Issues to think about for the overall wellness of your children. When we cancel school what is it doing to our children overall?
COVID-19 Took Away Public Education. Will We Miss It?
Aweek after COVID-19 prompted the closure of Virginia’s schools, my five-year-old’s Montessori teacher started doing 30 minutes of Zoom with the class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. The content is nothing to write home about. The teacher reads a story, talks a bit about daffodils or frogs, and might celebrate a kid’s birthday.
But, you know what? The first morning, Grayson was utterly transfixed. He shyly extended his hand to touch his teacher’s face on the iPad. He giggled when she said good morning to him. He bounced as he pointed out each classmate in his or her little Zoom box. Watching this, I found myself choking back tears.
Humans are social creatures. A primary task for schools is to help ensure that socialization takes a productive, healthy direction. That’s been widely recognized at least since Plato first sketched his fascist fantasy of schooling in The Republic. Even before the coronavirus, schools have been taking on more and more of this burden as civil society has atrophied, with schools asked to play the role once more widely shouldered by churches, Boy Scout troops, and 4-H clubs.
But socialization is hardly the only purpose of schooling: Schools are also, of course, the places where we expect youth to learn the knowledge, skills, and habits needed to be responsible, autonomous citizens. Lots of adults in a community — from cousins to coaches — may be able to mentor a kid or provide a shoulder to cry on. Few, outside of educators, are prepared to coherently teach algebra, biology, or Spanish.
Schools have always struggled to balance these two missions. Indeed, one can read the story of American education as one of tension between the social and the academic.
Benjamin Rush, signatory of the Declaration of Independence and founder of Dickinson College, may be the poster boy for this distinction. In his “Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania,” Rush called for a free school to be established in every Pennsylvania township and for universal education to be provided at public expense.
But Rush’s aim was not universal learning — which he feared would breed dissatisfaction among the lower classes. Rush cautioned, “Should [learning] become universal it would be as destructive to civilization as universal barbarism.” He insisted that basic literacy and numeracy was enough; his primary concern was “to convert men into republican machines” programmed for the demands of commerce and self-government. In other words, his primary interest was to socialize citizens, not educate them.
Now, from the vantage point of 2020, it’s clear that Rush was wrong about universal learning. In the information economy, education and knowledge are the handmaidens of opportunity — even if it’s also true that this state of affairs has been transformed by employment law, corporate hiring departments, and colleges into a protection racket requiring would-be workers to purchase expensive pieces of (now-virtual) parchment. But don’t let all of this distract from the larger point — which is that schools are social as well as academic institutions.
In recent years, the socializing mission of schools has faced a two-pronged assault. First, over the decades, attacks by the Left on norms and the American project have yielded school systems disinclined to set forth a muscular vision of personal or civic responsibility. Lawsuits have left schools leery of exerting firm discipline. Disputes over everything from Christmas to parenting have left educators defensive and prone to political correctness. And critiques of America’s “racist” past have left schools loath to teach history or civics in ways that might appear unduly prideful or patriotic.
And then came 21st-century school reformers, who got so enamored of their push to improve reading and math scores that they often turned neglectful when it came to the social mission of schools. Indeed, after the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, math and reading scores often served as the definitive measure of good schools or good teaching.
Bush secretary of education Margaret Spellings memorably defended NCLB as “99.9 percent pure.” This was so even as NCLB’s myopic focus on reading and math scores meant that more than half of the nation’s schools were labeled as “failing” — at a time when most parents continued to give their local schools an “A” or a “B.” Obama secretary of education Arne Duncan similarly insisted, “If we know how much students are gaining each year . . . we will know which teachers and principals are succeeding.” This became so familiar that it was easy to stop noticing how bizarre it was to see public officials labeling schools as “successful” or “failing” without regard to what parents thought, the status of civics or citizenship instruction, or anything other than reading and math scores.
Fast-forward to today: The striking thing about the pandemic-induced school shutdown is how little of the response to it had to do with the way we’ve talked about schools for most of the past two decades. In a matter of weeks, coronavirus-fueled closures reminded everyone of all the purposes that schools serve that aren’t captured by test scores. In fact, one of current secretary of education Betsy DeVos’s first, and most popular, moves was to waive the federal requirement for state testing.
To repeat, schools have been given a dual charge: academic and social. Schools enable parents to work, ease the burden on families, allow kids to gather and interact under the eye of responsible adults, and organize activities that give kids a productive outlet for their energy. I’ve been told of communities in which teachers are walking in parks with signs telling their students how much they miss them, while parents bring their kids to wave, cheer, and see that they’re still there. This is the raw, primal stuff of community and human connectedness.
The shutdown has been a stark reminder that we’ve also tasked schools with providing a vast web of social supports and services — from health care to counseling to meal service. Just take food: America’s schools are a primary source of food for millions of students in the free- and reduced-price lunch program. As the massive national database compiled by my American Enterprise Institute colleague Nat Malkus shows, within two weeks of schools’ being closed, more than 80 percent of them were providing some type of meal service, and 30 percent were delivering meals to kids.
While the dual mandate means that the demands on schools are great, this should not excuse schools when they fail to rise to the challenge — now or in the normal course of events. Valuing public education’s role isn’t a call to cut schools some slack. And the truth is that, in far too many communities, schools have come up short in response to the coronavirus. Three weeks after schools started closing, the Center for Reinventing Public Education’s tracking of 82 major school systems drolly reported that “most districts are still not providing any instruction.”
Then there are state and district mandarins who’ve gotten tangled up in misbegotten notions of equity, leading too many school districts to announce that they’ll stop teaching new content or skills. Virginia’s Arlington Public Schools, a deep-pocketed, heralded school system, dryly explained, “As part of our commitment to ensuring equity of access to new learning for all students, concepts that students would have normally learned during the fourth quarter will be introduced in September.” In other words, since it couldn’t be confident that instruction would be evenly distributed or that every child would have access, Arlington — like many other districts — directed its teachers not to cover any new content while teaching remotely in April, May, or June.
And then there have been the predictable frustrations with teachers’ unions and education bureaucracies. The president of the L.A. teachers’ union chose a pandemic-induced school shutdown as the opportune moment to renew his assault on charter schools. Meanwhile, the union and the Los Angeles school system negotiated a deal whereby teachers would receive full pay in return for working four hours a day, at times of their choosing, and with no obligation to provide online instruction. In response to district officials worried about losing students, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Oregon nonsensically have barred new enrollment in virtual charter schools, even as parents search for good virtual options.
Even where instruction is up and running, on-the-fly distance education is often a dismal experience for most kids and parents. (This is a very different question from the value of purposeful, well-designed virtual instruction.) In an unsurprising finding, Kaplan has reported that 71 percent of parents worry that kids learning remotely are “distracted from their schoolwork by social media apps and video games.”
Obviously, given all that’s going on, it’s a safe bet that the learning loss will be substantial. As the University of Texas’s Paul von Hippel recently explained in the journal Education Next,
when students returned to New York City schools after the two-month strike of 1968, their test scores were about two months lower, on average, than children’s scores the previous year. French-speaking Belgian students affected by the 1990 strike were more likely to repeat a grade and did not advance as far in higher education as similar Flemish-speaking students whose teachers did not strike. Test scores fell sharply among New Orleans–area children whose schools closed because of Hurricane Katrina.
But given the social purpose of education, this conversation should be about more than just lost instruction. After all, most Americans think about their schools — district, charter, or private — as community institutions. They cherish those communities and relationships. This is why it’s so profoundly irresponsible for the superintendent of Washington State to publicly muse, “Short of a vaccine, which people continue to tell us is twelve to eighteen months away, we have to figure out if it’s safe to come back even in the fall.”
Look, of course educational leaders need to respect the dictates of public health and protect students. But, when faced with a crisis, medical leaders responded to COVID-19 by scrambling to add ICU beds, acquire ventilators, and care for every patient. They didn’t muse that, in four or five months, they might or might not be up to the task.
This isn’t the time for education leaders to hem and haw. It’s the time for creative thinking about how to best fulfill the dual mandate with which public education is charged. What’s passing for distance learning is a shoddy stopgap for addressing, at best, one-half of that mandate. And if leaders in any state or school are not up to the challenge, they should just turn their funds over to families so they can find schools that are.