Thanks to HPS Superintendent Dr. Brian Davis for his perspective on public education during the pandemic (“Relinquish, Reimagine, Retool,” April 27). As an invested parent, let me take him up on his invitation to join the conversation about what K-12 school might look like post-COVID 19. I encourage other stakeholders to do likewise.


I admit I found it difficult to pin down Davis’ vision for post-pandemic education. The proliferation of content-devoid administrative-speak makes me wary of attributing too much to his words. Even the call to “relinquish, reimagine and retool” left me perplexed.


What assessment efforts are planned to gauge learning since schools shut down? Davis dreamily envisions students who “engage and learn more” and take “greater ownership for their learning” and parental involvement “increasing across the board.” What data supports that rosy view? Such fantasizing strikes me as counterintuitive; it also is so out of sync with what has transpired in our household, it’s laughable. I trust the district is hard at work on evaluative practices that can provide clear-eyed measures of learning online, the better to inform post-pandemic reforms.


Is Davis anticipating a future where learning primarily occurs online? That seems the implication of his envisaging a “whole new schoolhouse for the future” not “defined by bricks and mortar.” If so, here the issue must be joined. It’s time to push back on technology and online learning as the panacea to the lethargic learning taking place in our schools. While I agree that the shutdowns could be “a turning point in (the) philosophy and practice” of education, my guess is we would turn in very different directions.


If anything, the reality of the past weeks suggests tech-driven learning is hardly the magic bullet for our deficiencies. In recent years, HPS has done a fair amount of self-congratulatory back-slapping about being on the “leading edge” of technology, equipping students with laptops and supposedly inculcating teachers in the latest pedagogies to ensure superior instruction. This techno-savvy emphasis was to give us a nimble, agile educational system, adaptable to real-world developments. In fact what did we get when school buildings were shuttered? Three weeks of inaction, followed by two weeks to devise and implement a plan. Five weeks elapsed without learning (at least without help from our local district) before a single assignment appeared in our kids’ google classroom. When remote instruction was finally instituted, it was the thinnest of gruel. This is hardly cause for celebration.


I urge school leaders to seriously engage the substantial scholarly literature on online learning, which is decidedly mixed. While technology has provided undeniable educational benefits, it also has serious deleterious effects. One clear conclusion of the research is technology and online education typically are a boon for the disciplined and motivated high achievers, while struggling students are apt to struggle even more. In other words, the education gap tends to widen.


Much has been made of the digital divide along socioeconomic lines, and a genuine problem with internet connectivity and access likely exists for some HPS students. But the divide that is more worrisome is the substantially greater amounts of time spent on devices by minorities and kids further down the socioeconomic ladder, to the detriment of their educational achievements. I was proud HPS staff found a way to deliver much-needed meals to families who rely on school breakfasts and lunches. How might those education-free weeks have been improved upon if meals were delivered with a book or magazine to read, or even pencil-and-paper worksheets. We should be wary of new online approaches that push kids into ever more screen time.


Finally, did Davis mean it when he urged “increased expectations to hold school administrators accountable?” If so, hear my plea. Don’t speak of teachers as “facilitators.” I can facilitate my teenagers’ learning; I can’t teach them chemistry or calculus. Don’t “abandon” the basics in exchange for being “relevant.” Being relevant means being whipsawed, as educational flavors of the month come and go. And please, oh please, don’t inflict on us “best practices to develop leading-edge programs.” It’s pretty simple, really. Focus on kids being able to read and understand texts, help them to think clearly and write well. Provide quality vocational training for those not college-bound. Sometimes a backward glance is the best way forward.


In the end, many kids will be fine. But those suffering from economic hardships, a frayed family structure or a lack of educational support will not easily bounce back; their plight should drive us to think clearly about how to deliver the most effective education. Have we left them behind?


— David Ryden is a resident of Holland.