Dear SDE folks – Now is the time to care about public schools

In the scurry to assert a sense of normalcy, public school districts, educators, and families are missing opportunities to revise assumptions about how education ought to work. Now’s our chance to shift the status quo of conventional schooling. 

Four weeks after school closures began across the country, districts are racing to figure out remote learning. New York City Public schools has already rolled out remote learning district-wide, rushing devices to students who lacked access and filling remaining gaps with printed packets. In Baltimore, where I’m weathering the COVID-19 outbreak, two teams are working concurrently to troubleshoot remote learning, one cobbling together online resources while the other assesses whether digital access is widespread enough to make remote learning feasible in the first place.

In the rush to develop remote learning, school districts are working to preserve conventional school instruction, maintaining a diet of lessons, assignments, and assessments. In my social network, I’ve seen many teachers and parents doing the same, with the former organizing virtual lessons and the latter posting colorful schedules aimed at helping parents structure their kids’ days around academic activities.

In the rush to develop remote learning, school districts are working to preserve conventional school instruction, maintaining a diet of lessons, assignments, and assessments.

With so much energy going into creating a sense of normalcy, I worry that public school systems, families, and individual educators are missing a chance to revise assumptions about how education ought to work. I’ve seen members of the unschooling and SDE community expressing the same sentiment, urging other parents to avoid imposing a typical school day on their kids and encouraging them to instead focus on creating a calm home environment in which kids can thrive. These are important efforts, ones we should all be undertaking according to our ability, identity, and networks.

But aren’t public schools a lost cause? 

My experience in free schools and other SDE communities is that many folks are distanced from the public schooling system. Speaking with SDE adults and kids, I’ve often encountered sentiments of disdain or disinterest when I bring up public schools. Much of this is justified – many folks have had toxic experiences within public schools and most are steeped in alternative ideologies about how to best raise kids.

But as a former Baltimore City public school teacher, I have a foot in both worlds, and I want to caution against that attitude now more than ever. The changes that are coming to public schooling in the wake of COVID-19 will fundamentally reshape our society. Whether you have a child in a public school, you’ve pulled your kids out of public schools, or you simply pay your taxes and observe from afar, you should care about the fate of America’s public schools.

Let’s be real. Is COVID-19 going to force our public schools to dismantle their fixation with measurement and assessment? To decolonize what counts as ‘valuable’ knowledge and begin prioritizing kids’ passions and home cultures over standardized curriculum? To start treating kids like full people with a right to  make decisions for themselves and their communities? 

Not overnight. But it has already interrupted the traditional school day, loosened the death-grip of geography on educational communities, and disrupted the physical infrastructure of school. In doing so, it has opened a window of opportunity to shape a new culture of education.

The SDE, unschooling, and homeschooling communities have valuable insights to offer in a public schooling context, especially during this time of uncertainty and transition. Though the first priority may be our own schools, learning centers, cooperatives, and families, we also have a responsibility to share our knowledge broadly, whether it be through friends, social media, mutual aid networks, or more formalized channels.

COVID-19 has already interrupted the traditional school day, loosened the death-grip of geography on educational communities, and disrupted the physical infrastructure of school. In doing so, it has opened a window of opportunity to shape a new culture of education.

What can the SDE community contribute right now?

In the wake of COVID-19, SDE communities are demonstrating remarkable flexibility and ingenuity. From the start of the crisis, Riverstone Village was assessing its community’s digital assets and needs and looking to redistribute resources to bridge the digital divide. Gastonia Freedom School was adapting to provide working families with childcare while seeking to keep staff safe and healthy. The Open School, Tallgrass Sudbury School, and Brooklyn Free School were developing rich online spaces to maintain community and coordinate digital learning. Abrome and Philly ALC were rallying to support mutual aid efforts in their cities. I’m sure these efforts only scratch the surface of the strategies SDE folks are developing to support their communities.

These efforts hold lessons that could well serve the kids and families who participate in public schools. Here’s what I see as prime areas for SDE folks to lend their ideas and energy.

Skills: How do we help all kids access new skills that match their interests, whether or not they have an in-house adult to help them? Curated collections of videos, websites, and online how-to’s are a great start. But could we get more creative, seeking to develop online skill-sharing networks that extend outside our SDE and unschooling networks? Unlike most people operating in conventional schools, the SDE community has cultivated the belief that each person is a teacher, that everyone brings valuable knowledge and skills to the table. How can we leverage all of these teachers so that kids can build educational relationships with a diversity of people willing to share their knowledges?

A group of indigenous educators have been using the Facebook group Think Indigenous as a platform to host storytelling and other programming for indigenous students as well as children outside indigenous communities. 

Relationships: How do we ensure that all kids continue to feel safe and connected to caring adults and peers in their lives? Many public school teachers are in triage-mode, doing whatever they can to reach out to their students and maintain some sense of normalcy and connection. Parents who have never homeschooled their kids are struggling to know how to balance academic, physical, and emotional well-being. Kids who are lonely and isolated are desperately trying to stay in contact with friends over social media. In some cases, they are violating public health recommendations to see friends in person. The SDE community has experience developing micro-networks of kids and adults around shared interests and goals and has already demonstrated its flexibility in maintaining relationships during this time. We need to share these strategies outside our communities.

Stuff: How do we help all kids get access to physical resources at home, including devices, art supplies, instruments, simple machines, and books? If a kid wants to learn to sew or read or play online D&D, how can we share or pool our physical resources to make sure that happens? SDE communities have been finding creative ways to share limited resources for decades. We need to share our strategies and our stuff with others (after it’s been sanitized, of course). At the same time, we must advocate for expanded access to resources for low-income public school students, especially one-to-one technology to close the Digital Divide. This means that we must advocate for public school funding.

According to Pew Research Center, the Digital Divide is a major issue for equity in conventional schooling. Whether or not we see homework as a valuable learning tool, we must advocate for policies that would make digital access universal.

Mindsets: As kids try to learn from home, how can we shift our society’s educational norms to recognize kids as full people? Most folks within the SDE community are able to see value in kids’ chosen activities. Most have practiced existing in egalitarian and/or democratic relationships with kids. Most have tried to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with kids, acting as colleagues, mentors, teachers, and equals as needed. If we share them, these mindsets could give kids opportunities for self-discovery and love in this otherwise confusing, insecure time.

As kids try to learn from home, how can we shift our society’s educational norms to recognize kids as full people? If we share them, SDE mindsets could give kids opportunities for self-discovery and love in this otherwise confusing, insecure time.

Be helpful, but be humble

Having urged us to share our resources, strategies, and mindsets with others, I want to offer a cautionary note. If teaching and living in Baltimore City has taught me anything, it’s that identity, equity, and an understanding of our nation’s vast structural inequalities needs to be at the heart of all our thinking.

Parents are doing what they believe to be best for their children. Differences in experience, identity, and access will always shape what seems best. In the same way we seek to partner with, not lecture to, our kids, our place is not to proselytize our vision, but offer our support.

While there are certainly many exceptions, we must remember that the SDE, unschooling, and homeschooling communities are largely white, middle class or affluent, or otherwise privileged. We must acknowledge that structural racism and capitalism have produced huge disparities that touch every aspect of education. In particular, remember that:

  1. Many parents aren’t prepared to homeschool their kids because they: are still going to work; are struggling to meet basic physical needs like food, housing, and healthcare; lack educational resources like books, paper, or devices; lack literacy, numeracy, or other forms of privileged knowledge; are ill, disabled, or otherwise unable to take on full-time care-taking responsibilities. 
  2. Many kids who attend SDE centers or are unschooled live in families that have access to privileged forms of knowledge. I have seen posts on Facebook and elsewhere urging parents not to worry about their kids falling behind on the grounds that a) kids will catch up just fine when schools reopen or b) the concept of “falling behind” should be repudiated as a product of our factory model of schooling. But for many kids, “falling behind” has tangible consequences. Many of my students did not enter my ninth grade history class able to read simple texts. Six years after graduation, most Baltimore students are unable to find living wage jobs. Reading levels and graduation rates strongly correlate with incarceration later in life. Even if you aren’t forcing your child to learn how to read, literacy is likely a privilege baked into your home environment. That is not the case for many of our nation’s kids.
  3. Low income families and families of color disproportionately lack the money to provide a safety net for their kids in case their kids’ passions don’t prove lucrative. Almost 70% of Americans lack savings over $1000 and 45% have nothing saved. That means there is huge pressure to ensure that kids get access to the knowledge, resources, and networks that will allow them to survive. For centuries, conventional forms of education (especially literacy and higher education) have been one of the few routes by which it was remotely possible for poor or BIPOC people to get a toehold on physical security in this country. 

As a consequence of these disparities, many parents will be uncomfortable with the idea of their kid playing Minecraft all day, even if that is their kid’s passion. So offer alternative perspectives on education, but do so with compassion and humility, not judgement or condemnation. Parents are doing what they believe to be best for their children. Differences in experience, identity, and access will always shape what seems best. In the same way we seek to partner with, not lecture to, our kids, our place is not to proselytize our vision, but offer our support.

If we don’t do something, others will… and it might not be good

As people speculate that COVID-19 could be the impetus for systemic change, noting calls for rent strikes, socialized medicine, and reductions in fossil fuel consumption, this could also be the moment to shift our social norms around education. 

This wouldn’t be the first time a natural disaster caused a sea change in our public schooling system, but in the absence of action, that change might not be positive. We can learn from recent history here. Hurricane Katrina ushered in a tectonic shift in public schooling that started in New Orleans and reverberated across the country – the charter school movement. Fifteen years later, charter schools dominate the landscape of many urban districts, providing dubious benefits to students and exacerbating existing equity issues in cash-strapped districts. In cities like Detroit, for-profit charters have produced sub-standard results for kids, even within the testing-centric framework of public schooling. In the wake of massive disruption, opportunistic agents will seek to profit off of uncertainty and doubt. We are already seeing a flood of ed-tech companies offering the latest platforms for online learning. As the COVID-19 crisis persists, this will only intensify.

We have an opportunity to influence the changes taking place, to shape a more human kind of education that values our children as full people.

Many kids are already struggling to navigate a barrage of platforms and online assignments. As ed-tech companies rush to secure pricey contracts with school districts, they may replace the structure of conventional schools with similarly restrictive structures.

We have an opportunity to influence the changes taking place, to shape a more human kind of education that values our children as full people. Folks within the SDE community are already taking steps to share their strategies, resources, and mindsets. Founder of Philly’s Eclectic Learning Network Maleka Diggs has been using Instagram as a forum to support SDE families and those transitioning to homeschooling. Akilah Richards’ latest podcast considers the implications of COVID-19 on SDE. Peter Gray is reaching an audience outside of the self-directed community with his recent article on self-direction during COVID-19 in Psychology Today. But if – like me – you’re not a social media influencer or high-profile researcher, there’s still work to be done. Here are some concrete actions you might be able to take:

  1. Seek to support networks inside and outside of SDE environments, if you have the capacity. Reach out to parents in your network who might be struggling with the transition to homeschooling. If you’re helping to coordinate skill-shares, online hangouts, or virtual communities, consider whether you could open these to children outside your SDE community.
  2. If you can offer resources to those who lack computers or other devices, books, or basic necessities, offer them. Mutual aid networks across the country are coordinating volunteers and donations.
  3. If the opportunity arises, seek to push others’ mindsets around education with compassion and humility. This could be as simple as posting to social media or talking to a fellow parent or educator. 
  4. Remember that most of our nation’s kids rely on public schools and keep equity concerns at the forefront of your mind. Even if you’re skeptical of public schools, advocate for public school funding, especially efforts to close the digital divide and provide meals to kids.
  5. Finally, remember that our nation’s investment in coercive and standardized forms of schooling is rooted in colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism. Advocate for policies that challenge this status quo. Stay up-to-date on candidates in local, state, and national elections and make sure you’re ready to vote. Help educate your network about voter registration, rescheduled election dates, and vote-by-mail in your state.

I’ve offered a few ideas here, but each of us needs to reflect on our resources, positionality, and networks and find our place to do this work. On my end, I’ve reached out to Baltimore City Public Schools and volunteered to consult, offering my insights into SDE and its prospects for informing distance learning. If they take me up on this offer, I will be navigating an uncomfortable space between my vision of liberatory education and the reality of what’s feasible within the public schooling system. Will it be comfortable? No. But now’s the time to share what we can, and face the challenge of working together.

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