August 16, 2020
One year ago it would be inconceivable that two opposite sides of the education policy debate would find themselves in the same boat, but that is where we are heading this Fall.
It would have been unthinkable in 2019 that our school children would be receiving their education at home and not in our schools. It would be politically unthinkable, from local to national levels, that funding would be directed towards home schooling. Unthinkable because the strongest opponent of homeschooling are teacher unions.
The teacher unions and others have long advanced the dividing of students into alternating groups in order to reduce overcrowding in our schools. Ideally, they would prefer more schools and normal working arrangements. But with a lack of funding, Plan B has been to stagger attendance. This has not been popular for parents because it vastly complicates child care. It also complicates the educational process itself as it places more responsibility in the hands of parents while not reducing the costs of education. Teachers have often balked because school districts expect more work, often with long days and inadequate time for preparation and evaluation, plus the unhappy sum total of educating more students.
Come Fall 2020 most of the nation will most likely be force-fed “Plan B”. In order to address the COVID-19 pandemic, density will need to be considered. If school districts decide to apply social distancing standards, then it is simple physics to realize that you will not be able to have the same number of students in a classroom or in the building at the same time. So the second unthinkable eventuality will be the implementation of Plan B – and teachers will ironically get what they have long been recommending – smaller class sizes.
But the solution will be a huge challenge to parents. In order for Plan B to work, home schooling will need to be consistent, obtaining educational objectives. This will prove to be a challenge for teachers who usually do not appreciate home schooling, and parents who underestimate the responsibilities of home schooling. Could it be possible that traditional homeschoolers have something to offer to teachers, and vice versa?
Homeschoolers have the luxury of only having to work with a closed set of students – kids in their families. Teachers are in the profession of educating a large set of students, at least 20, from a diverse range of backgrounds and capabilities. What homeschoolers have to offer is experience in planning and motivating kids to learn at home. And teachers will desperately need that experience. Unlike the past Spring, they will be expected to work “full time” with students present in the classroom. They will not have the time to guide students through home schooling. That will be the responsibility of the students, their parents, volunteers or paid assistants.
As I noted above, the unthinkable may happen. Teachers will finally get the breathing space they need with reduced class sizes. And home schooling will be a reality for everyone. The students that will excel will be those who have a solid family structure and encouraged to be self-disciplined. The random factor will be the availability of child care. In other words, it may not be mom or dad that supervises a kid’s education – it may be a child care provider. Talk about complicated. Home schooling is typically an all-or-none proposition where one of the spouses stays home to supervise schooling. Most parents this Fall will not be voluntarily choosing home schooling, but facing a mandate. It will prove to be a very difficult situation for them and the kids.
Yet there are great opportunities in adversity. When this is all over, parents will appreciate teachers more. They may be more engaged in the educational process. Kids will learn what is vitally important to life – self-discipline and responsibility. Kids may appreciate more what is unique and special about being at school, and they will definitely benefit from the added attention provided by the teacher.
Yet there is one other element that is entering into the equation – teleworking. Our society is highly adaptive, especially with modern technology enabling teleworking. While there is one side of us that are eager for life to return to normal, there is a growing discussion about the permanency of teleworking arrangements. It is conceivable that employers may take a second look at teleworking to see what more can be gained from this experience with COVID-19. What matters to employers is whether a person is achieving a certain production level. If they are getting the work done at home, why bother with daily commutes to the office? The US Forest Service (my current employer) has been addressing this issue for years and has explored various teleworking policies. When the pandemic hit, it was not much of a change for most of us because we already had experience working from home or while traveling. Teleworking eliminates the commute, saves fuel and depreciation on the car, and eliminates the stress of driving to work. So don’t be surprised, once the pandemic subsides, that teleworking increases.
With teleworking increasing, more parents are taking a second look at educational alternatives. So we are back to Plan B. Would it be possible that after the pandemic subsides that Plan B becomes the new “normal.” It will not be an option that fits everyone, but it is quite possible that it may fit a significant portion of the student population. The key to success for home schooling kids are a parent who is in the home and who is committed to educating their child. The hybrid plan (Plan B) will enable parents the option of having their children experience going to school, seeing other kids and getting attention from a professional school teacher. This may provide opportunities to regularly evaluate a student’s progress and focusing on areas where they are struggling.
We have been fortunate to have lived in Alaska for the past 17 years. While we did not home school at that time, we observed that home schooling in Alaska is not an us-and-them issue. In fact, it is actively funded as an alternative approach to education. This has enabled the state to maintain educational standards while leaving the parents the flexibility to shape the education to a model they prefer. They receive guidance and curriculum. The rest of the country can learn something from this.
Yes – the unthinkable is possible – publicly funded home school education! And with the full support of teachers? We will need to watch and see. All three stakeholder groups will be challenged in unique ways: teachers, parents and students. As a teenager I would have gone crazy if I had to spend each day all day with one or both of my parents around. For most students, having time away from home will be important. Parents, of course, will be challenged in many different ways, having to balance work outside the home and, in many cases, no work at all. Teachers, however, will be uniquely challenged. They will probably quickly discover that curriculum-by-handouts will not cut it when kids are at home. Home schooling usually requires structured planning and careful selection of curriculum that caters to self-education. I have heard several parents complain about the curriculum their kids endured last Spring. But I am not sure we could blame the teachers for that being that it was unplanned. But this Fall will prove to be different. Teachers have, hopefully, adjusted their approach to teaching to account for the shift toward home schooling.
No doubt – this will prove to be an interesting year in education.
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By Eric Niewoehner
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