How Covid-19 Froze School Reform (Part 1)

Face-to-face schooling without minimal risk from getting infected with the coronavirus will be dicey until an approved vaccine shown to have high effectiveness and sufficient immunity is available to over 50 million students and nearly 4 million teachers.

Already two school years in the U.S. have been seriously impacted (March 2020 through January 2021). Effective vaccines, at best, will be available to Americans sometime in 2021. Shaking out data on which of the many vaccines being developed work best and provide mid- to-long-term immunity will occur throughout the calendar year of 2021. In short, until there is scientifically determined confidence that particular vaccines immunize children and adults at least three school years will be shot.

In such a stretch of time, forget about school reform. What Americans want is a swift return to “normalcy” and a new definition of “success”: Not high test scores, rates of graduation or admission to college, no, “success” will be just opening simply schoolhouse doors and having teachers teaching lessons.

Whoa! What about the sudden and massive turn to remote instruction for K-12 children and youth throughout spring and fall 2020? Isn’t that a reform?

No, it is not. Reforms are intentionally-designed changes aimed at improving what happens in schools. The immediate and national embrace of remote instruction was a necessity-driven, unsought change that upturned regular schooling? Yes, it is a change but not a reform.

The shutdown of schools threw educators for a loop in shifting from in-person to distance instruction. No one I know–even the most ardent cheerleader for online instruction–wanted nearly all U.S. students to work at home staring at screens during spring time and in the fall to the Xmas holidays.

Schooling, as Americans have surely known it, has, indeed, been “disrupted” But not in the way that Harvard’s Business School Professor Clayton Christensen had predicted over a decade ago.

As an Education Week journalist recalled recently: …the spread of technology-based innovations in K-12 bears little resemblance to the ambitious claims that outsiders have been making for years. Back in 2008, for example, innovation guru Clayton M. Christensen predicted in his much-hyped book Disrupting Class that half of all high school classes would be online by 2019, radically transforming the nature of public education.

No one, of course, could have (or did) predict a viral plague that still has no treatment (as I write in September) driving public schools to rely on distance instruction. Not half of “all high school classes,” as Christensen said, but nearly all U.S. students in 2020 are sitting in kitchens, living rooms, or bedrooms listening to their on-screen teachers and then tapping away at their keyboards to meet with small groups on-screen, and submitting their assignments. That is “disruption.”

Not in any planned, intentional way–the usual definition of a school reform–educators have mandated in over 13,000 school districts across the country the switch to remote instruction. School boards and superintendents were utterly dependent upon the expertise of health officials who themselves were uncertain about the nature of the catastrophic plague that had, by early September, already infected over five million Americans and killed nearly 200,000.

I cannot recall a historical case of such massive and quick change in schooling except for New Orleans. Surely, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 decimated parish schools; the state moved quickly to redesign the district by converting nearly all district schools into charters. These schools opened a year or so later. Students’ learning losses after being out of school for year or more were large (see here). Yet, according to some researchers, these schools’ test scores and graduation rates have improved (see here).

Funding and school organization definitely changed in New Orleans. The decades-long reform idea of parental choice dominated post-Katrina schooling. No other district in the U.S. that I know of has experienced such total and rapid change. If readers know of such Katrina-like transformations, please let me know.

Except for how New Orleans teachers teach. My hunch is that the rise in test scores and graduation rates mirrored teachers’ intense focus on insuring that students would do well on state tests. Which, if my guess is accurate, means a pedagogy close to traditional teacher-directed instruction dominated lessons. In all of the studies I have looked at regarding New Orleans after Katrina, I have yet to find one that takes up the simple question of: how do most New Orleans teachers in these charters teach? Again, if readers know of such studies of teaching in New Orleans, please let me know.

Covid-19’s rapid spread across the nation led to the warp-like speed of shifting from face-to-face classroom interactions to Zoomed remote instruction. Unlike most reforms that are introduced in a few classrooms or as pilot projects to determine what bugs have to remedied, online instruction smacked everyone between the eyes immediately.

Is, then, this embrace, reluctant as it may be, a school reform? Necessity, not ideology, school planning and systematic trials, drove the dramatic change. Because U.S. schools before Covid-19 were already managing different reforms, the coronavirus halted ongoing efforts to improve schooling, putting current ones in a deep freeze.

In subsequent posts I will take up the array of school reforms in BC (Before Covid), DC (During Covid), and AC (After Covid).



Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies, technology use

5 responses to “How Covid-19 Froze School Reform (Part 1)

  1. Douglas Harris has a new book about NO, so I asked him on Twitter. The full conversation is here:

    Basically, some teacher and student survey data “Neither of these is probably quite what Larry is looking for (or quite what we want to know). But I still think they’re informative. I summarize Study #1 & some other anecdotal evidence in my new book #CharterSchoolCity”

    Teachers’ Perspectives on Learning and Work Environments under the New Orleans School Reforms

    Voices of New Orleans Youth: What Do the City’s Young People Think About Their Schools and Communities?

  2. Candice Nance

    I appreciate your article on the possible similarities between learning loss of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the current coronavirus pandemic. It will be unfathomable to think about how the same losses could eventually be seen worldwide and not just in one locality. Initially, when the pandemic was in the early stages in spring, I recall reading an article from ABC in Australia ( that referenced John Hattie’s review of what happened to student learning after the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011 in New Zealand.

    Teachers were hyper-focused on what curriculum was essential for students to learn instead of cramming in a lot of curriculum. Thus, students performed better on final exams in New Zealand.

    However, the ABC article also claims that “it was similar after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, when students missed up to seven weeks of school.” This contrasts with your article above.

    While I know enough about the situation to respect that I don’t know much at all, I’m curious to see what the outcomes will be for children throughout the world, including my own. While I cannot predict the future (and let’s face it, no one really can) I hope that as families, children, and teachers struggle to tread water this year (and beyond should the pandemic last multiple years) that we also look for any silver lining in what we can learn from these disruptions in education. While the good might not outweigh the bad for education in the pandemic, we still must identify even the smallest of innovations that we can adopt permanently going forward post-pandemic if they improve learning for children.

    • larrycuban

      I found your link to the ABC article and John Hattie’s comments on school closures after the Christ Church earthquake helpful, Candace. Thanks for the link and your comments.

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