Online instruction is failing, and that is not an option

Maybe what was so remarkable about two teachers’ concerns voiced to the Marion County School Board Tuesday night about online education was that the board found their comments, well, so remarkable.

Terry Kinder and Cheryl Lindstrom appeared before the School Board to talk about their daily frustrations with MCPSOnline. MCPSOnline is the school system’s computer-based instructional platform that about 30 percent of the county’s 43,000 public school students have opted to use as we grind on through the coronavirus pandemic.

(Disclosure: I know Kinder and Lindstrom because they work at the same school as my wife, who is a veteran classroom teacher of more than two decades.)

What these women told the board is that the Microsoft Teams platform the school system is using doesn’t work. They cannot see most of their students when an online class is in session. They spend half their time trying to address technology issues, and when they are not playing IT support person, they are struggling to take roll, communicate with students and get assignments made and collected.

Kinder, a 2014 Golden Apple teacher, told the board that because of the technology problems with Microsoft Teams, half of her students have F’s halfway through the first nine-week grading period.

“I believe these technology issues have been the main reason why I currently have 50 percent of my online students with an F and 5 more percent with a D in my classes,” Kinder said.

She would later say, “I work really hard to try to make my kids understand our content, and I’ve never felt like more of a failure.”

The board was struck by Kinder’s comments. School Board member Kelly King, a former teacher, called it “alarming” that 50 percent of Kinder’s students are failing.

“It’s alarming to me, too,” Kinder responded. “I cry daily.”

Imagine, a Golden Apple teacher being reduced to tears every day because the tools she’s been given to educate our children just flat don’t work.

Lindstrom, for her part, echoed Kinder’s assessment of the online technology and asked the board to stop county assessment tests – those above and beyond the routine individual course tests – because there is no way to ensure remote students are not cheating.

“Secure online testing is an oxymoron,” Lindstrom told the board. “… The data won’t be valid.”

To the board’s credit, they were empathetic and seemed appreciative that the two teachers had “shown courage” by coming before them. Board Chairman the Rev. Eric Cummings was most responsive, noting that he had spent days sitting with students, and then teachers, watching how MCPSOnline works. His critique: “I’ve done this for three or four days (with teachers) and it’s very frustrating.”

Superintendent of Schools Diane Gullett acknowledged the platform’s flaws — “It does present a lot of challenges, we know that” — and said she was forming a task force to identify solutions. She is also planning to survey teachers to get their ideas for improving the broken platform.

Yet, one has to wonder how we can be a month into the school year and every teacher, student and parent using MCPSOnline is fully aware of the stupefying inadequacy of the online instruction but the School Board seems caught off guard by two teachers’ comments.

I know I’m a teacher’s spouse, so I am clearly not unbiased. But come on. The school district has asked our teachers to be custodians, requiring them to clean every desk and chair after every class. They have turned classrooms into mini cafeterias to minimize crowd gathering, so teachers get to be bus boys too.  Now, they saddle them with an inoperable online platform that does not work – which, in fact, is leading to quantifiable failure – and their response is thank yous and a task force. When will that task force meet and when will it offer some solutions? Just asking.

Getting MCPSOnline working right — and right now — should be the top priority of the School Board. The educational progress of nearly a third of our children is at stake. Take some of the $13 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money the school district received and bring in whatever expertise is needed to get MCPSOnline working right.

That board members went on and on about how wonderful it was to hear honest, unfiltered opinions from two teachers should tell them something about the culture in the Marion County Public Schools. Teachers don’t express their opinions about what’s wrong – no matter how disastrous — with our schools because they fear retribution. It’s a fact, a long-running fact. Here’s a chance to show teachers their opinions and concerns are taken seriously.

Almost one-third of our public school students are attending school online this year. As Kinder and Lindstrom noted Tuesday night, the School Board and the administration should have known online instruction in Marion County was problematic at the end of last school year, when the last three months were essentially lost, instructionally speaking. Now, here we are. After a summer to prepare our online instruction, it may actually be worse than it was then.

The School Board and Gullett need to get on this and help these teachers and students out. When our best and brightest teachers are being reduced to tears on a daily basis because their employer cannot provide them the basic tools to teach effectively, and half the online students are failing, it is not just the computer program that is failing. Our school system is failing as well.

Posted in Commentary, News

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