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OP-ED: Can we pandemic-proof our education system?

  • Published at 08:47 pm July 11th, 2020
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Covid-19 has forced us to confront difficult questions about what constitutes schooling

Midway through the month of March this year, our world of learning had an abrupt pause -- indefinitely so, for circumstances beyond our control. Classes, blackboards and chalk, whiteboards and pencils, pens and examinations … a lot of familiar things in the ambit of classroom instructions, have come to a grinding halt since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

For an initial period, we had hoped this disruption would be brief, likely to be cut short by pressures of economics and livelihood. However, as the lockdown continued on for months, we have been forced to imagine other alternatives. A need has arisen to pursue an altogether different way of managing instructions in our schools.

Three things have been thrown upon us educators, by a debilitating new reality of a global pandemic. The most critical of these includes the huge gulf between those who learn in public schools and those who learn in private schools. Without any doubt, the second is a conversation about the difference between schooling and learning, which we had earlier believed erroneously, to be one and the same.

The third happens to be the role of examinations. For the longest time, we pretended that incomplete investments in public education could still somehow produce reasonable outcomes for the masses. We kept reminding ourselves that a school without a toilet for girls is still useful in a limited way, a classroom with a leaky ceiling can still be used if one sat in a different corner of the room. And, a school with regularly absent teachers is still doing some good on the days the teacher does come. And the list went on...

The outcomes from such deceit were always in plain sight. What could have been the prime indicators?

Obviously, very low graduation rates, certification without meaningful learning even for those who did pass, and large-scale joblessness for the youth. These realities should have moved us to act long ago, but the political system is comfortable with large-scale illiteracy, so things festered. And by equating inputs to outcomes, we kept up a pretense.

The coronavirus has nailed all that to the mast. Now, the only inputs that would matter today would include a network connection, a computer in every student’s home, and an instructor familiar with digital facilitation of learning. There is nothing else that matters. Either the schools provide this, or they’re not entities defined as schools. End of the fairy tale!

And by and large, public schools aren’t providing this. They simply cannot. There is no way that decades of under-investment in public education can be wished away in a summer of lockdown. The switch to online learning is simply not an option, because that world itself doesn’t exist in the domain of public education. All that governments can do now is watch helplessly, and the onlookers in society, can observe this.

Again, all this has continued without even a slice of good fortune. Education departments throughout the US should thank their lucky charms that the pandemic appeared on the scene just as the school calendar was winding down. This had allowed governments to simply let things slide into the summer holidays. If the coronavirus had debuted in August or January, the eureka moment would have been instant.

Next, let’s focus our gaze on the examinations. The conventional way of conducting them has been ruled out by the dreadful pandemic and the much talked about “digital alternative” is not an option for more than half the students. The only option left today seems to be: Delay the exams first, and should this measure prove insufficient, then cancel the exams altogether. But if these can be cancelled, one might ask whether we ever needed them in the first place.

Much to our dismay, our education system has been unable to focus on learning as an opportunity to be given to all children. Instead, it has relied on exclusion through examinations to mask its limited offering to only a few. We have never thought out of the box. Instead of inquiring how our young pupils can be educated for 16-20 years, we have set up various assessment barriers (milestones) along the way, which we like to call exams. Next, we have tried to convince ourselves that those who had failed, had done so for their lack of merit or competency. This approach has been totally unfair.

By all standards, merit is often nothing more than the accumulation of past opportunities in households and families of the students.

Excluding the poor through the logic of merit has ignored the conditions that has made them poor. Instead, anyone who wants to learn should be able to, and we should figure out how to make that happen.

Governments love exams -- these events are the levers and entrapments that keep us providers from questioning the system’s poor performance and quality. You can’t get to high school or college without clearing exams, and you can’t get jobs without going to college. The administration has set this up in a way that the threat of losing out has actually become the reason, we have lost out on so much!

Fortunately for us, employers who hire graduates of our system already know this is a charade, therefore, they are rejecting this increasingly. Most employers would rather hire someone whose work they are familiar with, other than someone whose marksheet they’ve briefly seen. And an escape route from this can be built through apprenticeships.

By creating the learn-on-the-job environment, we can perhaps improve the quality of learning in schools and colleges as well.

Let’s be honest. Between the twin scams of poor public education on the input side and certification without learning on the output side, more and more people are asking: “Is schooling the only way to learn?” A devastating pandemic has forced us to confront this, but there is always the risk that once the pandemic passes, we’ll revert back and ignore the costs, causes, and consequences.

Please remember, the state also has a vested interest in the status quo, and the job market is currently unable to offer a universal, magical solution for all children enrolled in our system. Society will have to take up this issue, with renewed care. The sooner we do it, the better for all of us who claim to serve learning and education.

Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.

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