Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

Let's Use Covid-19 to Rethink America's Public Schools. They're Obsolete, Anyway

As Debate Over School Opening Heats Up, Questions Arise About 'Essential' Character of Teachers

All over the United States, local and national leaders debate the possibility of opening school in the fall. In many areas, officials and teachers are reluctant to invite children to congregate and act as their usual petri dishes, distributing a variety of viruses to each other and their families. This year, the virus in contention is SARS-CoV-2, a germ that has already killed 138,000 in the U.S. to date.

Though the risk from COVID-19 to the children themselves is low, it is much higher for their more aged parents, grandparents, and of course, their teachers. Today, staff at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District recommended schools remain online only for the fall. Santa Monica schools closed last March and moved to distance-only learning. In a survey taken this month, teachers and parents showed markedly different attitudes toward full-time online learning, with teachers in favor and parents opposed.

It is hard enough for children to pay attention to a teacher when they are sitting in the same classroom with one. Distance that teacher via a computer screen, and the ability to stay engaged drops precipitously.

There is little to recommend trying to learn online from a credentialed public school teacher, who is simply talking at the screen, when a treasure trove of professionally and amateur-produced, engaging videos are available that could do a far better job of transmitting the same information. Even before the current pandemic situation, the value of sending a child to sit in a classroom to hear a teacher who, though well-meaning and trained, does not have anything like the resources used in professionally produced videos about science, history, and even mathematics.

These videos can be so engaging that children choose to watch them in their free time. Certainly, retention of information is enhanced when the material is presented in an entertaining manner, often with music and animation, and when they are produced by individuals closer in age and social understanding to the children to whom they are addressed.

Discussions in the district had already been taking place for years about the "reverse classroom," where children watched videos at home to learn the basic information and only came to school in order to do their assignments and ask questions of the teacher.

If children are to be sitting in front of a computer screen anyway, why shouldn't that screen be filled with absorbing, well-produced content? No matter how well-meaning and hard-working the teacher, they cannot compete with videos produced in studios with teams of educators, entertainers, musicians, and videographers. These Youtubers and others are rewarded directly in proportion to how successful and popular their video becomes. School districts can vet videos or even put out contracts for educator-videographers to bid on.

Freeing public school teachers from the task of creating and presenting lectures gives them the opportunity to spend time one-on-one with students as they work on assignments or want to ask questions. In the SMMUSD survey about distance learning, both parents and teachers were pleased with the success of individual instruction and support from teachers. This was the only aspect of the distance learning for which anyone expressed support.

In the era of Youtube, it is difficult to argue the value of a droning school teacher standing in front of a classroom. That difficulty increases several-fold when the teacher is droning from a computer screen located in a child's bedroom or family room. Take away the teacher's union and the power it wields in this city, and teachers would already have been gone - or at least transformed into tutors.

If schools must remain closed to in-person instruction, let's use this opportunity to provide the best possible instruction - not a droning school teacher. And let's use that human, fully interactive school teacher for the purpose to which he or she is best suited: helping students with their individual questions and struggles.


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