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Opinion | Elite Universities Are Out of Touch. Blame the Campus.

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Looking out the window of a plane flying over Boulder, Colorado, recently, I was reminded how much American universities stick out from their surroundings.

I’d never been to Boulder, or visited the University of Colorado’s flagship campus there, but even from 30,000 feet, I could tell exactly where it started and ended. The red-tile roofs and quadrangles of the campus formed a little self-contained world, totally distinct from the grid of single-family homes that surrounded it.

In urban universities, the dividing line between the campus and the community can be even starker. At the University of Southern California, for example, students must check in with security officers when entering the gates of the university at night. At Yale, castle-like architecture makes the campus feel like a fortified enclave.

The elite American university today is a paradox: Even as concerns about social justice continue to preoccupy students and administrations, these universities often seem to be out of touch with the society they claim to care so much about. Many on the right and in the center believe universities have become ideological echo chambers. Some on the left see them as “sepulchers for radical thought.”

These critiques aren’t new — for generations people have thought of American universities as ivory towers, walled off from reality — but they’ve taken on new urgency as public debate over the state of higher education has intensified in recent years. Ideology and institutional culture get frequent attention, but a key factor is often ignored: geography.

The campus is a uniquely American invention. (The term originated in the late 1700s to describe Princeton.) Efforts to create separate environments for scholars came about at a time when elite American opinion was convinced that cities were hotbeds of moral corruption. Keeping students in rural areas and on self-contained campuses, it was thought, would protect their virtue.

Though such ideas have lost their appeal in recent years, to this day American universities are radically more isolated from their surrounding communities than their European counterparts are. And being situated around a strongly defined central campus, often featuring trademark Gothic-style architecture, remains a point of pride for elite American universities.

But what students and faculty gain in the enhanced sense of academic community that comes from campus life, they can lose in regular interaction with people who don’t dwell in the world of the academy. The campus, by design, restricts opportunities to encounter people from a wider range of professions, education levels and class backgrounds.

Of course, students like to spend time with other students, and scholars associate with other scholars. And that’s good for education and research. But there’s no need to enforce a geographical separation from society on top of it.

We all instinctively extrapolate insights from our own communities and day-to-day interactions, imagining they are true about the nation at large. Inevitably, that means our view of the country is a little distorted — but for those in the university, the distortions can be extreme. Stuck on campus, academics risk limiting their knowledge and toleration of a wider sweep of American society.

To put it another way, what’s most dangerous for the health of America’s intellectual elite is not that most professors have similar cultural tastes and similar liberal politics. That will probably always be the case. It’s that the campus setup makes it easy for them to forget that reasonable people often don’t share their outlook.

Student bodies and faculties have grown more diverse in recent decades, but that shouldn’t fool us into thinking elite universities have become microcosms of society: The highly educated are far more liberal than average Americans. The divide isn’t just political: Whatever their socioeconomic backgrounds, students and professors have daily routines that are very different from those of lawyers, shopkeepers or manual laborers — and that shapes their worldviews.

Life at a university with a dominant central campus can also narrow students’ views on the world, especially at colleges where most undergraduates live on campus. Letting the university take care of all of students’ needs — food, housing, health care, policing, punishing misbehavior — can be infantilizing for young adults. Worse, it warps students’ political thinking to eat food that simply materializes in front of them and live in residence halls that others keep clean.

It also takes away the chance to encounter people with different roles in society, from retail workers to landlords — interactions that would remind them they won’t be students forever and open questions about the social relevance of the ideas they encounter in the university.

Community outreach programs can help broaden students’ outlook, but the better approach would be to configure the physical footprint of universities in a way that makes interactions with surrounding communities natural.

By and large, urban state universities like Rutgers University’s Newark campus have done a much better job integrating with their environments than elite private universities — with the possible exception of N.Y.U. But colleges in smaller cities, towns and suburbs could also do more to integrate their physical presences more seamlessly with the surrounding environment. Both university and community have a lot to gain.

Some have already started breaking down the boundaries between town and gown out of financial necessity. After reopening in 2011 after three years of closure, Antioch College, a small liberal arts college in Yellow Springs, Ohio (population 3,972 in 2020), built new residential buildings on disused parts of its campus, offering residents access to college events and the library.

Housing fewer undergraduates on campus would be a good start to encourage more overlap between university and society. If universities had less totalizing control over their students’ lives, they could do without quite so many administrators — potentially cutting the runaway cost of tuition. It could reverse a trend toward college crackdowns on independent student life.

It also might make student activism both more grounded and more effective. More interaction with surrounding communities would encourage more student advocacy for issues that have material impacts for society (housing rights, say) and less for those that don’t (such as whether certain public figures should be allowed to speak on campus).

Of course, students will likely still cluster in certain areas off campus — some of that is inevitable and isn’t a bad thing. But universities and local governments should try to prevent students from dominating neighborhoods like Westwood, which is adjacent to U.C.L.A., or else they will come to function as extensions of the campus, defeating the point of these efforts to integrate the student population into surrounding communities.

Bringing American universities into closer contact with society would reinvigorate academic inquiry and produce graduates with broader minds and more social awareness. How to go about it? One option is political. The federal government has massive influence over higher education through its funding powers and could provide additional funds for colleges that configure their physical footprints in a less centralized way.

There’s a cultural change that needs to happen, too: Americans need to stop associating the central campus with prestige and looking down — often tacitly — on so-called commuter schools, where most don’t live in campus accommodations. Finally, there’s room for an upstart university to demonstrate that higher learning can be a success even when it’s not oriented around a campus. A university that does not fortify itself against its surrounding community can make much better use of its cultural resources.

Reacquainting the university with society is also a chance to redouble our attention to American urbanism. For urban universities to be able to blend into their surroundings, cities must be safe, affordable and pleasant. Colleges should work with local governments to address problems like homelessness, crime and cost of living. Wealthier universities could take a first step by using their full coffers and extensive real-estate holdings to build homeless shelters and affordable housing — then reap benefits from the improved health of their host cities.

The university shouldn’t be made indistinguishable from other institutions. That would mean replacing its much-needed critical instinct with conformism and commercialization. But it badly needs more integration with society, and the best way to do that is to knock down some of the many barriers that separate it from the world outside.

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A Killer on the Loose Leaves an Idaho College Town Shaken

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MOSCOW, Idaho — Every few hours comes another call. A food delivery driver who heard a woman screaming. A mother asking the police to walk her daughter to her car after work. A woman who woke up at 3 a.m. to find her front door wide open.

The flood of calls to the Moscow Police Department is a sign of just how afraid people in this college town have become, three weeks after four University of Idaho students were fatally stabbed by an unknown assailant in their bedrooms in the middle of the night.

Many students refused to come back to campus after Thanksgiving, and some classrooms at the university now sit half empty. Those who did return said they bought doorbell cameras, put rods in their windows to lock them shut or began hunkering down with roommates at night.

“I ask my friends for rides all the time,” said Jemimah Tudi, a sophomore from India who said she no longer walks alone after dark and expects to get pepper spray for Christmas.

The fear that sits over this city of 25,000 people in the rolling hills of northern Idaho is unlikely to ease until the killer or killers are caught. But there is little indication that the police are any closer to making an arrest than they were on the day of the killings, Nov. 13, when news of the stabbings sickened residents and turned this normally idyllic college town into the scene of a national mystery.

The police have issued sometimes contradictory statements, leading at least one victim’s family to question whether investigators are up to the task of solving a quadruple homicide in a city that had not seen a murder since 2015.

“So frustrating. No info at all,” Alivea Goncalves, the older sister of one victim, Kaylee Goncalves, said in a text message last week after the police held their most recent news conference. “They have done nothing to gain any of our trust.”

The number of F.B.I. and Idaho State Police investigators working on the case — including behavioral analysts trained to outline a possible profile of the killer — now vastly outnumbers the 36 total employees in the Moscow Police Department.

“We may not have identified a suspect yet, but we are getting a clearer picture of what happened,” said Aaron Snell, a spokesman for the State Police.

The house at 1122 King Road is tucked away on a dead-end street about a five-minute walk from the fraternity houses that line one edge of campus, with cars packed tightly into driveways and students often walking to and from class along snowy pathways.

The three-story house was a place where friends often socialized and posed for smiling pictures, social media posts from earlier this year show. But for the past three weeks, it has sat empty, marked off by police tape and guarded day and night by a police officer.

The slain students’ possessions remain behind: a pair of pink cowboy boots just inside a third-floor window, a neon sign on a wall that reads “good vibes,” a couch collecting snow on the back patio.

Killed in the early-morning attack were Kaylee Goncalves, 21, who was planning to graduate in the winter and move to Austin, Texas; Madison Mogen, 21, who loved concerts and had worked from a young age to help support herself; Xana Kernodle, 20, a marketing major who had begun to blossom while living away from home; and Ethan Chapin, 20, Ms. Kernodle’s boyfriend and a triplet who seemed to be always smiling or telling a joke. The three women lived in the home, and Mr. Chapin was visiting his girlfriend.

On Saturday, Nov. 12, Mr. Chapin and Ms. Kernodle spent the evening at a fraternity party while Ms. Goncalves and Ms. Mogen went to a sports bar in town. They all returned shortly before 2 a.m., and phone records show that a series of calls were soon placed from Ms. Goncalves’s phone to her former longtime boyfriend, Jack DuCoeur, who is also a student at the university, her older sister said.

Mr. DuCoeur did not pick up, and there were six more calls until 2:52 a.m., when they stopped. Several calls to the same number were also placed at about the same time using Ms. Mogen’s phone, the police said.

Little is known about what happened after that.

What the authorities have said is that, at some point in the night, someone armed with a large knife attacked the victims, likely as they slept, and managed to escape without waking the two additional roommates. Ms. Goncalves’s father said that Ms. Goncalves and Ms. Mogen were in the same bed when they were killed.

It was not until just before noon that the two surviving roommates realized something was wrong. The police said that they first called friends over to the apartment, believing that one of their roommates was passed out, and that someone called 911 shortly after.

When the police arrived, they found a gruesome scene, but no murder weapon or sign of forced entry. No possible motive has been disclosed and there are no suspects. The police said they had learned through interviews that Ms. Goncalves may have told friends she was worried about a stalker, but the authorities have not been able to verify that.

The shock of neighbors and students quickly gave way to fear. Residents began checking their locks, texting one another their whereabouts and calling the police over everything that seemed out of place — a revved engine in a Walmart parking lot, a man seen “wandering around.”

Neighbors also began sharing the story of a man on the outskirts of town who reported that his neighbor’s dog had been found a few weeks before the murders, skinned from neck to legs. (The police reassured the public that they “do not believe there is any evidence” that the incident was related to the students’ deaths.)

Seeking to calm the community, the police quickly said they believed there was no “ongoing community risk” or “imminent threat.” An initial statement from the police that the attacks were “targeted” was walked back and forth, with Bill Thompson, the Latah County prosecutor, saying at one point that he had no more information than the public about why the police had called it that.

“That’s what they told us and we accepted that at face value,” he said.

The claims never made sense to locals, students or their parents, since the police were also saying they did not know who had committed the killings, or where they might be. Chief James Fry of the Moscow Police Department ultimately conceded, three days after the crimes, that the police “cannot say that there is no threat.”

The back and forth has done little to calm residents like Angelica Silva, who said her husband had come home last week to find one of their windows wide open. What might have been considered odd in normal times was instead “super unsettling,” Ms. Silva said, with their young daughter at home.

“The curtains were hanging out the window,” said Ms. Silva, who has lived in Moscow since she was a child. “We are definitely triple-checking everything now.”

As the case drags on, there are worries that the investigation could go cold, leaving the town in a state of paralysis. But Chief Fry dismissed that idea this week.

“We’re going to solve this,” he told The Moscow-Pullman Daily News. “We’re going to continue to work until we solve it.”

Blaine Eckles, the dean of students at the university, said about a third of students who live in residence halls had not returned, though he did not have a figure for how many of the vast majority of students who live off campus have switched to online learning. As some students returned to campus on Monday following the holiday break, they said their classes were emptier than usual, and a heaviness could be felt over campus.

“It’s still so unknown and you don’t know what’s going on,” said Helen C., a senior who declined to give her full last name because she feared for her safety. “I’m hopeful, but it also seems like the further you get away from it, the easier it is to not find anyone, and then — not to be scary — you start thinking about Ted Bundy and all the stuff he did.”

Helen said she and her roommate had recently invited a friend to spend the night with them after learning that the friend’s roommates had not yet returned to town, leaving her alone at home.

Some students said that even though they worried about the possibility of another attack, they did not like the thought of returning to remote classes after doing so for long stretches during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Being an engineering student, I didn’t really have a choice,” Jaydon Morgan, a freshman, said after attending a noticeably empty calculus class. “It’s either in-person or struggling at home.”

At a vigil on the football field of the Kibbie Dome this week, students wiped their eyes as relatives of the victims spoke of their grief.

Ms. Mogen’s father, Ben Mogen, said he had always been proud to brag about his daughter to friends or people he was meeting for the first time, rattling off her academic accomplishments and pulling out pictures.

“I just would tell them all about Maddie,” he said.

All of the victims were members of fraternities and sororities, and many of those in attendance were in the university’s Greek organizations.

Chris Bofenkamp, a University of Idaho graduate, attended the vigil and said the killings had hit her especially hard because she had been a member of the same sorority as Ms. Kernodle and Ms. Mogen.

“That hit home for me because I remember how tight it was with the people I lived with,” Ms. Bofenkamp said. “You’re away from home, they become your family, and when they say, ‘It’s your sisters,’ it really feels like that.”

Mike Baker and Serge F. Kovaleski contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill and Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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The Pandemic May Have Eased, But There’s No Going Back for Districts (Opinion)

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(This is final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question of the week is:

What are the most important lessons do you think school district leaders should learn from the COVID pandemic? Do you believe most will actually learn them?

In Part One, Chandra Shaw, Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., Paul Forbes, and Andrea Honigsfeld shared their commentaries.

In Part Two, PJ Caposey, Michelle Makus Shory, Ed.S., Stepan Mekhitarian, Ph.D., Holly Skadsem, and Lana Peterson answered the question.

Today, Diana Laufenberg, Sally J. Zepeda, Ph.D., Philip D. Lanoue, Ph.D., July Hill-Wilkinson, T.J. Vari, Connie Hamilton, Joseph Jones, and Rhonda J. Roos, Ph.D. wrap up this series.

‘Rigid Systems Cannot Thrive With Dynamic Conditions’

Diana Laufenberg is a former teacher who currently serves as the executive director of Inquiry Schools, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting schools to become more inquiry-driven and project-based. She currently lives near the family farm where she grew up in rural Wisconsin:

The word “should” is one that I try to avoid for a number of reasons that far smarter folks than I have spent time explaining (example). So indulge me as I tweak the language of this question a bit by responding to “What are the most important lessons do you think school district leaders *could* learn from the COVID pandemic? Do you believe most will actually learn them?”

Important lessons, there are so very many. I will highlight a few that continue to ping around in my brain years later. The fascinating thing is that many of them are also things that I was trying to get attention for pre-COVID.

  1. Care structures
  2. Flexibility/resiliency
  3. Student agency

My entry into COVID school was a unique one to be sure. At the start of the 2019-20 school year, I was asked by a local history teacher to sub for her from February through April. I was thrilled for the opportunity as I believe that returning to the classroom periodically is important when doing school-based consultancy work. This was the second time I was afforded this gift since 2012. I readjusted my travel schedule to open up flexibility for the long-term sub job and very much looked forward to a less travel-filled start to 2020. (That turned out to be one heck of an understatement.)

I was both teaching and consulting during the first months of the pandemic. This proved to be an interesting vantage point from which to observe all the different approaches and machinations being attempted to deliver school in new and unknown ways. One simple yet powerful concept that popped up consistently was that schools with established care structures (homeroom, advisory, family, etc.) were able to meet the immediate needs of students and families much more easily and effectively. Every student was already in a small group that was connected to a staff member.

This attention to the importance of having an in-school advocate and connection yielded incredible results when trying to find all the students and make meaningful contact with them in the initial days of the pandemic. I do see evidence that this feature is being incorporated more into school environments and given time to strengthen as school communities still struggle to bring back all the students successfully to the classroom. These kinds of classes for the students, including advisories or SEL-based homerooms, are highly recommended to support, connect, and advocate for each learner in your schools.

The second major learning point was the idea of flexibility and resiliency. Throughout the past decade, I’ve been asked what the future of education will look like. My answer consistently was … I have no idea. The only thing I was sure of is that the future will demand greater flexibility and resiliency in the systems and the people. Rigid systems cannot thrive with dynamic conditions. This is a fact. I think the most notable example is the state testing schemes that were undone by COVID.

The lesson I hoped would be learned in this moment is that a rigid system like state testing is not compatible with the dynamic conditions of a world still grappling with a pandemic years later. As we start the fourth school year affected by the pandemic, I have observed some moves that are encouraging on this front (summer learning that is much more experiential and inquiry-based) and others that trouble me (hyperfocus on “learning loss”). If you are in a position to lead a school or district forward through this, continue to ask how these decisions will make your institution more flexible, responsive, and resilient.

That leaves student agency. Students know that gig is up for school as it was. It’s time to truly invest educational time in the idea that student ideas, interests, dreams can have an integral and powerful place in their formal educational journey. What students think, their experiences need to play a prominent role in their educational path. Getting the students “back” means actually attending to the humans who present themselves to school on a daily basis. They are not a number, a stanine, a seat, a desk. … These are humans. Humans need systems and experiences built for humans. Increasing opportunities for student agency help solve the impersonal or overly institutional experience that many students endure.

Maya Angelou knocks around my head frequently as I work alongside schools to adjust, adapt, grow: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Let’s do better, folks.

‘Now Is the Time to Reinvent’

Sally J. Zepeda, Ph.D., is a professor in educational administration and policy at the University of Georgia. Philip D. Lanoue, Ph.D., is a former superintendent and high school principal, and he is the 2015 American Association of School Administrators (AASA) National Superintendent of the Year. Philip co-authored (with Sally), A Leadership Guide to Navigating the Unknown in Education: New Narratives Amid COVID-19 (Routledge) and The Emerging Work of Today’s Superintendent: Leading Schools and Communities to Educate All Children:

When schools reopened, leaders faced issues ranging from addressing student learning loss to supporting new social-emotional needs of students and staff. There was little time to plan with any certainty. COVID-19 brought forward questions.

Should schools and their systems go back to pre-COVID days? While the turbulence created in response to COVID-19 thrust leaders and teachers into a dizzying whirl of continuous change, the more important question now for leaders is, “Will schools change as a result of what was learned from the experiences with the pandemic?” If districts return to the way they have operated in the past, then we have learned very little, missing significant opportunities to improve in ways to be successful in the ever-changing world that lies ahead. Now is the time to reinvent.

The journey ahead will be embedded as much in process as it is in program decisions. For systems to reinvent themselves post-COVID-19, leaders must understand the dynamics of internal change if they are to be successful in navigating constantly changing external forces.

Through our conversations and work with districts, we have walked away with some insights to help leaders anchor their work in adapting and responding to the ever-changing internal dynamics and turbulence. We believe that:

Systems now must be agile and adaptable and ready to pivot quickly in making changes through a lens of the often unknown. Returning to the rigid structures that framed how districts and schools operated will only create the same conditions before the pandemic where some children were successful and others were not, with the impacted majority being the groups that need schools to be successful.

Systems now must listen to the voices of teachers who learned how to make midcourse adjustments, redesigning different instructional models compared with “in front of the room” instruction. Agility and adaptability require teachers to have a new sense of freedom in stark contrast from structured curricular guides, unified instructional practices, and strict content timelines.

Teachers and leaders have new insights into the strengths and deficiencies in instructional designs based on student needs. Critical conversations must emerge from these insights to create new pathways for teaching and learning never scaled at this level.

Systems now must be attentive to the social-emotional needs of their teachers and leaders. Substantial social-emotional needs have emerged for students, teachers, and leaders. Students struggled with the loss of in-person interactions critical to the formative years. Similarly, teachers’ social-emotional needs surfaced and weighed heavily on them. Systems are experiencing a significant depletion of the teaching force by those leaving the profession that is exacerbated by those no longer entering teaching as a career.

Similarly, school leaders have felt tremendous pressure as they struggle with daunting challenges to keep students and teachers safe while maintaining effective learning experiences. Moving forward, systems will undoubtedly grapple with looming building-level leadership shortages affecting succession efforts for every school to have a highly qualified and effective principal.

Prior to COVID-19, the work of teachers was mostly misunderstood and often distilled to test scores of the students on their rosters. Throughout the pandemic, the true work of teachers could be seen, and they were responsible for showing the world hope, giving students much-needed support.

Systems now must prioritize the needs of students given the turmoil for them over the last two years, which has taken a toll at every level. While younger students are experiencing remarkable rebounds as they return, others are experiencing significant learning gaps in combination with much confusion about their learning trajectory and emotional stability. There exists an immediate need to address the magnified learning gaps and inequities as well as the social stress students face today which will leave the traditional approaches to addressing these concerns woefully inadequate.

We believe there are new opportunities post-COVID-19 that can reshape the educational space, but only if leaders and teachers examine what was learned about the educational and social-emotional needs of students and the teachers who have answered the call to work with them. In the end, the future of education and its success lies not in going back but solely on how we move forward in this journey.

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Time

July Hill-Wilkinson is a veteran classroom teacher, adjunct professor, and former administrator. She currently works as an instructional coach and curriculum leader in Southern California high schools:

Less. Is. More. The motto for too long has been “more is more.” More testing gives more results and more students in classrooms makes more room in the budget. Some have touted COVID as the reset button, even the needed wake-up call for an education.

When COVID sent us home for a year and half, there was definitely less learning, which is devastating and will impact all for a long time to come. Students spending less time with their friends was, for many, a black hole of isolation from which they have not yet recovered. Terrible, terrible things happened as a result of the pandemic, but it forced our hand when it comes to narrowing the focus of what students really need to know at the end of the day.

Online school made it impossible to do a lot of the activities and lessons that some of us have done year after year. We could not do group work or give students opportunities to feed off each other in whole-group discussions—not well anyway. There was so much adjustment that we simply didn’t have the time, space, or capacity to do the same things we always do, so we had to really, really think about what exactly made the cut.

We had considerably less time face to face with students, too, because no one in their right mind is going to have them on screen six hours in a row. Lecture times and independent work times were in a far different balance from what has ever been possible in public schools. Online schooling created a more collegelike and worklike situation for high school students for which they had to take responsibility for their own learning and their own time. They were not supervised every single minute of every day. We could offer small-group instruction in meetings and not have to monitor the behavior of 30 other bodies in the room. We could finally use time differently for those who needed support and those who aced material easily.

These situations could be repeated, at least in part, with some creative scheduling and planning at schools post-pandemic. Districts can guide curriculum teams to pair down to fewer standards that have to be mastered as opposed to dozens which are “touched upon.” Time and online opportunities could be leveraged to create the individualized learning 21stcentury students need. Those who succeeded in teaching or learning in an online environment should have the opportunity to blend that into the return to the traditional. Do I think they actually learned them? Not enough. Not nearly enough. But I have hopes for changes to come now that we see what we can do with less.

timeand onlinejuly

‘A Crisis Mindset’

T.J. Vari, Connie Hamilton, and Joseph Jones have experience as building and district school leaders. They have authored or co-authored nine books, including their most recent publication with Corwin Press, 7 Mindshifts for School Leaders. You can learn more about them at theschoolhous302.com and conniehamilton.net:

Wild change occurred during the pandemic whether school leaders were prepared to initiate it or not. So, what was the difference between leading during COVID that allowed schools to have the confidence, innovation, and dedication to commit to solutions?

We believe the lesson that surfaced during the pandemic is the way we think about problems. The mindset that emerges within effective leaders during a crisis is not one of can we or should we solve it but instead a laser focus on how we solve it. One by one, barriers to students accessing education were tackled by every school district in the country. Every one of them implemented strategies and structures that never would have been on the radar if we were not in a crisis. It made us wonder if a crisis mindset is a way of thinking that should be applied to our biggest perennial problems in education.

To some degree, many of our greatest challenges in education have been accepted as impossible to change or can only be addressed over a multiyear timeline. We now have experience that shows us that enormous problems can be tackled with massive change in lightning speed. Because the pandemic upended everything and created so much instability and uncertainty, district leaders were forced to think about problems differently and with a greater sense of urgency than ever before.

Some of these problems were new, like distance learning, but others were simply exacerbated, spotlighting the already inequitable circumstances for students. This exposure forced us to treat them like the crisis that they are and always were. These lived experiences have the potential to shift how we approach other problems in education, like teacher retention, equity, and school safety that, like a pandemic, cannot be put on a long-term plan for uncertain change.

There are other, more obvious lessons to be learned from the pandemic. Take, for example, student access to the internet at home. When everything shut down, students needed devices. Many districts had been slowly increasing their technology inventory but faced an immediate need to get devices to every single student. Suddenly, they were able to make happen what normally would have taken years. But students didn’t just need devices, they also needed internet connectivity. While this was a more complex nightmare, it was also solved, often through collaboration with community resources.

There is no denying that without a shift in thinking about these problems, many students would still not have devices or internet access at home today. It was the pandemic that triggered the shift. Again, a result of a crisis mindset.

Unfortunately, the numerous challenges that COVID-19 created also left many people craving “normal again.” We heard from educators that they couldn’t wait for a time when things got back to the way they were. There’s much to be said for the human spirit that soared during the pandemic and what we all lived through together, but our desire for normalcy shouldn’t bring us back to the same problems that we lived with prior to the pandemic. This would leave the benefits of a crisis mindset behind us and a retreat to an acceptance of issues in education that remain crises.

We are inspired by how a crisis mindset allowed us to achieve what no educator would have thought possible before the pandemic. What we’re most hopeful about, in terms of lessons learned during the pandemic, is the breaking of the mold for the way that we think about problems, both old and new.

Whether getting food to families whose kids weren’t in school or providing mental health services, communities came together to solve real problems. A new way of thinking emerged in those pandemic years. We hope that leaders, both within education and the community, will continue to look at old problems with a crisis mindset and not just treat them as perpetual issues that are never likely to change. Things can and will change, change doesn’t need to be slow, and we don’t need to snap back to a “normal” that includes suffering with problems that could be solved with the right mindset.

wehopethatleadersconnie

‘That’s Outside Our Boat’

Rhonda J. Roos, Ph.D., is an educational consultant coaching principals, district leaders, and administrative teams in the complex and ever-challenging work of leading schools. She is the author of The Deliberate & Courageous Principal:

One of the most important lessons that principals should have learned during the pandemic and should continue to hone in their leadership is the fundamental skill of bringing clarity to the work of their staff.

Effective leaders know their most significant responsibility is to provide clarity for the work ahead. Teachers have had to deal with so much, and the gift of clarity from their leaders should be given to each of them. Marcus Buckingham, a British author and business consultant, writes that clarity is “the antidote to anxiety, and that clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.”

During the height of the pandemic and now that it has eased, principals must take the time to fine-tune the learning objectives with teachers, let go of unnecessary work, and focus in on the essentials. Effective principals don’t sit and wait for answers from the district office; they don’t sit and blame the state for requirements and mandates; and they don’t make excuses for why they can’t get initiatives going at their school.

It’s easy for school leaders to spend entirely too much time thinking about the problems “out there” instead of the ones right inside their own school. Don’t waste time on things out of your control. Focus on the critical, essential, and difficult work for which every principal should be held accountable—the work of answering the ultimate question, “How are students learning and achieving in my school?”

In a book entitled That’s Outside My Boat (2001), veteran television announcer Charlie Jones tells the story of when he was getting ready to report on the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He was incredibly disappointed when he was assigned to broadcast the rowing, canoeing, and kayaking events. In previous years, he had been assigned to the excitement of track and field, swimming, and diving. He had witnessed and reported on the amazing feats of Flo Jo in Seoul and Pablo Morales in Barcelona.

When he arrived in Atlanta a week before the Games, he began interviewing Olympic rowers from all over the world. He asked the basic question of, “What if it’s raining?” The answer was always, “That’s outside my boat.” Then he would ask, “What if the wind blows you off course?” The reply would be, “That’s outside my boat.” What if one of your oars breaks?” “That’s outside my boat.”

By the end of those Atlanta Games, he reported that they were by far the best of his life. Why? Because he learned so much. He learned invaluable lessons. He came to understand for those Olympic rowers that they were only interested in and focused on what they could control. They let the outside circumstances go. The rowers knew they had to dismiss the extraneous factors and concentrate all of their focus and talent on what was inside their boat. Other reporters questioned the teams about the rain, the heavy winds, the possibility of broken oars, and other negative aspects, too. But each team member consistently responded, “That’s outside our boat.” It’s another way of saying that the team was only concentrating on what was inside their circle of influence. They were determined not to waste any mental energy on things that could distract them from the real work they had to do.

Jones (2001) wrote, “It slowly began to dawn on me that my assignment was ‘outside my boat’ . . . the president of NBC Sports hadn’t called and asked me what I would like to cover; he had simply given me this venue. What I did with it was up to me.” Principals have been given a precious venue of their school. Effective leaders clarify the work—each and every semester—that needs to get done.They focus on specific areas until those are embedded and strong before moving to the next areas of work. These principals are building a solid base for continued achievement. As author Brene Brown writes, “Clear is kind; unclear is unkind.”

effectiveleadersrhonda

Thanks to Diana, Sally, Philip, July, T.J., Connie, Joseph, and Rhonda for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 10 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.



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3 Guiding Principles for High-Quality Virtual Learning (Opinion)

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A lot of folks are justifiably down on virtual learning after the half-baked, mic-muted, camera-off mess that so often passed for remote learning. After that experience, I’ve had a lot of parents, policymakers, and educators ask whether the past few years should disabuse us of our enthusiasm for the promise of technology in K-12. This is a topic I consider at some length in my forthcoming book The Great School Rethink (out from Harvard Ed Press next spring), which is how I wound up in an extended exchange about all this with the always-provocative Evo Popoff, a VP of Whiteboard Advisors. Evo, formerly the chief innovation officer for the New Jersey education department and a VP at EdisonLearning, retains an upbeat take on virtual learning that I thought well worth sharing. Here’s what he had to say.
—Rick

Many of us might equate virtual learning to the remote learning that occurred during the COVID-19 school closures—much of which was haphazard and unsatisfactory. Stories abound of students who wilted when their education shifted to Zoom and they were largely cut off from others, as even once-stellar pupils—many of whom began facing mental health challenges—stopped turning in work or attending class. All of this might lead us to adopt a simplistic binary that all virtual learning is bad and in-person learning is good. But reality is far more nuanced because while many students wilted, others have thrived.

In “A Human-Centered Vision for Quality Virtual Learning,” commissioned by Edmentum, we drew on research and interviews with dozens of experts and practitioners, including educators and school and district leaders, to try to better understand what separates high-quality virtual programs from unsatisfactory experiences. We heard a very different story of what virtual learning could be and do—for instance, connecting students to resources that otherwise might not be available at their schools or providing additional support in vital areas like English/language arts.

In the report, we captured this potential in a “day in the life” of a hypothetical 8th grader, Maya, who seamlessly navigates a world that is both virtual and in person to pursue learning in a way that makes sense for her—bouncing from a one-on-one prealgebra tutoring session to an online college course in environmental engineering to an in-person writing workshop.

But while Maya is hypothetical, her experience isn’t. Everything we write about in her journey is taken from what school leaders told us. It represents a future where learning is not tied to one particular time or place. As D’Andre Weaver, the chief digital equity officer of Digital Promise, said to us: “The future of learning is hybrid and ubiquitous. Kids can learn anytime and everywhere.”

So, if high-quality virtual learning is something distinct from the emergency remote learning of the pandemic, what actually is it? Our report presents three key themes that are central to a vision for top-quality virtual learning. (I should note that these are not meant to be an exhaustive list of best practices but a way to level-set this view of education.)

First, high-quality virtual learning is about people, not technology. Too often, we imagine virtual learning as a student sitting alone for hours at a time in front of a computer screen, isolated. While independent work has a role in virtual learning, learning experiences must be designed with human relationships at the center if all students are to succeed. The flexibility of virtual models and the technologies they use create potential opportunities for core relationships to thrive—and help make virtual learning “part of the DNA of who we are as educators and an education system,” in the words of Friendship Public Charter Schools chief of staff Ken Cherry.

What might this look like? At Odyssey Junior and Senior Charter High School in Palm Bay, Fla., every virtual student receives a “champion” who facilitates relationship-building between students and their online instructures. The Akron school district, in Ohio, which established a new online school for the 2021-22 school year, paired its virtual students with mentors who help the students navigate online platforms, stay engaged, and achieve their goals. This allowed their teachers to focus more on teaching, knowing that there was another adult whose full-time job was monitoring students’ educational progress and personal journeys.

Second, good instruction is good instruction—regardless of modality. As Zach Blattner, the senior director of teacher professional education at the Relay Graduate School of Education, observed, “At the end of it all, it just gets back to good teaching. You have to plan; you can’t just wing it.” At the same time, different modalities can require different approaches to instruction. Not surprisingly, planning lessons, customizing curricula, classroom management, and other teacher tasks can look or feel different in a virtual environment. In virtual settings, Blattner said, “Educators must be even more intentional about their norms and routines to not waste class time with what can be the distractions and disruptions of technology.” Teachers might need access to specialists who can help them adjust virtual delivery to accommodate students with different learning abilities.

Finally, a culture focused on the success of all students is nonnegotiable. Based on interviews with virtual program operators and other experts in the field, the secret to their successes lies in their focus on people and creating a culture that encompasses both in-person and virtual experiences. Districts that are growing their virtual learning programs need to adapt their systems and practices to build a culture focused on success for every student. This can be as simple as relying on one learning-management system to limit switching between platforms or offering resources to families in multiple languages, or it can be as complicated as ensuring home access to broadband internet and devices for all students. It includes embracing the more flexible approach to scheduling that virtual programming offers and rethinking roles, expanding the view of the teaching team to include outside teachers, experts, and support staff. And it can entail clearly identifying the person in the district who is responsible for overseeing virtual programs and ensuring their success.

For those of your readers with whom this resonates, we suggest referencing the “Putting It All Together” page of the report, where we present key practical points for virtual learning stakeholders to consider. For instance, we suggest district leaders who are developing a virtual program or school ask themselves questions such as “How are we measuring success? Are there measures of success or engagement that are unique to the virtual environment?” And, for families who want to enroll their child in a virtual learning experience, we suggest asking questions like “Who is the adult responsible for caring about my student and identifying what they need to succeed?”

Districts are currently facing unprecedented challenges, from teacher shortages to helping students recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic. Unless we change our way of thinking about virtual learning, it’s possible we might miss out on key ways to help solve these challenges. Our hope in this report is to begin a more nuanced discussion around virtual learning, beyond the simplistic binary that virtual instruction is bad and in-person is good. The goal is to help capture those characteristics of high-quality virtual learning to help equip school leaders, parents, policymakers, and others to more thoughtfully approach what successful virtual learning can and should entail.



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