As if responding to Betsy Devos’ admonition that “K-12 education for too long has been very static and very stuck,” Department of Education Chancellor David Banks declared last week that the City’s new Tentative Contract Agreement with the UFT fulfilled Mayor Adams’ challenge to “reimagine education” and that “the days of simply working … in the four walls of the classroom are over.” To this end, New York City will become “the first major public-school system to develop, implement and expand high-quality virtual learning programs for instruction and related services” by creating a centralized virtual learning program and expanding school-level virtual learning to all high schools by the 2026-27 school year.
There are many reasons to vote no on this tentative contract—continued racist and gendered pay inequities between titles, “raises” that amount to inflation-adjusted cuts, hidden healthcare giveaways and an undemocratic negotiation and ratification process, to name just a few—but the expansion of virtual learning is perhaps the most insidious and ultimately dangerous of them all.
What’s the Deal With Virtual Learning?
During the height of the COVID pandemic, it was the Right that demanded in-person education in opposition to the supposedly “lazy” and “over-sensitive” teachers’ unions. However, online learning has long been the domain of corporate charter schools such as the Zuckerberg-funded Summit Learning Program, and scandal-ridden for-profit companies like K12 Online School and Connections Academy. For these companies and the privatizers that back them, online schooling is a gem in the marketplace of education models because it offers the twin benefits of savings on building maintenance and bussing, coupled with the ability to offer student-teacher ratios that would be unacceptable in brick-and-mortar buildings.
The end goal is nothing short of the end of public education as we know it. Rather than locally-run, fully-funded, brick-and-mortar schools that are centers of communities and provide services to meet the needs of the whole student and family, these reformists seek to create a marketplace of educational “experiences” that are standardized across the country, produced at scale, and that compete for students and dwindling amounts of money. It replaces the complexity of our current education system (by no means without its dire problems) with the efficiency and reproducibility of market-based education, even as it removes community control over schooling, facilitates austerity funding of the public sector, and generates enormous profits for their shareholders.
The push for online school has dovetailed with the explosion of for-profit ed-tech companies to create a mutually reinforcing network of corporate interests in which for-profit online schools use other for-profit ed-tech platforms at the same time as they normalize their use for traditional schools. While it seems that this MOA is intended to “get-ahead” of the corporate online charters, there is no doubt that the DOE’s online schools will involve tens of millions of dollars in contracts with for-profit companies and the migration of untold amounts of protected student data into private hands. Already, for example, a massive data breach from private, for-profit Illuminate Education (a grading software used widely across the city) resulted in the exposure of over 800,000 current and former students. Moreover, we know that efforts to “have a seat at the table” do not work because we have been here before. We have examples with test based evaluations, Common Core Standards and charter schools–all of which our union leadership signed onto but now dominate our day-to-day lives. When the interests of these initiatives are backed by powerful privatization forces, it is best to push forth what we know works in education: whole child, culturally responsive, community based schools.
While the charter schools’ advertising firms may sell their platforms with enticing catchphrases like ‘flexibility’ and ‘personalized learning,’ what this means in reality is that students are forced to interact only with a computer, while isolated in their own homes. Crucially, there is no data to suggest that this type of learning is effective on a large scale. To the contrary, students engaged in virtual learning do considerably worse on most metrics of student academic performance. Furthermore, most data show that online schools, which are often marketed toward low-income students of color, in reality exacerbate the differences in student achievement between low- and high-income students, between students of color and white students, and between students with disabilities and those without. In fact, those invested in pushing these policies and practices send their own children to private elite schools such as Waldorf Schools, which are heralded for keeping class sizes low and having a rich array of arts, music and hands-on, inquiry based projects.
In short, virtual learning and virtual schools are an old tactic of education reformists to introduce the logic of zero-sum competition into the education landscape alongside charters and vouchers. It allows for the further trimming of education budgets, and funnels money into private, for-profit hands. It does not teach what it claims to teach and, in fact, adds to the education debt owed to our marginalized students.
What Does This Mean for the Here-and-Now?
The expansion of virtual learning also creates labor issues in the present day. First, it disincentivizes maintaining a full staff because students can take course offerings from another school, therefore reducing the number of teachers a school must employ to be “fully-staffed,” and facilitating budget cuts. The possibility of fully-online postings also means that prospective teachers will face greater competition for each job, making it even harder to enter the profession.
The corollary to competition for jobs is competition for students not just with other schools but with another, likely much easier, modality. In New York City, where school funding is tied to student enrollment, this competition for places will become a fight for the very survival of brick-and-mortar schools—precisely the market economics privatizers hope to create.
Third, the school-based voluntary online classes will become, as with many overtime opportunities, implicit expectations for teachers and especially newer teachers who lack tenure protections. Make no mistake that exercising the right not to teach these overtime classes will lead to lower ratings and early dismissals.
What Should We Fight For Instead?
First, it must be said that virtual learning is better for some students. Some students with disabilities and chronic immunosuppression are better able to access a high-quality education from the comfort of their homes, and we must fight for an education system that meets these needs. Much of the rhetoric supporting virtual learning, however, conflates this population with students who need to work, are caregivers for family members, are in temporary housing, or who have other socio-economic barriers to attending a traditional school building and schedule.
The two groups of students actually have different needs, though. While the former may need online schools to learn best, the solution to the latter set of barriers is not the destruction of brick-and-mortar schools but the expansion of transfer schools that are already designed to support students with alternative schedules, and a teacher’s union that demands universal access to good jobs, healthcare, and housing. Anecdotally, I had a student who loved online learning because he could work at his family’s deli while he was in class. It behooved neither our classroom discussions nor his learning to listen to people give their orders when he was supposed to be focused on the lesson, and the UFT should not indulge an exploitative system where so many students must work to help support their families.
Second, this giveback underscores the need to fight for a more democratic union. Though UFT President Michael Mulgrew claimed in a member townhall that remote learning was not a failure, every rank-and-file teacher I have spoken to (across the political spectrum) agrees that it was a failure for the vast majority of students. Had demands been developed from the bottom-up, there is no chance that this would have been included. If rank-and-file members had had a say in developing these demands, we would have ensured that the details of this giveback—the working conditions of virtual teachers, the selection criteria for schools and students for virtual learning, and what role the centrally-run online schools will have on the rest of the school system—are ironed out in public rather than through the newly-established and undemocratic Virtual Learning Management Committee (appointed labor management committees are a recurring apparatus in the new contract).
Finally, we must fight for the type of education that is adequate to the task of building a better world. Virtual learning en masse enshrines a banking concept of education in our contract because massive-scale online learning is only thinkable if one understands the primary purpose of education to be the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. If one holds other objectives such as building consciousness, learning to be in community, productive dialogue, inculcating an ethical orientation—in short, if one understands education to be in service of our liberation, it must integrate human beings in community with one another and the social context in which they have been raised and will continue to live. As we all know, this sort of community, and these relationships are nearly impossible to construct online. Of course, to be in a brick-and-mortar building is not by itself enough to fulfill this imperative; indeed, rather than open the door to for-profit privatization, the UFT needs to assertively demand time, resources, and contractual protection for developing and implementing the problem-posing pedagogy and liberatory curriculum that are necessary for the task at hand.