Summer school? Extended school days? Extended school year?
Those are options that the Tennessee Department of Education is floating as ways to make up “missed learning time” as a result of schools across the state being closed amid coronavirus concerns.
The options are part of a survey that the Department of Education is asking teachers, parents, public officials and other interested persons to fill out. Education officials will use the responses to formulate a plan that they hope will entice the federal government to award Tennessee’s schools part of the nearly $31 billion that was appropriated for educational purposes as part of the recently-passed $2.2 trillion stimulus package.
For the most part, the questions are rather mundane and non-controversial. But the sixth question on the survey is one that has created plenty of buzz.
Survey-takers are listed with five options for how “learning time” missed as a result of school closures during the coronavirus pandemic can be made up: Optional or mandated summer school in 2020 or 2021, extended school days in 2020-2021 or an extended school year in 2020-2021. The final option is “other,” an opportunity for those taking the survey to suggest an alternative.
Reactions to the survey question have ranged from objection to anger — with a few supporters for summer school or extending the school day.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education did not respond to the Independent Herald’s request for clarification on Saturday. However, state Rep. Johnny Garrett, a Sumner County Republican, said on Facebook that he had spoken to a representative of the Department of Education and, “I have been assured by the Department that nothing will be binding from the survey.”
That hardly seems reassuring. Naturally, the results of the survey aren’t going to be binding. The Department of Education isn’t going to allow itself to be bound to popular opinion — nor should it, necessarily. But if the ideas weren’t on the table, they wouldn’t have been presented in the survey to begin with.
That these proposals have even been put forth for serious consideration is, frankly, outrageous. It’s a slap in the face to Tennessee’s public educators and students, and it should anger every parent who has a child in the public school system — all of whom should not only complete the survey, but also follow up with a phone call, letter or email to their state senator and state representative to share their thoughts.
There is no denying that the missed instructional time is going to be a setback for Tennessee students, even if they’re able to return to class this school year — and it doesn’t currently seem likely that they will. Distance learning can never replicate time spent in a brick-and-mortar classroom, under the direct guidance of an educator.
But this setback is being mitigated by the work that teachers, parents and students have teamed up to accomplish since schools have been closed. And it will continue to be mitigated once the 2020-2021 school year begins.
Don’t sell our state’s educators short. Few people would have likely predicted that teachers and school administrators could quickly develop a sufficient plan for distance learning to bridge the weeks and months of locked school doors. But they did it in days. And they’ll make up the remainder of the gap once school resumes.
They always do, after all. In education, the “summer slide” is a real phenomenon. Studies have concluded that students’ achievement scores drop by one month’s worth of school-year learning while they’re off for summer break. Yet, when students return to school each fall, teachers begin reviewing materials and taking measures to erase the summer brain-drain, and have them ready for achievement tests in the spring despite the increasingly ridiculous accountability that’s being placed on these standardized tests.
If lost instructional time is that much of a concern, perhaps an alternative would be to cancel the 2021 TnReady assessments for a second consecutive year, so that teachers would spend the time they would otherwise use for test preparation to make up the gap currently being created by the coronavirus school closure. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if students missed the tests one more year, and it would certainly be a much better alternative than punishing those students for a global pandemic that is beyond their control.
Considering options like summer school and an extended school year would be more understandable if students and teachers were sitting at home during this school closure, doing nothing constructive. But that’s not the case. They aren’t spending their days hanging out with friends or playing Fortnite. Teachers are teaching. Students are learning. And parents are helping.
Perhaps that’s not the case in every school district in Tennessee. But it’s certainly the case in Oneida and Scott County. Sacrifices have been made by all three of the above groups to make sure that learning continues even while schools are closed. It hasn’t been easy on anyone. And students aren’t just doing “busy work.” Some of them are writing essays. Some of them are doing science experiments. Some of them are reading books. All of them are doing work — and it’s work that has to be completed on time; students are turning in their work, teachers are grading it, and it will count as a part of students’ final grade for the school year.
If going to school this summer, or next summer, or adding days or time to the school year were going to be a serious consideration, what was the point of all these sacrifices that teachers made? Much more importantly, what was the point of all the sacrifices the students made? Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the students didn’t ask for this. Most of them would much rather be in school right now. The idea of an unexpected school closure may have been exciting when it was first announced, but by now students are missing their friends, even their teachers, and they’ve awoken to the realization that they’re going to miss things like trips and dances that they’ve worked towards all year.
This has been devastating for high school seniors, and to a lesser extent to middle school 8th graders. These are the two grade levels that are losing the most. Class trips are already out the window, as are Beta Club trips for 8th graders. At risk are commencement ceremonies and proms — memories that students typically carry with them for a lifetime. But every student in every grade level is suffering to some extent. They’ve given up their sports seasons and other extracurricular activities. They’ve been thrust into what might very well be the most stressful learning environment imaginable.
The last thing these students need is summer school. The most important thing they need is normalcy. Everybody is ready for this era of “social distancing” to be over so we can get our lives back to normal, and our kids need to hang out with their friends, go on family vacations, and just relax — not have their lives, already turned upside-down, even more upended as they face the prospect of spending part of the summer in school.
The idea of extra money from the federal government is enticing. But the federal money should come with no strings attached. Politicians who passed or who have reviewed the CARES Act have applauded the portion of it dealing with the educational funds, saying that the federal bureaucrats are providing a lot of leniency to state and local education administrators to determine how those funds will be spent.
But there are always strings attached. If there were no strings attached, the federal government wouldn’t require a plan for how the money will be spent before it is rewarded. America’s original educational model was one where the states controlled student learning — not the federal government. But the federal government has increasingly used the promise of money — tax dollars that the teachers and parents are sending to Washington in the first place — to assert its control. A global health crisis should not be used by the federal government as an opportunity to further that trend.
Washington is going to be Washington. The state of Tennessee has little control over that. But we’ve seen undue burdens placed on teachers and students before because Washington dangled a financial carrot in front of the noses of state departments of education. For once, let’s do right by our teachers and students.
These kids have given up a lot during this time of crisis. For the students’ sake, don’t take their summer, too.
The Tennessee Department of Education survey can be found online at stateoftennessee.formstack.com/forms/public_cares_survey. The deadline to respond is April 13.