I’m proudly doing my duty as a California parent. I’m flunking distance learning.
Distance learning is the term for our new COVID 19-era educational regime, which forces teachers and students to conduct classes and handle schoolwork at a distance, using the Internet. Under this system, we California parents must bridge this distance, valiantly instructing our own children at home to make sure that actual learning takes place.
Millions of California parents, including yours truly, have found this a frustrating, even impossible task. But after seven long weeks of distance learning, I’ve made my peace with flunking this particular exam.
Does distance learning work? The answer is we will never know if we employ it only in crazy circumstances like this, when it is certain to fail.
Because failure isn’t merely an option when your job is to transform into a teacher in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century. Failure is the point of the exercise.
If parents were to turn into awesome teachers under this hastily organized set-up for internet home schooling, imagine the fallout for our educational system! If parents could surpass some teachers in instruction, how could teachers’ unions still defend their weaker members? If I could administer my home classroom effectively, what justification would California school districts have for employing expensive administrators? And if students performed just as well at my kitchen table as they do in a classroom, why would construction firms ever again make campaign donations to school board members who approve new buildings?
Educational success, in these circumstances, would be nothing less than an attack on public education. So if you’re one of those parents who is still following every instruction on Google Classroom, and trying to give your kid a leg up, I must ask: What the hell is wrong with you?
For the sake of California and social cohesion, those of us with school-age children must accept that we are merely actors in a show that, like the tasteless musical in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, is supposed to flop. Even Governor Gavin Newsom, who imposed distance learning in March, has dropped any pretense that this statewide experiment in homeschooling is anything more than educational theater. The governor blames this period for massive “learning loss,” especially among disadvantaged kids. And around the state, school boards are conceding that, with powerful teachers’ unions opposing online learning, they never invested enough in online education to make it work.
As the superintendent of our local San Gabriel Valley district recently wrote to our community: “California’s public-school system does not have the infrastructure or appropriate regulations to support a comprehensive, all-in, distance learning program for all students.”
I fear, however, that some parents are misinterpreting such acknowledgements, and feel that their parental assistance with distance learning is now unimportant. To the contrary, our role is now even more vital! Our job is to accept the blame for distance learning’s failure, so that our schools, teachers and kids don’t have to.
I confess that I was slow to embrace my own role as scapegoat in this drama. I had never gotten a grade less than an A until my freshman year of college, and so I took it hard when distance learning began and I immediately seemed to be failing three grades—my sons are in first, third, and fifth. That’s an academic record surpassed only by the Adam Sandler character Billy Madison (who flunked all 12 grades).
At first, I made excuses for failure, like my full-time job was getting in the way.
Then I lashed out.
I blamed my wife for offering no help. Her “lame” excuse is that she’s covering COVID-19 around the clock as a health reporter for a major American newspaper. Also, that I’m on her health insurance.
I blamed the confounding technologies and educational apps that my kids must use but that I can’t keep straight—Sumdog, Think Central, Flipgrid, BrainPOP, and of course, the head of the distance-learning snake, Google Classroom. (One sleepless night, while re-reading Dante’s Inferno, I convinced myself that the Googleplex is not actually in Mountain View but rather sits along a causeway leading to the Ninth Circle of Hell).
I blamed the teachers, who kept sending me online assignments full of broken Internet links—and mixed messages. One day, they’d advise not to stress about distance learning, offering assurances that it didn’t matter whether things got done. The next, they’d ask why a particular assignment was not turned in, or remind me that school was still in session and that attendance was being taken online.
But most of all, I blamed my three students—who are lazy (refusing to rise from bed before 9), undisciplined (they ignore my schedules), and ungrateful (not a word of thanks to their father-teacher). I especially resented how they exploited the fact that they needed to be on their screens all day to sneak video games whenever I wasn’t looking. With them skipping work and bombing tests, I threatened to call their parents, until I remembered I was their parents.
I finally understood distance learning’s true purpose after reporting my first grader’s work refusals to his teachers and school administrators. In a call, they politely declined my request that he be made to repeat first grade, while also offering him extra attention via Zoom. My 6-year-old, recognizing his victory and my diminished power, soon took to making me write down his answers to school assignments. Recently, he warned me: “If I get an email from Google Classroom that I need to do this again, you will be to blame.”
So I have accepted my fate. I am not anyone’s teacher. I have no training in instruction or classroom control. I can’t give students a grade, or even ground them—because the whole world is already grounded. I am a powerless functionary, an IT troubleshooter, and an unpaid messenger between two groups—my children and their teachers—who have bigger worries than schoolwork in the midst of a pandemic.
I am sometimes asked, Does distance learning work? The answer is we will never know if we employ it only in crazy circumstances like this, when it is certain to fail.
Sometimes I think turning distance learning into farce must have been the intention of powerful educational interests, which before COVID-19 opposed online education as a threat to teaching and administrative jobs. After this failed “experiment,” it may be a long time before California schools invest in online education that could work, and perhaps curb equity gaps in our education system.
But that’s a concern for the future. Right now, I’m just relieved that distance learning has allowed the state to justify continuing to pay teachers and other school employees during this crisis. If that means I have to play Potemkin, and pretend the distance learning village is real, I’m happy to serve.
Unfortunately, not all of my fellow California parents are content to suffer in such productive silence. On social media and in grocery store lines, they rage against distance learning, and how hard it is on them. That’s understandable, but it’s also bad form. We California parents must save all our anger for the many fights ahead.
In June, we’ll need to challenge the governor and legislators if they use the COVID crisis to make huge, lasting cuts in our schools. More broadly, we should pressure the state to use the crisis to reverse its underinvestment in services for children—particularly when it comes to childcare and mental health. And when it is safe to reopen schools, we must insist that the instructional time our kids lost this spring is made up, and that no one falls behind. We’ll need longer school years and school days, and maybe a real and robust system of distance learning, to accomplish all that.
Most of all, we must demand that our students honor their parents’ distance-learning failures in the best way possible: By studying harder and learning even more in the years to come.