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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Maia Espinoza: School closures highlight failure of public school system to fully embrace online learning

Maia Espinoza

Microsoft, Android, Amazon – our state is home to some of the most innovative online inventors in the world. Yet, expenditures on technology in public education have only worked to maintain the status quo rather than elevate the quality of education available to our students.

With the dramatic scenario we face today of statewide school closures for the remainder of the year, those in charge are just now discussing options for online learning. Why? It’s because of a lack of leadership and courageous advancement in our education policy. EdTech has kept up with technological advancements, but leadership for our schools has not. We find ourselves now scrambling to transition online and unfortunately, we missed the boat. Students will be left behind, severely hampered by inequities in accessing the education guaranteed by our state’s constitution.

The lack of online curriculum options has been attributed to “inequity” according to the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Essentially, if we can’t ensure every student has equal access to the internet, online education shouldn’t be available to anyone. This line of reasoning is inexplicable, especially considering this administration recently settled on an online-based Migrant Education Program for a population which is especially susceptible to the Educational Opportunity Gap - Washington’s arguably most disadvantaged students. Why do we have online options for some students but not all?

Online education organizations and internet providers have stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic by offering free subscriptions and free internet for low-income households. This is good news for vulnerable families, but despite a more than 100% increase in recent educational budgets, our public school system was clearly not sufficiently preparing for the future, let alone a crisis.

Money isn’t the problem. Consider how much cheaper an online textbook is, the cost difference between online versus paper assignments. They’re certainly more environmentally friendly not to mention the convenience factor. If the excuse for our lack of innovation is about equity, why don’t we allocate resources for students that need it most in the same way we provide free and reduced lunch? I argue we should be finding ways to lift all students up rather than continue to make excuses for why we can’t keep up.

In fact, 40.4% of Washington’s students fail to meet the state standards in English and 51.1% fail to meet the standard in math. These results demonstrate the need for a significant change in our public education. Technology can’t replace the essential human interaction that teachers provide, but computer-based learning is proven to be more effective and efficient at skill-training students.

By expanding the use of EdTech and computer-based learning in public schools, educators are freed up to do more of what they do best. With technology, grading is streamlined, data illustrates where the class is struggling, and students can be put in charge of their own educational goals and content focus. Imagine a foreign language class where kids choose any language they’d like to learn and can advance at their own pace, building on their existing knowledge each day.

This global health crisis has shown that our public school model is outdated. With students prevented from coming to school, teachers and parents are frantically trying to figure out how to keep their students learning and occupied. Some students view this as an extended spring break and the results may be disastrous for educational outcomes. Integrating technology, familiarizing parents and teachers with online tools to support students’ learning would have been prudent in general and beyond helpful in the current context.

It is evident that our state’s top public education leadership failed us, it’s time for a new direction and updated policy. Students, teachers and families should not suffer because of a lack of foresight. Our schools can be future-builders and innovation centers if we let them. We deserve a forward-looking, responsive and modernized public education system. The status quo is no longer an option. We must reimagine education.

Maia Espinoza is a teacher and the director of the Center for Latino Leadership, an education-based nonprofit in Washington state. She works to address disparities in education and public works.

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