The Sickness in Our Schools: Corona and the Logic of Human Capital (Ethan Hutt)

Ethan Hutt is a professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thanks to David Labaree for posting this on his blog.

An old New Yorker cartoon has come to my mind repeatedly over the last nine months as I’ve talked with colleagues, students, and the occasional reporter who has called to ask what the pandemic will mean for American education. The cartoon depicts a Godzilla-like monster rampaging through a city. Smoke billowing in the background, the monster holds a decapitated skyscraper in one claw and the other is about to create a matching pair. On the city street below, it’s mayhem. Cars have been swallowed up by a wave of people fleeing in panic. In the foreground, at the head of the fleeing crowd, an exasperated man in a suit and tie yells out to his colleague, “Just when citywide reading scores were edging up!” Nothing ruins a joke like explaining it, but every detail of the cartoon is perfect: the man ruing the unfortunate timing of the beast’s arrival (as if there was an ideal time to destroy a city); his absurdly qualified lament (“reading scores” not even reading and math!; “edging up not even “improving”!); and, of course, the inability of the unfolding scene to shake his usual fixations. The overall effect is perfectly calibrated satire: What better way to mock America’s ritualized hysteria over minor fluctuations in standardized test scores than to set them against the backdrop of an actually unfolding catastrophe?

Godzilla Cartoon

Of course, what makes satire funny is the perceptive over-exaggeration that highlights the absurdity of something that normally passes without comment. Surely, if we were really faced with a Godzilla-sized disruption to our daily life, Americans, or at least our elected officials, would forgo our usual concerns in favor of some new perspectives, right? The upending of our normal expectations would be a moment for sober reflection or bold reimagining, no? Based on the events of the last few months (and counting), I’m suddenly not so sure. Consider the following headlines that have recently appeared in American news outlets: “New York City Teachers Worry about ‘Covid Slide’”; “Yes, Teachers are Still Being Evaluated. Many Say It’s Unfair”; “Georgia School Superintendent Blasts Federal Decision to Resume Testing During Pandemic”; and “Student Test Scores Drop in Math Since Covid-19 Pandemic.” This final headline, from the Wall Street Journal, comes complete with a subhead that includes the kind of tortured test score parsing that even a satirist might consider overkill. “Readings skills are modestly behind in some grades in an analysis of widely used tests for elementary and middle school students” (emphasis mine). These headlines bespeak a general refusal to budge from our normal concerns about maintaining annual standardized test scores — a refusal that, I think, offers the first important clue about what Corona “means” for educational research.

The unwillingness to break from our current paradigm and the insistence from our research colleagues that conducting “normal science” during a once in a century pandemic is both appropriate and can provide insight (as if these findings and effects could be generalized to other moments) suggests how deeply wedded we are to our current ways of seeing.

Astute scholars have noted the trend toward the “medicalization” of education research during the Cold War, a move in which the system itself becomes naturalized and researchers content themselves to monitoring key system indicators in the hopes of discerning the “effects” of various disruptions and interventions. It is, perhaps, poetic then that a global pandemic would provide the example par excellence of the consequences of this development: Despite the radical disruption of school routines, of modes of learning, and of the lives of children and their families, education researchers only have space to categorize school responses and quantify learning loss. Now, it would seem, is not the time for deep reflection and systematic reform — to ask about root causes of inequality or what “public” can be served in the absence of collective sacrifice — but instead for a demonstration that this, too, can be described, explained, and, perhaps, addressed through our commitment to standards and test scores. Does anyone seriously doubt that the next release of PISA/TIMSS scores will include a whole series of analyses explaining how changes in the league tables should be understood as indicators of the ineffectiveness/effectiveness of a nation’s Corona response?

We can already see this logic unfolding among scholars and policymakers. Among the most radical suggestions proffered in the wake of the pandemic is for districts to use this disruption to end the practice of social promotion and strictly enforce the existing learning standards — even if it means retaining the vast majority of students in their current grades. An alternative suggestion, in a similar vein, offers that districts engage in a widescale “do-over” and simply pretend the last year never happened. Under this scheme, when society returns to normal sometime in 2021 (hopefully), everyone will simply resume where they left off in the Spring of 2020. This proposal raises the charge that standards are contextless or disembodied to a whole new level. Here the standards would not only exist out of time but take part in actively erasing it — as if a literal year of human development could only count if it happened in accordance with the pre-planned standards. And people used to critique Cold War analysts for being unable to cope with uncertainty! To my knowledge they never sought to deny the passage of time.

My own counter-proposal is that rather than hold the students back a year to accommodate the standards, we move the standards to accommodate the students. This can be done quite simply by moving every standard and accompanying standardized test up one grade. The 5th grade standard will now be used on 6th graders; the 6th grade standard on 7th graders, et cetera up through the system. In this way the “learning loss” problem can be nullified at the stroke of an administrative pen.

Though made in jest, at least my suggestion acknowledges the essentially arbitrary character of the standards. If we can rewrite standards with each panic over PISA scores or each time business leaders or retired military brass or graying public officials declare our nation is at risk, then why can’t we unilaterally adjust our standards in the midst of a pandemic? Sadly, as of this writing, the proposal has yet to gain traction. It was probably too much to hope for that a Cold War logic that managed to outlive the Cold War itself could be done in by even a global virus. It would seem, therefore, that standards and test scores are set to endure as are the ensuing debates about the “real” size of the pandemic “learning losses” and its unique contribution to the achievement gap.

Though at least part of what Corona means for education research is an opportunity to conduct “business as usual,” there are other places where cracks in the prevailing Cold War logic of educational research and policy may be beginning to show. The elaborate machinery America has built to establish standards and conduct annual testing — the ones we remain so wedded to — have long been justified and powered by our deep faith in schools as the wellsprings of human capital. “As our schools go,” our leaders say, “‘so goes the economy.” Given that this statement has become an axiom in public policy for at least the last half century, it has been interesting to watch the pitched battle playing out in cities and states across America over which “public” spaces should be given highest priority to reopen among the set of bars, restaurants, gyms, salons, and schools. Despite compelling evidence that schools pose the smallest health risk and bars and restaurants the highest, in city after city, it has been bars and restaurants that have been allowed to reopen while schoolhouse gates remain tightly locked. Exasperated education scholars (many of them parents) have taken to Twitter to lobby for inverting this order using the hashtag #SchoolsBeforeBars — but with little effect. The insistence that students stay at home while diners and bar patrons are encouraged to return has led one commentator to quip, “Can the kids go to school in restaurants?”

None of this response might seem hard to explain given the immediate economic hardship faced by business owners and the speculative, long-term economic benefits of children returning to school, but it is worth remembering how insistent Americans have been for decades — centuries even — that we must resist direct economic social aid to those in need and instead deliver our assistance in the form of schooling and educational opportunity. Even the last economic meltdown generated not a moratorium on home foreclosures but a push to institute “financial literacy” courses in schools, implying that it was unbalanced checkbooks and not exotic financial investment vehicles that led to the global recession. Corona might be the first widescale social problem where there has not been an immediate attempt to educationalize the problem — at least not yet.

Treating the human and economic toll of the pandemic as a social problem instead of a morality tale of individual responsibility might create space not only for an appropriately sized governmental response but also for an opportunity for educationalists to engage in a bit of self-reflection about the broader purpose of our enterprise. No longer encumbered by concerns about the responsibility to secure the economic futures of our children and our country, we might be able to engage in the kind of conversations that are usually crowded out by concerns about “economic competitiveness,” “college readiness,” and “21st century skills”. We might, for once, actually have conversations about justice, virtue, self-realization, or citizenship in which the disagreements are not scored or adjudicated in terms of the value and cost of human capital.

Should the legacy of Corona be the ebbing of human capital considerations and the reemergence of value considerations of a different sort, the historical irony would be considerable. After all, it was an expansive view of the state “police power” — the right of the state to restrict personal liberty in order to protect and promote the health, safety, morals, and welfare of the people — that was initially used to justify compulsory schooling (and compulsory vaccination!) in 19th century America. The invocation of the common good to direct public energies to the education of individual citizens ultimately had the unintended consequence of solidifying ideas about the importance of individual educational opportunity at the expense of a broader view of social welfare. But now, in the present day, it would be the inability or unwillingness of the state to exercise its police power to mitigate a global pandemic that has produced such an untenable situation that discussions of the social, economic welfare of society and education policy must finally be disentangled!

I confess that this possibility remains remote even as our “war against Corona” becomes among the deadliest of America’s martial conflicts. Even so, it is fun to reimagine how an alternative caption to the New Yorker cartoon might take aim at such a prospect critiquing not only our obsession with test scores but our faith that schools could solve the economic destruction wrought by the monster. “At least he likes skyscrapers not school buses!” the man might quip. Or “I hope the schools can still open on Monday!” Or, the most true to current policy, “Thank goodness we’ve equalized educational opportunity for some students in certain parts of the city!” If any of these captions were to materialize, we could thank the Corona for helping us diagnose our core educational maladies.

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