservoir of public support for the role of public schools in their communities, not only because they offer knowledgeable and dedicated teachers, but because they are the hub of communities for food support, athletics, health screening, child care, and many other functions.

“Who knows? We might even see the end of public-school bashing and teacher-bashing, which have grown stale and irrelevant during a time when most parents and students miss their teachers and their schools.”