May 12 — 2:21 pm, 2020

Online learning is no replacement for school

The lesson from this crisis should be to fix the glaring inequities, not rely more on technology.

Diane Payne

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera was quoted in a recent news story in the Inquirer as saying, in relation to online learning: “Families and schools and communities have to see this as a new opportunity to transform education.”

The families, students, and teachers across the state, however, know that remote learning is anything but transforming.  It is tedious, inequitable, and soul-crushing.

Technology may be necessary as a temporary response to an emergency, but should not be promoted by any educator or governmental official as a long-term solution. Online learning may be the mask we need during this crisis, but it is not the cure. It is beneficial to neither students nor teachers. The state should not prime the public for a shock-doctrine move of accepting this as permanent or beneficial.

Other unnamed state officials reassured the Inquirer that “… the pandemic did cancel state assessments for this academic year, but don’t expect to see them vanish permanently.” How disappointing to see the Wolf administration doubling down on the expensive failure of mandatory yearly testing.

Standardized tests were born of racist assumptions and continue to have racist outcomes. Independent research has shown that what those tests consistently measure is the socio-economic status of the students taking them. The tests steal valuable classroom time and thwart creative teaching and learning. They have been used as a tool for labeling students and schools as “failing,” thus opening the door for privatization of public schools by way of charters.

Gov. Wolf’s leadership in addressing the shortcomings of Pennsylvania’s charter school law should be applauded and supported. The need could not be more urgent. The law has not been revised since its 1997 inception. In those 23 years, numerous media stories have documented waste and fraud in the charter sector. The looming economic uncertainties make it imperative that Pennsylvania’s tax dollars not fund exorbitant charter CEO salaries, high-priced management companies, or inequitable distribution of special education money.

For too long, public education policies have been enacted due to pressure from members of what Diane Ravitch, an education professor and historian, has called “the Billionaire’s Boys Club.” It is time to rely on educators and peer-reviewed education research to develop sound education policy. This crisis actually presents an opportunity to say no to the many failed “reforms” of the last two decades.

Public school advocates fear that the state will use the coronavirus crisis as justification for slashing education funding. One specific fear is that the state will decrease the state subsidy by the amount of federal stimulus money received. Even the term “stimulus money” negates any use of this money as a way to reduce the state’s contribution. Philadelphians have never recovered from the doomsday budget of 2013.  Our students and staff inhabit toxic schools and suffer on every front from the lack of adequate funding.  Now is the time to alleviate the suffering, not to increase it.

This crisis has exposed the inequities and failings all around us. Our public officials must address them by forging new pathways for students in all of the state’s districts. Our children are our hope and our future.  We cannot abandon them.

Diane Payne is a retired School District of Philadelphia teacher, parent of four Philadelphia public school graduates, and legislative liaison for the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), a grassroots advocacy group supporting and defending public education. This commentary has been adapted from a letter sent to Gov. Wolf and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera.

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