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By John Grimaldi, Vice President, Hopewell Valley Education Association

COVID-19 has created numerous challenges for the teaching profession in New Jersey, but it has also shown the public what we as New Jersey teachers have always known— that our members are among the most creative and resourceful educators in the country. In the span of just a few weeks, we shifted our teaching from the classroom to the cloud, developed new ways to connect with our students and deliver our curricula, and launched numerous initiatives designed to give back to our communities and support critical frontline workers, as detailed here. This transition was certainly not as smooth as it could have been, given the unacceptable difficulties faced by students who lacked the technology to access remote instruction. On the other hand, however, the transition to remote instruction was more successful than it had any right to be, considering the short notice and trying conditions under which it was made. Thanks to the efforts of our members, the vast majority of our students had access to quality instruction, necessary support services, and meals during a time of historical disruption, and we should be proud of our work this spring.  

Our response to this crisis has, moreover, demonstrated to the public at large the real value that teachers and schools provide to our communities. As parents were asked to facilitate learning in the home, many began to realize just how challenging a job this actually is, specifically when they extrapolated the difficulty of working with their own children to a classroom of 20 or 30 students. Additionally, a public consensus has begun to emerge which recognizes that remote learning cannot replace the academic and social benefits of face-to-face instruction — something that was always clear to teachers, but which was slowly being called into question in recent years. Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, mass school closures across the country (and, in fact, the world) have prompted economists to consider the impact of these closures on the overall health of the economy. As we are still in the midst of the current pandemic, there is no way to determine the final costs of the disruption, but current modeling suggests that the number is huge. A review of available studies in The Lancet (many of which are admittedly dated) places the potential cost of school closures at 3% of GDP for the United States for an 8-week shutdown (around $642.9 billion based on 2019 GDP numbers). Another widely-used model places the cost of a 12-week closure at between 0.2% to 1% of GDP ($31.3 billion to $141.3 billion in the year of the study [2009], or roughly between $42.9 billion to $214.3 billion based on last year’s numbers). A more recent statistical model by the Brookings Institute, created specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic, takes into account the future loss of individual earnings of the students affected by the closures and applies this to the United States as a whole. The results are staggering: $33,464 per student over their working lives, or $2.5 trillion nationally. These models, however dated and/or experimental, nonetheless offer a sketch of the shocking and unprecedented impact that school disruptions have on society, and the message is clear: The true value of public education—both to the student and to society as a whole—is immense.   

It would, however, be foolhardy to assume that now, finally, all stakeholders will appreciate our efforts and value our contributions to the lives of children and to the economic well-being of the country. Indeed, very powerful forces are already beginning to mobilize the rhetoric of drastic school reform as, for example, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a partnership with The Gates Foundation to “reimagine education” in New York and mused about whether schools should continue to exist in their current form. Echoing this note, billionaire philanthropist and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt (also a partner in Governor Cuomo’s project of reimagination), opined in a March Wall Street Journal op-ed that we should accelerate the pace of remote learning generally, so that students can “get the best instruction from the best teachers, regardless of what school district they reside in.”

While this is a noble idea on its surface, we can see its implications for our profession once we peel back the veneer of Silicon Valley optimism. If hundreds of students in hundreds of districts can, via remote learning, be taught by a few expert teachers, then there is no reason to employ thousands of other teachers to duplicate this work. Schmidt’s model of instructional delivery would effectively concentrate the work of teaching into the hands of a few “super teachers,” while leaving the rest of us to be, at best, learning coaches. And, from a business perspective, the nice thing about guides on the side is that, if they are not the sources of course design, delivery, and student assessment, they don’t need to be compensated at the same level that classroom teachers are today. Given the stark economic realities of the COVID-19 crisis, it is easy to see how this rhetoric of technology-based reform could quickly be viewed as a solution to addressing potential budget crises at the state and local levels that may arise in the wake of the pandemic. Indeed, by some estimates, state and local governments could face deficits of 25% and 20% respectively in the absence of federal intervention. And even if the deficits don’t reach such catastrophic levels, budgetary stress could very easily build the bridge from remote learning to reduced staffing.

Though the situation lends itself to a bleak prognosis, we are lucky that, for now, public opinion is generally tilted in our favor, and the task at hand is to build upon this favorable sentiment and develop a strategy for how we will move forward. Though we may not agree with Andrew Cuomo and Eric Schmidt, they are right in believing that the future of education will change drastically as a result of this unplanned experiment with remote learning. As professionals and as union members, we need to leave our comfort zone and collectively develop a vision for our future, on our terms, as we are the only ones who have the insight, expertise and experience to protect our students and secure our professional lives from the whims of billionaires who would seek to dismantle and privatize public education. To do this, we will need to confront the growing role of technology in our classrooms and our schools, and develop a strategy for integrating these innovations in a manner that preserves the values of public education to which we are committed.

Remote learning has taught us that, like it or not, technology and cloud-based instructional tools are here to stay, even if there is a public consensus that teaching and learning ought to occur within the physical confines of the school. While an overemphasis on technology does greatly compromise the core experience of education—namely, the classroom interactions with students and the important role these interactions play in their academic and social development—technology is not inherently bad. In developing lessons and materials for remote learning, teachers were forced to make strategic decisions about which technologies to use to best serve their students and this is in itself a new and crucial skill: knowing how to develop the right content, with the right tools, for the maximum benefit of our students. In fact, one might call this our unique value proposition for the future. In the aftermath of the pandemic, districts may be tempted to outsource more teaching and course design responsibilities to a third-party company, or they could preserve a local, tech-savvy cohort of professionals who are able to curate technology resources that most effectively target the needs of their students, within a rigorous, standards-based curriculum. We need to align ourselves professionally with this latter vision of teaching.

But the measured embrace of technology should not end in how we prepare for our own classes, within our own districts. The knowledge that we have developed and will develop about what works in the classroom, both physical and remote, needs to be cultivated and operationalized beyond the confines of our own practice. Technology has a way of crystalizing the values of those who develop it, and if we as teachers are to stake our claim in a new educational landscape that blends physical and virtual spaces, then we actually need a say in how instructional technologies are developed. In the past, we have typically reacted to new tools that have been forced upon us, begrudgingly accepting them and adapting ourselves to their shortcomings, but we have rarely tried to incorporate our own expertise into their development. It’s time to change this pattern and take a proactive approach to the digital classroom.

This may seem like a daunting task, because a large majority of these technologies are developed by private companies, which offer us little opportunity to influence their design in meaningful ways. This is, however, where the power of unions comes into play. Locally, unions can push for professional development that trains teachers in software development and educational content creation, rather than just on how to use a particular piece of software. This has a dual benefit. It would create a pool of in-house knowledge that districts could leverage in designing high-tech lessons, while at the same time giving teachers the hard skills necessary to create and distribute meaningful instructional tools. At the state level and national levels, unions could pool resources to create seed capital for founding edtech firms that produce software and services which prioritize the needs of teachers and the best practices that they use in their classrooms every day. Classroom teachers have a wealth of knowledge about student needs, lesson pacing, grading efficiency, unit design, student assessment, and a wide range of other issues—first-hand knowledge that is largely untapped by current learning management systems and educational apps. For years, we have had to adapt this knowledge to the strictures of whatever systems we were forced to use, but if our profession is to survive the coming digital transition, we need to transfer this expertise into functional software design and actually compete against the service providers that are trying to build market share in the “education space.” The NJEA and its locals have a long and proud tradition of defending the work of teachers in the political sphere, but it is now time to expand this advocacy into the cloud. Doing so could be one of the greatest win-win situations in our modern history: Students would benefit from technology designed by those closest to their academic development, teachers would secure a professional future in a rapidly evolving instructional landscape, and the NJEA would strengthen its position as a true driver of both policy and practice. 

Though the strategic plan for reopening schools is still being developed, it is becoming increasingly clear that the professional world we left behind in March will not return, and that public education will continue to change as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that a new normal is coming, but its nature is still very much an open question.  Though this uncertainty is frightening, there is cause for optimism— namely, the strength of our union. For over 160 years, the NJEA has overcome many moments of historical and political upheaval. We have continually improved our profession through our collective strength, and have built a real voice and real power in the State of New Jersey. It is now time to take the logical next step in our advocacy and confront privatization and school reform efforts by challenging them at the precise place where they are most intensely nourished—from within the emerging technological infrastructures that will shape the future of education. In the past, institutional disruption may have been less pronounced in public education than it has been in other sectors of the economy, but we cannot complacently wish for a return to the status quo. We need, as soon as possible, to develop a comprehensive digital strategy that preserves and enhances our core values and our commitment to locally-managed, high quality public education. Let us use the summer of COVID-19 to focus on the future of teaching and how we can use our expertise and collective strength to map the course ahead. It is time to reimagine our profession, before others reimagine it for us.

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