Why Spring Break was Cancelled in NYC

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On March 30, New York State issued a directive for schools to continue online instruction throughout the spring break, which includes Passover and Easter. There was a possibility of giving teachers and students two days off–for the first day of Passover and for Good Friday–but that ultimately got nixed. Why no spring break? The primary reason given is this: that if students and teachers are busy with schoolwork, they will be more likely to adhere to social distancing, which in turn will help the city overcome the coronavirus. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a letter, “We are confident that continuing remote learning will help ensure that families adhere to social distancing in the coming weeks, which is imperative to slowing the spread of the virus and keeping ourselves and our neighbors safe.”

This rationale reveals an underlying belief (endemic to American education) that a good part of the purpose of school is to keep people busy and out of trouble. Not only that, but if you are looking to keep people busy and out of trouble, just put them in school.

The assumption that this is a legitimate purpose of education–to keep people from doing other things, to keep them busy–creates plenty of mischief of its own. Leisure, rest, breaks should be part of education, not distrusted. A spring break, far from releasing the masses into the evils of the streets, could actually give families and individuals a chance to catch up with themselves a little, celebrate the holidays, do some housecleaning, relax, and prepare for the coming weeks and months. In contrast, online instruction without a break will contribute to stress, which, beyond a small amount, is bad for the health and for education too.

The idea is not limited to the current crisis. Many U.S. pedagogical models emphasize the importance of keeping students busy at every moment. Granted, most educators will stress that the activities should be purposeful and meaningful, but they still recommend a tight sequence, with swift, well-coordinated transitions. There’s an assumption that if you let up just slightly, havoc will ensue. And so it becomes the truth. Many kids do not learn how to handle pauses, silences, and uncertainties. Why not? Because they are told, from day one, that they must stay “on task.” Teachers are told to keep things swift and purposeful–to remind students of the aim of the lesson, to demand outcomes, and to avoid having students do any one thing (especially listening to the teacher) for very long.

Some of this is fine. But it has turned into a system-wide fear of autonomy, of being left to one’s own devices. This relentless busyness doesn’t help education or those involved in it. Even less does it help those badly in need of rest right now. At the very least, teachers and students could have been given those two days–Thursday and Friday–so that they could celebrate the holidays at home and enjoy a brief respite from online life. Education does not take place in frenzy, nor cures and recovery in exhaustion.

The Deep Problem with the School of One

This morning, Rachel Monahan reported in the New York Daily News that two of the three New York City schools that piloted the “School of One” decided to drop the program. After a great deal of expenditure and hype, the School of One didn’t show better results on the state math tests than regular math classes.

I am not surprised by this report. The School of One (which I discuss in the eighth chapter of my book) assumes that mathematics consists of a progression of skills. Its proprietary software program generates a daily “playlist” for each student and lesson plans for the teachers. Students enter the classroom, view their playlist, and go to their appointed station. On a given day, a student might play a video game, work in a small group, receive direct instruction from a teacher, or engage in some combination of these activities. Teachers might spend fifteen minutes with one group, a few minutes here and there with individuals, and another fifteen minutes with another group. The students take frequent multiple-choice quizzes, which help to determine their activities and grouping. Supposedly, by working at their own pace in their own preferred style, students will make great progress.

But mathematics is not an amusement park. It is about recognizing patterns and seeing problems in more than one way. It requires imagination as well as precision. In the best math classes, students learn to struggle with problems that at first seem daunting (but for which they are adequately prepared). They try this and that, seeming to get nowhere, and then suddenly they see it. In a flash, it is all clear—and the solution sheds light on problems from earlier lessons and problems still to come.

Students cannot rely on such flashes of insight, of course. After solving a difficult problem, they must practice solving similar problems until they come easily. Then they continue on to the next challenge, which often arises out of the problems they have solved. A good math curriculum has a clear, logical progression but also moves back and forth and outward. Over time, as students advance and gain knowledge and experience, they develop what Alfred North Whitehead called “that eye for the whole chess-board, for the bearing of one set of ideas on another.”

Personalized, computerized instruction doesn’t do justice to such a curriculum; even precocious students need guidance through the challenges. It is the teacher who knows how to pose a problem in different ways and to draw more than the obvious conclusions from it. It is the teacher who can glean where a student is going wrong and guide him back on track. Such teaching takes time. A class can easily spend an entire lesson on a single theorem or concept, and the students learn from each other’s efforts.

What happens when the lesson is fragmented, when students go off into their various groups and corners to play a game or work on an activity? Well, in many cases both the students and the mathematics itself are shortchanged. The students may make progress with problems of a basic sort (like those that appear in summer math workbooks) but will need the teacher for the trickier and subtler points. Also, flitting from activity to activity isn’t always helpful; mathematics requires focus and doggedness. (Yes, sometimes the solution comes to you after you walk away—but those hours of puzzling and pondering help to bring this about.)

So why has the the School of One enjoyed such hype? Not only are there powerful political and commercial entities behind it, but it appears to address a real problem. Today’s classrooms have a wide range of levels; the advanced and struggling students study together. Since tracking is not an option (especially at the elementary and middle school levels), the teacher is expected to accommodate all levels at once. Given that state of things, a personalized learning system (aided by software) sounds like a crystal palace of sorts. To some, it is the future.

But to paraphrase Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, if it is raining and I crawl into a hen-house in order to stay dry, I will not call it a palace out of gratitude. It is still a hen-house. Something analogous holds true for the School of One. It is a makeshift solution, and an expensive one at that.

What can we do instead of expanding the School of One? We could adopt strong math curricula that give students a foundation in the early grades. We could allow for certain kinds of flexible tracking—so that, for instance, a fifth-grade student could take math  with sixth graders if she were prepared (but would take other classes with her fifth-grade classmates). We could have public lectures, seminars, and workshops on mathematics, so that parents, teachers, and others could grapple with math problems together. We could identify first-rate math textbooks, possibly translating a few from other languages, so that teachers did not have to scramble for appropriate resources. All of this would be far less expensive—and far truer to the purpose of teaching math—than the School of One.