As a tempered optimist about the power of schools to shape the lives of both adults and children, this post, I confess, will depress readers. Stop reading if you already feel blue during the pandemic.
I have no upbeat news. For schools, as for the rest of the economy, the news is downbeat. Uncertainty continues to surround any prevention and treatment of Covid-19. The lack of any coherent guidelines for opening schools and proper ways of dealing with the stubborn virus from the President and U.S. Secretary of Education is shocking in its negligence of an institution critical to the nation’s future.
Of even greater importance is that the President and Congress have yet to agree on a stimulus package to reduce unemployment and rescue small and medium-sized businesses from permanent closure. And with the election weeks away, chances of another federally funded trillion dollar-plus infusion into the economy, including schools is, well, dim. Already states–the primary funder of public schools across the nation’s 13,000-plus districts–have begun to either maintain (rather than raise) funding or include cuts in school funding for K-12 schools (see here and here).
Recovery from the pandemic recession may take longer than the previous Great Recession in 2008. The bounce back in state funding after the Great Recession has yet to occur (see here ). As the federal government continues to delay action until January when either Donald Trump or Joe Biden is inaugurated President, the situation worsens.
So schools for 2020-2021 and the following year will have to retrench. “Retrench” is a euphemism for laying off school employees, half of whom are teachers.
And laying off employees occurs at a time when taxpayers and parents continue their beliefs in schools graduating young men and women ready to enter the workforce, not unemployment lines, and thereby strengthen the economy. Even when remote instruction and limited in-person interaction are happening across 13,000-plus districts and nearly 100,000 schools in the U.S. these beliefs persist.
The existing standards-based testing and accountability regime in place across the 50 states and territories date back to the reform movement triggered by the 1983 report A Nation at Risk connecting the quality of schooling to the strength of the nation’s economy. Although such beliefs have been in the educational bloodstream since the early 20th century when vocational education was introduced into U.S. schools, these current beliefs in how schools can bolster the economy at the same time as decreasing youth unemployment are also part of the ideology that civic officials and policy entrepreneurs continue during the pandemic.
Parsing that ideology may help clear the air about the past and current direction of public schools insofar as being linked to the economy. Politicians and policymakers shuttle back and forth between two theories about how schools can grow the economy and, simultaneously, reduce unemployment among young people.
These theories continue during the pandemic although asking corporate and civic leaders about these underlying beliefs may yield blank stares since few political and business leaders, educational policymakers and practitioners realize how ideologies are at the heart of the standards, testing, and accountability movement in place for nearly four decades.
The first theory goes by the short-hand phrase “math-and-ATMs.” The heart of the theory is that high school graduates lack the right skills for today’s companies who want highly skilled employees. Teachers didn’t teach and students didn’t absorb–think math and science courses–or learn how to use the new generation of hardware and software technologies. Yes, the metaphor of those Automated Teller Machines replacing bank tellers speak to the millions of low- and semi-skilled jobs that have disappeared in the past two decades.
This theory is favored by business leaders, politicians and policymakers because this problem can be fixed: more math and science in elementary and secondary curricula and more technology use in schools. In this way, students get the knowledge and skills to enter the labor market in an ever-changing economy.
But there is another theory that has much less to do with schools that also explains high unemployment and defects in the economy. This is, as Ezra Klein puts it, “nobody-is-buying-anything” theory. Slow economic growth and high unemployment, the theory goes, is due to the huge debt load that U.S. consumers carry from mortgages, foreclosures, student loans, and credit cards. Consumers are not buying, employers are not hiring which then means that Americans have less money to spend–and you can fill in the rest of the cycle. Multiple outcomes of this argument for what is occurring during the pandemic.
Here the policy solution is for the government to step in and cut taxes, create new jobs and fund existing ones (e.g., construction, teachers, police and fire) and help both businesses and consumers get out of debt–what was called the “stimulus” legislation during 2008 and now the first CARES Act in March 2020 (but no subsequent relief since then). Once that happens, government spending eases and federal officials turn to paying down the national debt.
Of the two theories, “math-and-ATMs” wins out every time. Why? Because politicians and policymakers know in their gut and from polls that talking about improving schools, better test scores, and college-and-career ready graduates is much easier to do. Easier than doing what?
Easier than passing a new “stimulus” bill in a polarized political climate where new jobs are created and aid to businesses occur. That no relief bill has passed since March and none appear ready to occur before November 3rd, the nation waits. As nothing occurs at the federal level, more children and families slip into poverty and Covid-19 continues its rampage. And the standards, testing accountability reforms put into place over past decades remains the reform du jour.
Of course, policymakers can pursue both theories–government stimulating the economy and upgrading what students learn but, for now during a crippling pandemic that has cratered the economy, one theory of schools and its linkage to the economy continues to dominate policy talk and action. And that dominant theory distracts Americans’ attention from the oncoming train wreck of laid off teachers and support staff, and reductions in school services . And most important, little attention paid to what needs to be done politically outside schools.