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Cuomo, Gates try to re-imagine schools, but opposition awaits

Newsday's Michael Gormley talks about how Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates are “re-imagining” education based on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down schools for months. Credit: Newsday / Michael Gormley

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates are now “re-imagining” education based on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down schools for months. Futurists see the opportunity for great changes, if the effort can overcome great resistance.

Imagine online tools that could finally narrow the achievement gap between wealthier suburban schools and urban and rural schools by making the best teachers available to all. Students grouped by achievement rather than age, and smaller class sizes. Virtual reality and 3D printers. Holding classes in schools for as little as two or three days a week. And eliminating lost instruction time because of disasters, viruses, or even snow days.

But that future also is being met with concern by many who work within the brick edifices that Cuomo has called the “old model” of schools.

“I was a teacher for 24 years,” said Andy Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers union. “We know that schools are more than just buildings, they are communities where people come together and build something.”

“You can’t read people, you can’t see when people are struggling, you can’t see that with 30 little faces on a screen,” Pallotta said last week before testifying to Cuomo’s reimaging education panel.

Change won’t be easy.

“It’s hard to change the status quo,” Cuomo said in his May 6 news briefing. “But you get moments in history where people say, ‘OK, I’m ready … I think this is one of those moments.”

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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said in public statements that the philanthropy wants to engage teachers and education experts along with its own experts in school reform to use best practices and technology to improve instruction. The aim is to be ready for the next unplanned shutdown of schools in a natural or human-made disaster, but also to plan for a new and better way to educate while maintaining social distance measures to thwart the coronavirus and its possible successors.

No details on what that might entail have yet been released. But similar explorations are underway in some schools nationwide.

They include technology that adjusts test questions to help a student to understand a concept and challenge those ready to move ahead. Other software allows a teacher to assess each students' progress in class by seeing their answers on tablets in real time, which could prompt adjusting the lesson.

“We’ve been exploring different alternatives with technology,” Cuomo said earlier this month. “We have classrooms in this state that have technology where they’re talking to students on Long Island with a teacher from Staten Island, with students from around the world, participating with technology, hearing that one teacher. And if you look at the technology, it looks like all these different students are in one classroom.”

Some education researchers envision using technology to help change the basic formula of teaching: Where teachers now dispense a lesson and the class receives it, computer programs can provide content allowing teachers in classrooms to answer questions and discuss the lesson.

“This flips the model,” said Christine Greenhow, a professor of counseling, educational psychology and special education at Michigan State University. “This kind of back and forth working from home and coming together in class, you can see how it could work."

Social distancing requirements after schools reopen could also force the long-sought goal of smaller class sizes to as little as 10 or 12 pupils through staggered school days or weeks, which could also create a more flexible schedule for teachers.

“Under the old model, the school day is fixed on a bell schedule,” she said. “But we would have a more flexible day … now teachers have time for office hours, for the extra help sessions they couldn’t get in a traditional classroom.”

“I think there is great potential for moving the needle on the achievement gap, provided that the resources around this kind of online and remote learning are there,” Greenhow said. That funding would also be needed for use at home: “If students can’t get online, then we make the gap even bigger.”

The virus itself will also play a role. The drive to embrace more technology could gain traction if schools remain shuttered in September, some experts said.

“If a large second wave hits and we have to move to remote learning for a longer period of time, I think there is a greater chance some of the changes to education stick,” said Terry Heick, director of TeachThought, based in Louisville, Ky., which provides best practices and cutting-edge strategies to teachers.

That buy-in will be essential for any significant change, said David Albert of the state School Boards Association.

“There is theory and then there is reality,” Albert said. “These ideas are great to talk about, but then they have to be brought to the district level, to teachers and superintendents and parents … whether they take root or not for the long-term will require buy-in from the stake holders.”

“Innovation,” said Professor Douglas Eugene Lynch, “is painful and messy.”

“It is why we see so little of it despite everyone talking about it,” said Lynch of the University of Southern California’s School of Education. “Most people prefer the norm and after such a disruptive experience, my sense is folks will yearn for normalcy … the short-term experiences have left too many frustrated teachers and angry parents.”

Teachers have seen some students and their families just drop out of communication when forced into full online education this year.

“Schools are the basis of community,” said Pallotta, the teachers union leader. “When they drop out of that, you don’t see them anymore. That’s what the real concern is.”

“I think schools will use more technology as a great supplement to education in the classroom, but I think the key work is ‘supplement,’” he said.

Jay P. Greene, distinguished professor and chairman of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, is among researchers who believe online instruction is less effective for most students than traditional in-class teaching.

However, “some students and certain circumstances favor online instruction,” Greene said. He said a more robust online system is a good backstop if schools need to close again.

“But, once it is safe to return to in-person instruction,” Greene said, “there will be no reason for this pandemic to permanently shift instruction toward online methods.”

Some say this isn’t even the time to try.

“Schools are anticipating looming budget cuts,” said Sarah Reckhow, a political science professor who has researched education policy and philanthropy at Michigan State University. “Working parents are struggling with having children home all day. It is not simple or cheap to re-imagine schools. There is a great deal of urgency for states to address bread-and-butter issues for schools right now.”

Still, for many students, teachers and parents huddled over computer screens since the last closing bells in schools rang in mid-March, many researchers said the writing is on the wall — whether it’s on a smartboard in class or an LCD screen at home.

“I definitely think there will be greater reliance on distance learning,” said Albert of the state School Boards Association. “I don’t think we can go back.”

Some of the ideas for future schools cited in studies and by futurists include:

  • Online instruction from home to augment class work that could keep kids out of school days each week and allowing them to do class work at night and weekends.
  • Online instruction in several schools led by a single exceptional teacher or guest lecturer across district and state lines.
  • More “deep learning” lessons based on a student’s strengths and weaknesses, allowing them to review concepts they don’t get and explore advanced areas;
  • Schools renovated or replaced by more freewheeling layouts such as Google campuses with pods to get special attention or to ignite inspiration.
  • Virtual reality that will allow students to explore well beyond the classroom in course from science and math to history and geography.
  • 3D printers to put recreated fossils and moon rocks in students’ hands.

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