Opinion

If Kansas schools return to ‘normal,’ then we’ve learned nothing from the pandemic

March 18, 2021 3:44 am

“State testing data does not serve the student or the teacher; it serves an amorphous bureaucracy that needs data points to justify keeping data points,” writes teacher Aaron Schwartz. (Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Aaron Schwartz has been a teacher in the Kansas City area for 13 years.

I have my own way of phrasing an idea about bureaucracy that’s neither new nor novel: “The machine runs to keep the machine running.” I tell my coworkers: If you ask why the machine does something and expect an answer beyond that simple truth, you will be disappointed. Such is the frustrating reality of bureaucracy.

In the bureaucracy of education, there has been a frantic push to return to “normal” post COVID-19. Not just to return to full, in-person instruction (my district returned March 1, before many teachers received even their first vaccination shot), but to the status quo of education: same schedules, same assessments, same old same old — as if the pandemic had never happened.

So, while I should take my own advice, I find myself asking: Why? Or more specifically: What was so good about “normal”? Furthermore, what better time to ask these questions than in the context of a systemic upheaval?

When I resist the return to normalcy, I’m not resisting socialization, community events, activities and being able to hug another human being. I may have opposed some of these things in the context of the pandemic, but I’ll be excited to return to this kind of normal. The students want this kind of normal as well.

What many teachers and students don’t want is a return to a system that asked “What’s expedient?” versus “What’s humane?”

A good example of a return to “normal” we should resist is the state of Kansas continuing state testing during a once in a lifetime pandemic.

The justification? Consistent data. If we don’t have data one year, there will be a gap in the data, even though the only data that matters after this year is how many children and their families survived the pandemic.

State testing data does not serve the student or the teacher; it serves an amorphous bureaucracy that needs data points to justify keeping data points. More problematic is that the data is less than likely to be used in good faith, becoming instead the basis for more efforts to divert public school funding to private schools.

Why, then, should schools waste precious instructional time administering poorly made tests (on which they’re likely to underperform) only to have that data used against them in a bad faith argument about the failure of the very system that was forced to waste time administering the tests? Why should schools waste time justifying themselves to the very people who slobber at precipitating their failure? What is so good about this “normal”?

Many of my students are disappointed to be back in school full time. Some are worried about safety in overcrowded classrooms. They should be.

But beyond safety, they’re just not excited to be back in school for eight hours a day, five days a week. Why would they be? The schedule that we transitioned from gave them a half day to, as they put it, “get stuff done.” It allowed them breathing room from learning, to process that learning, to reflect on and practice that learning, and to have a life that didn’t consist of school > activities > homework > sleep > repeat. Many of my students describe feeling stressed again in a way that they weren’t during hybrid.

Given the decline in suicide rates in Johnson County teenagers during remote and hybrid models of education, it’s worth asking: What about our “normal” schedule is worth returning to? Do secondary students need to be in school for 90-minute classes, eight hours a day, five days a week? Is this a function of the schedule being better for learning, or is it simply expedient?

Obviously, elementary schools double as childcare. Nothing much can change that social necessity. But secondary students, many of whom we encourage to be college-bound, do not need round the clock monitoring. Many of them thrived in a schedule that, ironically, was much more like college: less time spent physically in class, more time independently studying and living a life of which education is only one part.

Many parents, school boards and legislators were interested in monitoring students’ mental health during the pandemic; these same people should be even more interested in the toll that “normal” school is having on mental health as students return. That is, unless those arguments about mental health weren’t really about mental health at all.

Perhaps they were only about returning to what was easy? Perhaps, after everything we’ve been through, education is poised to — ironically? expectedly? — learn absolutely nothing.

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Aaron Schwartz
Aaron Schwartz

Aaron Schwartz is a writer and teacher in the Kansas City area. He has taught high school English in two districts for fourteen years and served as an adjunct English instructor at the college level for four of those years. He was a 2016 Kansas Teacher of the Year nominee. When not writing opinions, he writes short fiction.

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