Over the last school year, I have come to see more and more flaws in our public school system. The problem is not necessarily within the schools themselves but within the communities where these schools are located. Teachers, administrators, counselors, and support staff work hard daily to provide the best possible education for each of our students: those who will struggle, those who will do the minimum to pass, and those who will excel. We commit ourselves to differentiating our instruction so that we meet all of their needs, and we provide meaningful opportunities for students to interact with the material for our courses. In the middle of a global pandemic, we have all learned new ways to teach our students, and most of us have excelled in teaching in a virtual and hybrid environment.
I will probably upset many people by what I am about to propose, but after being a public educator for more than twenty years, I feel that I have some experience to speak candidly about this. The problem in public education is much larger than what each individual school staff can do to support student success. It goes beyond what happens day-to-day in each school building because the problem is in each of our homes and in our communities.
The problem is a lack of interest on the part of some of our students and a lack of involvement from some of our parents and guardians. During this last school year, students in the high school where I teach have mostly been attending school in one of two ways: 100% virtual or two days a week in-person and three days a week at home. For the most part, students have completed assignments when they are in school and when they are at home. However, for about 20% of my students, they have had difficulty focusing on assignments both in class and at home.
Some students have just disconnected completely from school work. With only two weeks left of their senior year, I have some students who have simply stopped logging into class and have lost the initiative to submit assignments. Some of these students sit in my classroom four days a week and have time to complete virtual assignments while they are in class, yet they do not submit assignments or ask for help when they are struggling. Other students have avoided completing writing assignments or research assignments, believing that they will be able to pass the class by turning in notes and reading questions. Some have resorted to searching for information on Google, hoping to find the answers to the assignments that require them to do their own critical thinking. Plagiarism has run rampant in this virtual/hybrid environment. Even though some of these students would have struggled with motivation if they were in the building five days a week, this school year has required more self-direction which some students just don’t have.
Because some of our students are struggling with their initiative and motivation, teachers, counselors, and administrators have worked tirelessly this school year, attempting to reach out when students have disconnected from school work and when they are failing classes. This has resulted in more phone calls, emails, letters home, and conferences than in any previous school year. The connection has been made between school and home, but it seems that for some there is an obstacle that is impeding the connection between home and school.
As a parent of a high school graduate on the Autism spectrum, I understand how difficult it is to help students to connect with their school work. I am blessed that my son graduated from high school at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic because I know that it would have been a challenge to get him to focus on his school work in a virtual environment. He struggles with an addiction to technology and is often sidetracked by distractions online that would make it very difficult for him to tune in to online classes. As a parent, I understand that it is not always easy to get students to complete assignments or to care about each of their classes like their teachers would hope.
However, there needs to be some responsibility on the part of parents and guardians when it comes to students completing their work and staying connected with their classes. I do not want to minimize the reality of all of the problems associated with parenting during a pandemic, especially since many parents must work from home and provide an environment conducive to learning for their children, sometimes including elementary school students who need more one-on-one attention than middle school or high school students. However, in the digital age, there are so many ways that schools can communicate with parents that are more convenient than thirty years ago when I was in high school. Most schools have online gradebooks that parents can access at any time of day. Many of these online gradebooks can also be downloaded as apps on smartphones, and parents have the option of setting up notifications for daily or weekly updates. They can even receive notifications when their children have missing assignments. Despite the availability of this tool, some parents do not access their children’s grades and seem surprised when teachers call or email, communicating the fact that their child is failing the class or is in danger of failing.
I am not going to say that public education is perfect. I acknowledge that there are many things that we can do better: identifying mental health crises, supporting students in high risk groups, communicating with parents and the community, encouraging students who “fall through the cracks,” and recruiting more diverse teachers and support staff. As a product of public education and a public school educator, I know that there is a lot more that we can do to support our students so that they meet the goals that they have for their future success. I know that all of us would agree that our students’ education is a top priority in our society; however, it is difficult to see how valuable our children’s education is when some stakeholders do not regularly stay connected with what is happening day-to-day in public schools.
Don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of ways that communities support public education. Volunteers help to provide well-needed tutoring for our students to develop their skills in reading, writing, and math. Local companies provide gifts as a way to reward our students and to say “thank you” to our teachers and support staff. Parents provide encouragement when teachers feel overwhelmed.
We can do better, though, as a community committed to the advancement of our students, through communicating the needs of our students, our schools, and our families. Instead of blaming one another, which happens more often than I would like to mention, let’s work together, using all of the resources we have available to help our students succeed. At the end of the day, that’s what public education is all about.