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Not remotely fair

The Wall Street Journal has a lot to learn about remote education

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So if the highly regarded Wall Street Journal, in a lengthy and spacious front-page feature, proclaimed to the world that you had utterly failed when you recently took on the hardest challenge of your life—how would you respond?

That’s pretty much what the Journal did in mid-June, I think, when it used a Page 1 headline to declare: “The Results Are In for Remote Learning: It Didn’t Work.” The subhead on the second page stressed the same point: “Remote Learning Falls Short.”

But not all “remote learning” is alike, of course. And for thousands of WSJ readers who are also loyal homeschoolers, the article came across as a careless slur against a tried-and-true educational model. WSJ reporters Tawnell Hobbs and Lee Hawkins should have stressed early on that their focus was almost exclusively on the “remote learning” used nationwide to respond—at the last minute—to school closures for most of the spring months. That important distinction would have helped greatly.

But, of course, what happened between February and June of this year was hardly an even test of the capabilities of remote learning. Cobbled together by educators who had never spent 10 minutes leading any form of “distance education,” the project was set up for failure before it got off the ground. Many, if not most, of the participants had no confidence at all in the experiment they were asked to direct.

The Hobbs and Hawkins feature includes precious little hard data.

That is why reporters Hobbs and Hawkins had to beg the question by including the perspective of Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District: “We all know,” he said, “that there’s no substitute for learning in a school setting, and many students are struggling and falling far behind where they should be.”

But if “we all know” this, what is the discussion all about? And doesn’t early June strike us all as a bit early to be evaluating an academic semester that hasn’t even ended yet? Aren’t we jumping the gun when we declare “The Results Are In for Remote Learning: It Didn’t Work”? Might a thoughtful “progress report” have shown a bit more inclination to hear every side of the story?

As it is, the Hobbs and Hawkins feature includes precious little hard data from which the reader can begin to form opinions. When it does, the data prove pretty soft: “Preliminary research suggests students nationwide will return to school in the fall with roughly 70 percent of learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, and less than 50 percent in math, according to projections by NWEA, an Oregon-based nonprofit that provides research to help educators tailor instruction.”

But words like “preliminary” and “projections” seem a little squishy to serve as foundations for headlines proclaiming that “results are in.”

The Hobbs-Hawkins article is also flawed by including several categories of “exceptional” students as if they were harder for remote teachers to deal with than traditional teachers. Included was the mother of an autistic son, another a teacher concerned about the likelihood of cheating by remote students, and yet another self-conscious about her own fairness in awarding grades. But if these remain from year to year as problems in traditional settings, they should hardly be included in a report on the limitations of remote learning in the wildly sensational days of COVID-19. “Exceptional” students are just that—exceptional.

Why does it matter? Because in a variety of ways, remote learning will for a variety of reasons be playing a bigger and bigger role in the years ahead in the families of WORLD readers. That will be true in public school settings, traditional Christian schools, and homeschools.

There will be problems along the way—some seen as so serious that a number of folks will back off and look for something else. But there’s no reason to let that number be unduly inflated by overly negative reports in The Wall Street Journal.

Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.


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