Monday, May 18, 2020

AEI's Back To School "Blueprint"

Everyone has ideas about how schools can re-open again, from thoughtful and responsible educators to gun-waving loons on the steps of capitals. So why not have the American Enterprise Institute take a shot at it by calling together a reformsters' roundtable to look at the issue.

The blueprint brought together a "task force" loaded with familiar names-- Chris Cerf, Sharif El-Mekki, Kaya Henderson, Candice McQueen, Nina Rees, Gerard Robinson, Andrew Rotherman, Hanna Skandera and John White, to name a few. But hey-- they aren't waving guns or yelling threats at people in masks, so that makes them part of the rational part of the right tilted world, so let's see what they've come up with.

Let me begin with a digression on the nature of thinky tanks

Rick Hess and John Bailey are the nominal authors of this, and I want to pause for a moment to note that they offer an actual explanation for why thinky tanks should even be messing with this kind of thing:

At times like this, think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute can play a constructive role. Because we are not burdened with the day-to-day responsibilities of serving students and families, we have the luxury to look further ahead. We can also bring together experts and veteran leaders who are versed in the particulars of what schools are facing and give them a platform to share their recommendations and guidance. Equally important, we can do all this with a degree of autonomy and independence, which can be more difficult for professional associations or partisan entities. 

The "this is our only job" argument is indeed part of the thinky tank raison d'etre; not having another day job does automatically give these groups an outsized voice in discussions about the work that keeps the people who actually do it too occupied to easily weigh in on it. It gives them the financial freedom to advocate for their point of view in outlets that don't pay a living wage for writing. And it gives them time for things like this.

"Autonomy and independence"? I don't really buy that part-- AEI, like most all thinky tanks, has its agenda. Think tanks are not research labs; they don't approach issues by asking, "I wonder what the answer is." Think tanks start with "Here's the answer we want to argue for-- let's craft an argument for it." Sometimes their chosen argument is a matter of their ideological bent; sometimes they are hired guns. And, of course, that's why they tend to assemble "experts" who fit the conclusion they want.

"We are not public health experts," they admit. Well, no. Nor are they education experts. Experts in the ins and outs of policy wonkery, but this task force is most devoid of anybody with real classroom experience (no, your two years with Teach For America and that charter you ran do not make you a teaching expert).

All that said-- the prospect of starting school up in the fall is scary and uncertain and unlike anything we've tackled lately. I firmly believe that solutions will be very, very specific and therefor the successful solutions will be crafted by the people there on the ground. But that doesn't mean we can't look at what this crew came up with.


The group assumes that school will open in the fall, but that we probably won't have a vaccine, so all manner of accommodations will be needed to deal with Covid-19. Those are fair assumptions.

Guiding principles? That decisions are best made by people close to the situation. That schools will have to figure out how to serve all students. That schools will need help from state and federal sources to provide resources that schools have had no time to prep for. Let me underline that--in Pennsylvania, teachers would have prepared their budgets for next fall around 6-8 months ago; meanwhile, districts don't get solid numbers for state financial support until this coming summer. It's a screwed up process that is extraordinarily ill-suited for the current problems.

Also, the health stuff piece is complicated and hard. I am summarizing brutally here.

So here are the areas that the committee recommends addressing

General Stuff

Coordinate with the community, mostly because the business of tracking and avoiding Covid-19 will occur everywhere. That means lots of good communication with the school system.

Also, regulatory flexibility. This is not wrong (PA, for instance, waived the 180 day requirement for this year), but it's a tricky issue. Of course, Reformsters have a whole list of school regulations that they would like to sweep away. So while the "hugely expedited timeline" for fiddling with regulations advocated here isn't wrong, it also requires some vigilance-- e.g., just how close Betsy DeVos came to saying that everyone could just scrap all regulations regarding students with special needs.

Privacy issues. For sure. I'm personally a bit shocked at how many people are adamant that they will not cooperate with contact tracing, a hugely important tool for figuring out where the disease is and where it's headed. Basically, someone asks you who you've been around since you got sick, and there are people out there determined to resist to the max. Add the issues surrounding juveniles and FERPA and HIPPA and this is going to be a contentious area. And it should be-- as with flexible regulations, a necessary response to the pandemic could be used to slip more shenanigans through.

School Operations

Everything will need to be deep cleaned, regularly. Protective gear for everyone. Playgrounds and sporting events may have to shut down. Not impossible, but not going to be cheap, either.

School meals? One of the areas of the blueprint where the committee basically says, "Yeah, this will be hard and schools are going to have to figure out what to do. Which is honest, but not very blueprint. Ditto for transportation. It's the fancy beltway equivalent of my local mechanic looking at engine pieces flying out through the hood of my car and saying, "Yeah, well, that right there's gonna be a problem."

Whole Child Supports

Educating the “whole child” is not a single set of courses, policies, or activities, but rather a mindset that should inform both school reopening plans and the support students receive.

Schools should consider an SEL needs assessment "to understand the full range of student and faculty needs" and I suppose an assessment could be any number of things, but I'm suspicious of any instrument that claims to know exactly what the SEL standards are and I'm doubly suspicious of anyone who needs these kinds of tools to connect with live human beings. The committee suggests connecting with "national organizations to provide the expertsie and support for schools and systems," and I'm not even sure who they could be talking about.

But here's a concrete solution. Since extracurriculars and sports are "critical" components of SEL, and schools will be hard-pressed to continue them, then let's privatize them. I am not sure how that helps-- do sports played by private athletic associations somehow involve more distancing? Also, one of the SEL benefits of extracurriculars and sports is that these groups are identified with the school itself (even more hugely true in rural areas like mine).

They do correctly identify mental health supports as a biggy. I'm not sure we can over-estimate some of the problems stemming from social distancing and isolation itself; there are students who haven't interacted with anyone but immediate family members for weeks, and that's likely to add to any stressors they're already dealing with. Add in financial issues, job loss, and plain old toxic family dynamics, and some students will be returning with huge amounts of emotional baggage.

So hire more counselors. And sign up for that telemedicine thing, because an internet counselor might help.

School Personnel

Here, more than anywhere in the plan, the group misses the boat.

Plenty of staff is over 55, so the group suggests getting rid of them. Early retirement incentives. Reassign the olds. This will obviously create some staffing shortages, so they have some thoughts. One is to "relax" class size regulations, presumably to allow larger classes, which is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that maintaining social distancing in a classroom of 100 students is nearly impossible unless you're holding class on a football field.

They suggest relaxing regulations in order to recruit from neighboring states-- but if all the states are going to be experiencing this shortage, which state would have all the excess teachers? And of course, that old favorite-- loosening certification requirements. All this to get the older teachers out of there, which is coincidentally a lo9ng-time goal of this crowd and their arguments against seniority protections.

There's another issue here as well. So we retire Mrs. McGeezer for her own safety, so that if Pat brings the virus to school, she won't get it. But what if Pat just gives it to Chris, another student who then takes it home to the grandparents. Removing the old folks doesn't really reduce the spread. Most importantly, since this report was whipped up, evidence has increased that plenty of the under-55 crowd are in danger from the virus as well.

The group would also like to take this opportunity to reframe the old argument that contractual obligations limit the district's freedom to Do Stuff. So they'd still like to see contractual limits on schedules, class sizes and work hours to go away, only now the idea is that this would be for the teachers' own good.

Money is going to be tight, so the group suggests looking for corners to cut and ways to right-size the district. Also, look to philanthropists to help plug the gaps. Sure.


There will be problems, particularly if there are more shutdowns.

Some of the suggestions for coping are a little silly, like getting ahold of the curriculum provider for help in using the publisher's materials to identify student learning gaps, modify instruction, etc. Is there any particular reason to think that book publishers have a better handle on current issues than actual classroom teachers?

Also, have printed copies of materials, and make adaptation for students with special needs. Yes, there is much of this report that may intend to just be thorough, but comes across as suggesting that teachers are dullards and dolts. Recommendations stop short of "Don't forget to eat food" or "The sun generally rises in the East," but they comer pretty close at times.

I do like this one-- have drills for internet education stuff, like fire drills. Which makes sense except that every teacher has a story about that time that they checked and checked and checked their tech, but when showtime came, the whole thing crashed. (See also: a few thousand frustrated AP test takers who had no trouble with the practice tests but whose actual test failed).

Time? Well, alternate days, longer days, longer years, summer school. Also, they'd like policymakers to consider using this opportunity to go with competency based education over seat time.

And once schools open-- test, test, test to see where students are. I just addressed this elsewhere, but the short answer is that teachers do this every regular fall already and now how to manage intake of new students, thanks. But as good fans of high stakes testing, these guys are afraid that by canning the Big Standardized Test this spring, we've missed all sorts of super-important data that's unavailable from any other source. They should relax.

Distance Learning

They don't call for replacement, but it's "better than nothing" and can support instruction. But now that we've been forced to use it, maybe check to see what worked or not.

Connectivity matters, and the report calls for every student to have a device and the "connectivity they need," which is a hell of a big ask. They also recommend take home mobile ho0t spots, which is not a solution if there's no connectivity for the hot spot either--it's like giving hooking their tv up to coaxial cable that isn't connected to anything on the other end.There are a lot of folks who have no connection, and a lot of other folks who have a crappy connection, and because connectivity is the realm, mostly, of private businesses, that's not going to change soon. It's just not cost effective to run the necessary infrastructure miles off the beaten path just to reach a handful of families. It's the same problem as mail delivery, electrical connectivity, and roads--there will not be a solution until government gets in the drivers seat. High speed high quality internet connection should be a public utility. Until it is, the solutions they propose are not actually solutions.

They also call for professional development, and here we hit a curious problem-- who exactly is going to deliver the training. Cyber-schools have had years and years to devote single-mindedly to the challenge of distance learning, and they have no real success to point to. There are teachers out there who have got a good handle on it, but they will be hard to locate and hard to connect to all the teachers who need the assistance.

When it comes to distance learning, mostly what we've got is a tool that few folks really know how to use effectively.


Well, maybe a little. As is often the case on Food Network competition shows, this might have worked better if you hadn't given it that name. Because a blueprint is specific detailed instructions, everything you need in order to build something. This is not that. It's more of a List Of Things Somebody Is Going To Have To Figure Out, and that's really the most I would expect from a bunch of reform advocates, faux education experts, and thinky tankers. The detailed plans are going to have to come from people who are actually there on the ground, doing the work.

Some of the things on this list are obvious, some hardly explain anything, and some are off the mark. Read through if you like, but understand that far more useful things will come from local teachers and administrators, even if they aren't wrapped up in slick reports.


  1. Just what we don't need: a bunch of amateur edu-meddlers getting in our way. The re-opening of schools will be a case of, think locally and act locally. I imagine that county superintendents will all want to all be on the same page, carefully balancing health care guidelines with the constraints of budget cuts. The specter of potential litigation against districts is an issue that needs to be resolved in advance of any opening; some form of reasonable legal protections are a must. With the uncertainty of a second wave of infections this fall I do not envy the local decision makers. Superintendents will finally get a chance to earn those bloated salaries that are pushing $300K per year in high end districts.

  2. What's interesting to me is the total focus on death tolls, when the fact that a lot of people survive but are rendered sick/unable to work for weeks to months.

    What's the plan for substitutes when a 30-year-old teacher gets a "mild" case (read: doesn't need hospitalization, but feels like absolute dog turd) and has to be out for 3 weeks? Or when a teacher is asymptomatic but tests positive and must be out of school (assuming we get tests, which NEEDS be a requirement of returning).

    I'm just shocked that I see *no* plans addressing that, when my district doesn't have enough substitutes to maintain a normal cold/flu season.