The Kids Are Going to be Fine
According to many, the next few decades will experience an unpredictable and probably catastrophic wave of stupidity.
Because in the last year, nearly every student worldwide has ‘fallen behind’ in school. According to the New York Times, drawing from a horde of education-focused university departments, consulting firms, and non-profit agencies, most students across the nation, in every school and every grade, have experienced at least a half-year’s loss of expected progress. According to Time magazine, the losses are worse, with a generation of students ‘sliding backwards’ up to a year in math and English growth, in effect actually regressing.
Few seem willing to predict the future effects of this deterioration, leaving it to the reader to vaguely brood. Nevertheless, a forecast is forbidding. Students, after all, are in school for the future, and if they are destined to enter that future missing essential ‘learning’, essential pieces of the education they are to ride into success, then we are in trouble. (Though the Wall Street Journal — paywall — does a decent job of marrying hysteria to liberals closing schools.)
Many details go unstated, but several school conditions paint an unsettling picture.
First, school is scheduled and inflexible. The curriculum moves forward inexorably. Defined by Standardized exams and various state-governed Standards (or Common Core), what is expected of each year’s learning is firm and fixed. Unless a student is held back (and the negative effects of that action are arguably worse than any benefit), it’s mostly up to them to pick up anything they miss in previous years. Perhaps without realizing it, we have come to believe that the growth of ‘learning’ is as married to some kind of natural order as any other growth. Not mastering fractions by 5th grade is akin to not hitting puberty by seventeen. It’s not a delay, it’s a defect.
Second, school is very, very finite. It ends at 12th grade and whatever age one might be at the end of that year. If a student has not mastered the material by then, any further education is almost deliberately beset by obstacles. It can be done, of course, but it isn’t easy. Access to college is immediately denied without remedial catch-up, but the student is also now financially responsible for their own life, a time and labor intensive effort that is doubly difficult by the absence of the very college degree they need to escape. Students who graduate without the expected skills are at a permanent disadvantage in a system designed around expectations about what they should know. And any continued education they want will be difficult or even impossible.
Third, college is now a fundamental necessity. The lifetime damage of not having a college degree, especially when compared to having one, cannot be overstated, nor even needs to be explained. If one doesn’t go to college these days, it’s not because they are unaware of the benefits. But getting into college and succeeding there are profoundly, fundamentally married to the inflexibly finite scheduling and measurements of secondary school.
And finally, conditions weren’t great even before the pandemic. Over half of community college students, and nearly a quarter at 4 year schools, require remedial courses, and only half of those ever actually get through them. The world of school was already on a precipice before the pandemic.
So there it is: the next generation, at least 13 year’s worth of students, those presently in kindergarten through 12th grade, stumbling into our future without the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed. Extrapolate from there: Who will take up the school-based work society demands? Not them. Who will advance our scientific achievement and economic growth? Not them. Who will need to care for them because of their stupidity? Why, everyone else.
Dire, but not true.
Simply. Not. True.
For one, school may be inflexible, but students are the opposite.
In every classroom I’ve ever taught over twenty years, middle school to college, I’ve had students performing grade levels below the material and grade levels above. A freshman high school English class will have kids writing university quality papers and kids who can barely string a sentence. But there’s no predicting the year. I’ve had students enter my classes seemingly hopeless, with skills that prevent them from understanding even the simplest concepts, then go on to excel. And I’ve had students enter with the greatest potential only to stumble far behind.
People learn fast or slow. Many students fall behind the material by weeks or months or years, and catch up in a matter of days or weeks. Many students never catch up and many are always ahead.
School may be inflexible, but its content is not sacred.
Despite the dictatorship over skill and content in every classroom, that authority does not mean students who do not learn it there or then are incapable or lost. Most can and will learn when and if the opportunity and circumstances should occur; they just may not learn what was taught in that classroom. A great deal of energy and effort is spent in schools on kids who struggle, but it’s an effort mostly directed at two concerns: ensuring the student is meeting the grade level expectations (or approaching them) and identifying whatever pathology or disorder stands in the way. But much of this depends on the assumption that the skill and content itself is an absolute necessity, and that any student who struggles to grasp that content is defective.
Learning is the opposite of biology. Growth and its measure is in no way defined or set, by school or anything else. Our own personal experience is proof enough; I’d wager that everyone reading this has learned much of what they’ve needed for success, both for work and personal accomplishment, outside the classroom. In fact, most what one actually needs to know for most jobs is learned at the job and through the work, not in school.
On the other hand, biological growth is most certainly real, and there is an interesting connection between the highly structured scheduling of school’s skills and content and the average student’s biology. Much of the curriculum of the classroom is more or less aligned with a child’s growth because school’s demands, like the body’s, grow increasingly complex. However, there is a significant difference between a student who isn’t developed enough to grasp the material and one who misses the learning during or after development. Biology is a useful analogy here. I may lack the fine motor skills to write letters at three years of age, but I can certainly learn to write letters at any age once development occurs. In fact, one might be astonished at how quickly an adult can pick up any skill relative to a still-growing child.
Much of the hysteria over students missing months of learning rests on the misconception that learning can only occur within a window of development, as if the capability only exists within some narrow time limit.
School is also not the only place young people learn. In fact, it’s not always the primary place they learn anymore. While most of our children develop literacy skills in the classroom, learning to read is almost impossible to avoid in the modern world. We most certainly lay a foundation of literacy in early classrooms, but every English teacher can tell you that their strongest readers (usually like the teachers themselves) truly learned on their own, through books they chose.
The modern world is an ocean of information, pouring through screen after screen, and our children are natural swimmers in it. Much of that information is text, and short of an actual disorder, nearly everyone quickly acquires fundamental literacy. (Success on school-centered reading, however, is a different beast.) A century of mandatory education is responsible for the modern world, but that education is neither vanishing nor the sole source. Not anymore, anyway.
College is a necessity, but it’s not at all the authority we think it is, because our universities serve us, not the other way around. Colleges are not going to simply close shop if most of their students arrive missing necessary skills. They will adapt and change. They will, if necessary, provide those skills.
College is a necessity, but that’s a demand which rests on the assumption that everyone is capable of acquiring whatever college is offering. If a student’s foundation is weak, it’s absurd to presume the only alternative is failure. The alternative is change.
A year of lost school is not some irretrievable or fatal catastrophe. Most kids are going to be fine.
However, when it comes to students who were at a disadvantage before the pandemic began — poor students in poor neighborhoods, minorities, from single parent households — the concern is real. If anything we should be more concerned than we are.
Here, the need for hysteria is justified. But the problem is not about missing time in the classroom. Yes, for the disadvantaged, school is the most consistently accessible route to security, but it is hardly certain. And it’s not guaranteed, and it’s often extremely difficult. School is just the best path available among a sea of difficult choices.
And yes, by every measurement, pandemic-related academic losses among disadvantaged students are greater than average, sometimes double. Perhaps most tellingly, the most advantaged students in America, from the richest families and neighborhoods, have NO Covid-related academic loss whatsoever and even gains.
And yes, getting into college and succeeding there are even more necessary for the disadvantaged than the wealthy, even as their admission and success are far more uncertain.
But blaming any future catastrophe on school is like blaming a leaky lifeboat for the ship’s sinking. School offers a safe passage out of poverty and uncertainty, but that doesn’t mean the absence of school is the reason for poverty in the first place.
Rich kids are doing fine missing a year of school, and they certainly aren’t losing their wealth or security for it. It’s also extremely unlikely that middle class kids will see any permanent damage from a year of lower test scores and failing classes. Many 2020 and 2021 graduates are taking a gap year or some such delay, but already admissions are ticking up, and the pandemic isn’t even over. At our most select colleges, applications have actually risen dramatically this last year, in part because one of the most significant barriers to middle class admissions, the SAT or ACT, are no longer required.
Our hysteria over missed school is just another convenient, easy way to continue faulting the disadvantaged for their own circumstances. We’ll comfort ourselves that the blame, this time, came from nature, but, well, you know, if they only didn’t miss that last year of school, and there’s little to be done now…
The poor kids are not going to be fine. But they never were, and it’s not because of school.