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Reflections of a Teacher during the COVID-19 Pandemic

photograph of bright empty classroom

If each month of our collective coronavirus experience were given a theme, the appropriate theme for August might be education, and all of the benefits and challenges that come along with trying to facilitate learning in both children and adults during the pandemic. We all take on many roles, and if you’re like me, you’ve found that certain roles have been amplified and underscored, they’ve become not just descriptive but definitional. In pandemic conditions, one or two roles stand out as necessary rather than contingent features of our personal identities. In my own case, my role as teacher and mentor has taken on existential significance; the way that I perceive and respond to this event can only be properly understood through that lens.

These days I frequently daydream about what I will tell my grandchildren about what life was like during the pandemic: the things that were frustrating, the things that scared me, the things that stood out as beautiful, and the things that genuinely surprised me. Perhaps by then I will better understand the way that people behave when they are frightened, and it will no longer strike me as startling that people refused to wear masks or that, when teachers expressed concerns about returning to packed schools with poor ventilation systems, they were called cowards and accused of wanting to get paid for doing less work.

There is some comfort in knowing that the future will be fairly similar to the past. This can be true even when the past is unpleasant and ugly. At least when the future is like the past, we know how to plan; we know who we are. We aren’t scared that we’ll come unmoored and that we’ll drift into some hazy, undefined abyss in which our lives cease to be meaningful by our present standards. I think most of us have these fears right now. On a good day, I believe that we can look forward to a future in which everything is mostly the same as it used to be except that we’ll know how to bake sourdough bread and we’ll hold more meetings on Zoom. On a bad day, I’m concerned that the institutions that I cherish the most will be so degraded or will go through such significant changes that the world we’ll have on the other side of all of this won’t be one that I’ll recognize or one in which I desire to participate.

When I tell my grandchildren about what it was like to live during this pandemic, I wonder which parts of my story will surprise them. I’m sure it won’t surprise them that technology played a massive role in the delivery of education, by then that practice is sure to have become commonplace. From my very core I hope that it doesn’t surprise them that education was once delivered from one person to another. I hope that teaching remains an act of care and of intimacy between groups of people.

We know at this point that turning to remote learning poses accessibility problems for many students. Plenty of households both nationally and worldwide don’t have access to the internet. In response, some locations both inside and outside of the United States have adopted creative strategies. In countries like Morocco, Mexico, Mongolia, China, and India, education is being broadcast on television to students, often in places where they can gather together with a minimal level of interaction with adults who may be more vulnerable to the disease.

Universities have been innovative as well. Late last semester, at least some of the faculty members on my campus were given a choice regarding which delivery method to use in the fall. This decision, on this specific occasion, was about how best to offer a course during a pandemic. We could choose between asynchronous and synchronous options. Asynchronous courses are traditional online classes. Teachers provide the students with material that those students can engage with at any time of the day or night that is convenient for them. In addition to the health and public safety advantages, one of the most significant virtues of this kind of approach is flexibility. Students and teachers are home with family members, sometimes with dependent children who are also being educated at home. Students may get sick, and asynchronous options make it easier for them to avoid falling behind if they do.

Synchronous courses are taught live, during the scheduled class time via Zoom or other comparable platform. These courses are convenient for students; they don’t have to commute or even get out of bed if they don’t want to. One of the main disadvantages is the potential for decreased participation. Students can turn off their cameras and listen to the class while multitasking, leaving the professor with the impossible task of engaging a sea of black screens.

Universities also offer blended courses. In these courses, students have real face-to-face interactions with their professors in a socially distanced way. Half of the class comes to school live in the classroom on one day while the others attend via Zoom. During the next class period the roles flip, and the other group of students receive in-person education. The main advantage is that students get to work with their professors and with each other in a familiar way. The main disadvantage is that the public health threat increases when people get together, even when universities try their best. It’s also not clear that this approach has many real advantages over simply conducting the course on Zoom. Students can’t approach the teachers or each other in this format either.

In the fall semester, I am teaching at least one class using every one of the delivery methods that my university offers. I’ve attended many trainings this summer and in some ways I’m excited by the new possibilities. I now have technological tools that I didn’t have last semester — tools that might really speak to a generation of students who were raised with technology as extensions of their minds and bodies.

I’m also afraid of an educational unmooring. I’m worried that education will become disconnected from critical values. One way of thinking about education is utilitarian; education is useful because people can do good things with it. When people are educated, they may become better citizens, be more productive, and find themselves in the position to do more good in the world. If the end goal of education is purely utilitarian, then one way of getting knowledge into people’s heads is as good as any other. If broadcasting educational television proves effective in teaching students, our brave new world might cast a flat screen in the role of Susie’s fourth grade teacher.

I’m reminded of the predicament of Mildred Montag, the wife of the protagonist in Fahrenheit 451. In a society without books, Mildred is entertained by her parlor walls, which are giant television screens. She comes to think of the characters that grace those walls as family. This is made easier by the fact that the Montag’s paid for the attachment that allows the characters on the screen to refer to Mildred by name when they speak. Mildred’s walls allow her to achieve the utilitarian objectives of entertainment and socialization without any need to actually engage in real, meaningful human interaction.

Knowledge is valuable, but the passing of knowledge from one knower to the next may also be valuable. Imagine a world in which all facts are stored digitally in computers. In some sense, in this world we’ve achieved a state of omniscience, all the facts are “known.” But imagine that very few of the facts are known in the minds of persons. Would this be a desirable world to live in? Do we value the brute acquisition of knowledge, or do we value knowledge that we can discuss and apply together as a social enterprise?

The textbook for my first philosophy course as a freshman was titled The Great Conversation. It’s the only textbook title from my college days that I can remember. Good teachers, like Socrates, engage their students in conversation to help them to recognize the gaps in their knowledge. There is a reason that Plato’s work, written in dialogue form, is so effective and meaningful so many years after it was written.

Crucially, I’m concerned that legislators, administrators, and entrepreneurs will look at the educational innovations we’ve achieved as ways to further commodify education. For better or for worse, we’ve experimented with replacing caregivers, priests, and sex workers with technological counterparts. These are all roles for which one would think that human interaction is critical. The post coronavirus educational system may be a la cart — select the educational product that is most convenient for you, even if that format involves no real mentoring. If we do this, we will have abandoned the interactions that are so important to meaningful learning experiences.

I hope I don’t have to explain to my grandchildren why that happened.

Coronavirus, College Board, and AP Exams

photograph of scantron exam being filled in with pencil

With the last Advanced Placement (AP) exams finished on May 22nd, it marked the end of the jam packed 2 weeks of AP testing. However, this year was no normal year for AP exams. Due to school closures from the coronavirus pandemic, AP tests could no longer be administered in schools as usual, but were instead taken at home. As tests moved online, AP tests were quickly modified in format to significantly shorten the exam. AP tests are usually quite time consuming, with a full exam lasting around 4 hours, but this year’s AP exams were shortened to just 50 minutes. Although this decision was initially praised by many students and teachers, the newly formatted online tests brought with them a number of problems. From technological issues with submitting answers to poorly formatted test questions and unfair testing environments, various issues with the new AP exam consistently arose throughout the two week testing period. Due to this, College Board is now facing a 500 million dollar lawsuit with claims against “breach of contract, gross negligence, misrepresentation and violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.”

Of the many issues experienced by students during the AP exam, one glaring problem of the newly formatted AP tests seemed to stand out: the high randomness factor in student’s scores. To understand this, one needs to compare the original AP test to the new ones. The original AP tests consisted of a multiple choice and writing section where the multiple choice section represented a larger percentage of the final score. However, this year, the multiple choice was completely eliminated, leaving students with a significantly shortened writing portion. This created a randomness factor where students could not be tested on the full material of the course but only a small selection of the material. This type of testing can often lead to an unrepresentative score of the student’s knowledge if a student is tested on a concept in which the student is considerably weaker or stronger in. Since a small range of random concepts are tested in a shorter exam, exams could not possibly holistically measure the student’s knowledge of the course material.

A similar thing could also be said for the types of questions given. In the original AP writing sections for many exams, specifically history and English exams, a writing section consists of differently formatted questions. For example, in AP history exams, there is a document-based question, long essay question, and a short answer question. This year, however, only a modified version of the document-based question was given. Not only did exams test a small range of concepts in history out of the entire year’s worth of material, it tested students on the document-based question only, which is largely regarded to be the most difficult part of history exams. Testing only on the basis of the document-based question gives an incomplete assessment of the student’s knowledge of the year’s worth of material given different students strengths; some students do better on different question formats (multiple choice, short answer, long essay question).

To add to the randomness in exams, many exams, specifically STEM exams, were formatted in a multipart question where question 1, for example, has parts A through L. One may think that this multipart question format would be better at testing a wide range of concepts. However, there is a catch, the questions are formatted in a way so that the answers are dependent to the previous part. For example, part D of question 1 would need to use the answer from part C to find the correct answer for part D, and part C would need the answer from part B to find the correct answer for C, and so on. So if a student were to get part B wrong, then it would cause a chain reaction causing the student to miss parts B,C, and D. The student could fully understand the concept for answering C and D, but would get it wrong due to a missed answer on part B. On this year’s AP tests, this type of formatting was pushed to the extreme, where 5 following parts would be dependent on the answer for the primary part. If this were to occur on a regular AP test, a wrong answer on these types of exam questions would have a negative effect, but there would always be multiple writing questions and a large multiple choice section to balance out wrong answers to multipart questions. However, on this shortened exam, a wrong answer could lead to an extremely detrimental effect on the final test score, a score not representative of the student’s actual knowledge of the course material.

So why might all this matter? AP exams determine if a student receives college credit for the course and also plays a role in the college admissions process. In most cases, a score above a 3 or 4 (out of 5) on an AP exam will grant college credit for the course. With high stakes on the line as to whether or not a student will receive credit for a year’s worth of hard work, an exam should be randomness-minimizing and be reflective of student’s knowledge on the subject. However, with the multipart questions and a fraction of the course material tested, the exam this year provided unrepresentative exam scores for students. A student, by the chance of bad luck, could be tested on the one concept in which he or she was weak in, which could lead to an exam score that denies a year’s worth of a student’s hard work.

However, College Board’s poorly formatted exams were only the tip of the iceberg for many students. Other factors of randomness and external factors plagued the AP exams this year.

One significant issue was undoubtedly the widespread technological problems, more specifically, students encountering issues with the process of uploading and submitting exam answers. Many videos of students unable to submit exam responses were posted all over social media. Although College Board reported 1% of students were not able to submit their responses, that amounts to almost 10,000 students unable to submit their final exams. Many students, at no fault of their own, now will have to redo the AP exam in early June. Students now have to face the burden of the College Board’s mismanagement of online servers, a burden in which they had no control over.

On top of this, online AP exams were clearly unable to create a fair testing environment. Any test or exam, especially exams which determine college credit, are at minimum expected to provide a fair testing environment. However, online AP exams failed to meet this standard. Critics have argued that online AP tests disregard the fact that many students may not have access to reliable internet. Many low-income students depend on the educational resources (wifi, books, computers) provided by schools and public institutions like libraries, but without access to those resources many won’t even get a chance to take the test. With so many experiencing economic hardship due to COVID-19,  and the further obstacle of inaccessible public educational resources, AP tests cannot adequately or accurately measure students’ knowledge of the course material. The effects of this are that AP scores play a part in college admissions, so unfair AP test environments could disproportionately affect different groups of students thereby ruining our notion of meritocracy in education.

Furthermore, taking tests at home also comes with many other obstacles to creating a fair test environment due to external distractions such as siblings or even something so simple as the time in which AP exams are set. For example, many American international school students across the world are forced to take tests at inadequate times because a 2pm EST test would be a 3am test for international school students in Japan. However, the biggest factor that contributes to an unfair testing environment is the potential for collaboration on these exams. Students can easily obtain a competitive advantage through cheating without the presence of a proctor. With so many external factors complicating online testing, these online AP tests failed to provide a fair testing environment.

So why then did College Board, despite the clear problems regarding unfair testing environments, shortened test formats, and technological problems, decide to continue the AP test? Why didn’t College Board follow suit of other academic organizations such as international baccalaureate (IB) who cancelled their exams and instead used overall quality of coursework throughout the year to assess whether a student qualifies for credit? The truth is if College Board were to cancel AP exams, they would face pressures to return the money back to students. Considering College Board made over 1 billion dollars in revenue, more than 130 million dollars in profit in 2017, and the president of College Board makes over 1 million dollars a year all despite being a supposed nonprofit, it seems quite clear there are incentives in place other than the well-being of students’ education.

In the end, the purpose of AP tests is to provide a measure and representation of the student’s knowledge of the course material. When an AP test is not able to meet that purpose with this year’s online AP exam format, then the AP scores only serve as a number that cannot possibly measure the student’s knowledge of the class material. Despite this, this obsolete number will be the determinant in a student earning college credit and be a factor in the college admissions process.

In Colorado, The Right to Comprehensive Sex Education

A photograph of the Colorado Capitol Building in Denver, with green grass and blue sky

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

On January 30th, 12-year old Moira Lees testified at the Colorado Capitol in favor of HB19-1032, the new bill centered around sex education for public schools in Colorado. Moira was one of at least six other students who testified in support of the new bill. She bravely talked about how she wished that they taught what consensual relationships are at her own middle school. Consent was just one of the topics presenting in the new sex-education bill for Colorado which was an updated version of a sex education bill from 2013.  

In 2013, the General Assembly of Colorado revised a 2007 law on comprehensive sex education in public schools. This new law said that students had the right to a curriculum that was age appropriate, medically accurate, culturally sensitive to LGBT and disabled individuals, and must include information about safe relationships and sexual violence. However, schools were able to find loopholes in the bill. Schools that wanted to offer an abstinence-only curriculum could contract with non-profit groups and would provide the abstinence only education on school grounds on the weekends. Another loophole allowed charter schools to teach their own versions of human sexuality that often didn’t meet state standards. These loopholes were motivation behind the new bill, HB19-1032 that was testified for on January 30th.

The new bill proposes to get rid of abstinence-only education but most paramount, it teaches consent in sexual relationships. Susan Lontine (D-Denver), the bill’s proposer, says that the bill describes “how to communicate consent, recognize communication of consent, and recognize withdrawal of consent.”  This was one of the least discussed topics during the 10-hour long testimony, mostly because it was one of the unanimously agreed upon topics. Centennial Institute Director Jeff Hunt is a critic of the bill but agrees with the consent portion and believes that people of faith also support it. Hunt states that the lengthy testimony was centered more around debate of topics that should be openers for family discussion about values as opposed to public school curriculum.

Another important part of the bill is that the curriculum will have open lessons about human sexuality. The bill opens with a survey form 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey that states 9.6% of females and 18.5% of LGBT-identifying kids have felt physically forced into sexual relationships against their will. “These statistics reflect a dire need for all Colorado youth to have access to comprehensive human sexuality education that teaches consent, hallmarks of safe and healthy relationships, self-acceptance, and respect for others,” according to HB19-1032. Lessons about human sexuality cannot be “explicitly or implicitly” endorsing religious ideology and shame-based language should not be used.

Those opposed to HB19-1032 worry that parents would not have full knowledge of the information that their children are receiving, according to Jeff Hays, GOP Chairman. The bill states that parents would be notified about human sexuality classes and given the option to remove their children but would not be notified about the specific lesson plans. Colorado Catholic Conference worries that the teachings will stigmatize Catholic beliefs and will teach children that the church’s values regarding sex, relationships, and gender are wrong. Also under review is that currently HB-19-1032 does not require schools to tell students about “safe haven laws” which allows a parent to turn over a newborn less than 72 hours to any fire station or hospital with no questions asked, in order to protect the lives of newborns. If HB19-1032 is passed, schools would have to choose between teaching this new curriculum or teaching nothing at all on the matter.

At the heart of the debate regarding HB19-1032 is a question about the purpose of childhood education and how sex education supports those goals. According to philosopher Joel Feinberg, education is a part of the “right to an open future” and enables children to gain the knowledge, skills and tools, to shape their own individual life plans. The goal of sex education is for students to learn about sex and sexuality to gain skills for healthy relationships and manage one’s own sexual health. However, the question of the matter resides in if schools owe it to children to teach sex education in a comprehensive manner.  

Not teaching children on comprehensive sex education to the extent that bill HB19-1032 does could cripple youth’s ability to exercise their current and future sexual rights. Having sexual rights is to have one’s control over their own body and sexuality without violence, coercion, and intimidation. Without education on the subject, students could be exposed to additional harm including assault, sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancies. This bill is unique in that it addresses many aspects of “traditional” sex education like the biological aspects of sex but it also dives deeper into the social aspects.

The need for sex education corresponds to our developmental stages, according to Sigmund Freud and other developmental psychologists. During adolescence (twelve to eighteen years old) a major task is the creation of a stable identity and becoming a productive adult. Dramatic changes occur that lead to increased opportunities to engage in risky behaviors like sexual promiscuity. Adolescents are novices in reflective cognitive thinking which is why education on risky behavior, like sex education, is important at this stage of development.

But a government-mandated sexual education program feels, to some parents, like a violation of their autonomy. Some parents want to be a part of the discussions revolving around these topics, in order to talk about family values and have open discussions. There is the fear that when the state regulates this curriculum, it takes away from the parent’s say in the matter. At the same time, without this regulation, teachers could have full freedom to teach as they please on the course matter. Without regulation, teachers would have the opportunity to teach their own code of sexual ethics.

Kids are under more influence than ever about what is deemed as “acceptable” sexual behavior in society, from mass media to their friends, family, and religious expectations. With these added pressures, it is more important than ever for legislation like bill HB19-1032 to define to what extent teachers, schools, and the government have responsibility in teachings students about sex education.

Too Late? Teaching Consent Before College

As universities deal with an increasing number of sexual assault allegations, attention is being turned to finding a way to clarify the term “consent.” Many activist groups are unhappy with the current sexual education programs in the United States, arguing that the lackluster curriculum is partly to blame for the high rates of sexual violence on college campuses.

Continue reading “Too Late? Teaching Consent Before College”