Category Archives: Reforming schools

The History of the Future of Education (Audrey Watters)

From Audrey Watters’s self-description:

I am an education writer, an independent scholar, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech’s Cassandra.

“It’s a long story,” I often say. You can catch snippets of it, if you pay attention. I’ve got a CV if you care about such formalities. And I wrote an FAQ if that helps.

I love science fiction, tattoos, and, some days, computer technologies. I loathe mushy foods and romantic comedies. I’m not ashamed to admit I like ABBA and dislike Tolkien. I am somewhat ashamed to admit I’ve not finished Ulysses, and I’ve never even started Infinite Jest. I prefer cake to pie, unless we’re talking pastry projectiles. I pick fights on the Internet. I’m a high school dropout and a PhD dropout. I have a Master’s degree in Folklore and was once considered the academic expert on political pie-throwing. I was (I am?) a widow. I’m a mom. I have a hard stare that I like to imagine is much like Paddington Bear’s and a smirk much like the Cheshire Cat’s. I am not afraid.

I travel as much as I possibly can. “Home,” at least according to my driver’s license, is Seattle, Washington.

My essays have appeared in multiple places, but mostly I write on my blog Hack Education. I’ve published four collections of my public talks, The Monsters of Education Technology (2014), The Revenge of the Monsters of Education Technology (2015), The Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology (2016), and The Monsters of Education Technology 4, as well as a book arguing that students should control their digital identities and digital work, Claim Your Domain. I’m in the middle of writing my next book, Teaching Machines, which will be published by MIT Press.

I was a recipient of a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University School of Journalism for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Watters’ post on the future of education was a talk delivered at Ryerson University. The post appeared February 19, 2015

It’s a refrain throughout my work: we are suffering from an amnesia of sorts, whereby we seem to have forgotten much of the history of technology. As such, we now tell these stories about the past, present, and future whereby all innovations emerge from Silicon Valley, all innovations are recent innovations, and there is no force for change other than entrepreneurial genius and/or the inevitability of “disruptive innovation.”

This amnesia seeps from technology into education and education technology. The rich and fascinating past of education is forgotten and erased in an attempt to tell a story about the future of education that emphasizes products not processes, the private not the public, “skills” not inquiry. The future of education technology therefore is the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities because the history of education technology has always been the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities. Or so the story goes.

I’ve been working on a book for a while now called Teaching Machines that explores the history of education technology in the twentieth century. And this year I’ve started a series on my blog, Hack Education, that also documents some of this lost or forgotten history. (I’ve looked at the origins of multiple choice tests and multiple choice testing machines, the parallels between the “Draw Me” ads and for-profit correspondence schools of the 1920s and today’s MOOCs, and the development of one of my personal favorite pieces of ed-tech, the Speak & Spell.) See, I’m exhausted by the claims by the latest batch of Silicon Valley ed-tech entrepreneurs and their investors that ed-tech is “new” and that education — I’m quoting from the New York Times here — “is one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology.” Again, this is a powerful and purposeful re-telling and revising of history designed to shape the direction of the future.

Of course, these revisionist narratives shouldn’t really surprise us. We always tell stories of our past in order to situate ourselves in the present and guide ourselves into the future. But that means these stories about education and education technology — past, present, future — really matter.

I’m particularly interested in “the history of the future of education,” or as what Matt Novak calls his blog, the “paleofuture.” How have we imagined the future of teaching and learning in the past? What can we learn by looking at the history of predictions about the future, in our case about the future of education? Whose imagination, what ideologies do these futures reflect? How do these fantasies shape the facts, the future?

This is perhaps one of the most cited examples of the “paleofuture” of education technology.

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This 1910 print is by the French artist Villemard and was part of a series “En l’an 2000” (“In the Year 2000”) from around the World’s Fair and the new century that was packaged in cigar and cigarette boxes. Here we see the teacher stuffing textbooks — L’Histoire de France — into a machine, where the knowledge is ostensibly ground up and delivered electronically into the heads of students. Arguably this image is so frequently cited because it confirms some of our beliefs and suspicions (our worst suspicions) about the future of education: that it’s destined to become mechanized, automated and that it’s designed based on a belief that knowledge — educational content — is something to be delivered. Students’ heads are something to be filled.

The other prints in this series are pretty revealing as well.

I’m fond of the flying firefighters.

In these images, we see the future imagined as humans conquering the sky and the sea, as more and more labor is done by machine.

It’s worth noting that quite often (but not always) the labor we imagine being replaced by machine is the labor that society does not value highly. It’s menial labor. It’s emotional labor. The barber. The housekeeper. The farm girl. So it’s interesting, don’t you think, when we see these pictures and predictions that suggest that more and more teaching will be done by machine. Do we value the labor of teaching? And also: do we value the labor of learning?

Thomas Edison famously predicted in 1913 that “Books will soon be obsolete in schools” – but not because books were to be ground up by a knowledge mill. Rather, Edison believed that one of the technological inventions he was involved with and invested in – the motion picture – would displace both textbooks and teachers alike.

“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks,” Edison asserted in 1922. “I should say that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture… where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.”

100% efficiency. Efficiency. What does that even mean? Because unexamined, this prediction, this goal for education has become an undercurrent of so many predictions about the future of teaching and learning as enhanced by technology. Efficiency.

It gets to the heart of that Villemard print too: this question of how we get the knowledge of the book or the instructor into all students’ brains as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The future: cheaper and faster. More mechanized. More technological.

This is the history of education technology throughout the twentieth century. It is the history of the future of education.

Radio. Radio Books. Lectures via television (This image is from 1935). Professor as transmitter. Students as receivers.

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“The Push-Button School of Tomorrow”(from 1958):

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From Popular Science in 1961, a prediction that by 1965, half of all students will use teaching machines.

The Autotutor or “Automated Schoolmarm” (from the 1964 World’s Fair):

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Also from 1964, the Answer Machine:

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From a 1981 book School, Work and Play (World of Tomorrow):

“If we look further into the future, there could be no schools and no teachers. Schoolwork may not exist. Instead you will have to do homework, for you will learn everything at home using your home video computer. You’ll learn a wide range of subjects quickly and at a time of day to suit you. … The computer won’t seem like a machine. It will talk to you just like a human teacher, and also show you pictures to help you learn. You’ll talk back, and you’ll be able to draw your own pictures on the computer screen with a light pen. This kind of homework of the future will be more like playing an electronic game than studying with books. …Eventually, studying a particular subject will be like having the finest experts in the world teaching you. Far in the future, if computers develop beyond humans in intelligence, then the experts could in fact be computers, and not human beings at all!”

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1981. 2015. A very similar fantasy of the future.

I didn’t have this book growing up, but my brother had something similar: The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog, published in 1982. We spent hours pouring over its pages, imagining what our “whole future” would entail. Flying cars and moon colonies.

Education is, quite arguably, caught in a difficult position when it comes to these sorts of predictions about the future – and it’s a position that makes education seem intransigent. See, education is – almost necessarily as we have the system constructed today – trapped by being both backwards-facing and forwards-facing. That is, education institutions are tasks with introducing students to domains of knowledge – all of which have history, a past – all the while are tasked too with preparing students for the future – a future in which, according to some stories at least, knowledge is still unknown and undiscovered. As such, there is this inevitable panic and an inevitable tension about education, knowledge, conservation, and innovation.

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This image from 1982 was part of a series about the future of computers commissioned by Alan Kay when he went to work for Atari. Here we see some of the earliest visions from Silicon Valley of the personal computer in the classroom. The future of education here is technological. It is branded. It is game-based. There are still desks in rows and clusters. And students still rebel.

When we look back at all these predictions from the past about the future of education – the history of the future of ed-tech– the point (my point) isn’t that our education systems are reluctant to change. My point is not that schools have failed to fulfill the sci fi imagination. Indeed, I’d argue that schools have changed a lot over the last hundred years thanks to the law, not to technology: mandates for desegregation for example that would not have come from “code.” My point is that the imagination about the future is so very intertwined in our notions of the past and the present. And if we let Silicon Valley, for example, erase the history of education technology, if we allow Silicon Valley to dictate the present terms for education technology, then we are stuck with its future, its corporate, libertarian vision. The same could be said, of course, of the imaginations of other powerful institutions: Hollywood’s vision of the future, Hanna Barbera’s, Harvard’s.

All the visions of the future of education, the future of teaching, the future of work, the future of learning are ideological. They are also political. As we hear the visions of politicians and entrepreneurs, as we listen to the visions of the rest of today’s speakers, we need to remember that. Predictions about the future are not neutral. They are not objective. They are invested. Invested in a past and a present and a future. Invested in a certain view of what learning looks like now, what it has looked like before and what – thanks to whatever happens in the future – what it might look like going forward.

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Teachers I Respect and Admire–Roberta Rabinoff Kaplan

I met Roberta Rabinoff in 1964 after she returned from serving in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English in a rural school. She entered the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, a federally funded program located in a nearly all-Black high school taught by a largely Black staff in Washngton, D.C..

The program sought to attract smart, committed college graduates–Rabinoff was valedictorian of her graduating class at Denver University–to train them to develop curriculum materials, new ways of teaching, and to work in the community after school. She and other interns taught two classes of English a day, met afterwards with a master teacher of English and also took Howard University seminars after school to earn a Master’s degree by the end of the school year. After a year, they met all the certification requirements to teach in the Washington, D.C. Schools.

My job in the program was to supervise four history interns, also Returned Peace corps Volunteers, who taught two classes a day, as I did. Rabinoff and I often discussed how the 11th grade American Literature course she taught and the U.S. History course I taught overlapped so we decided to teach jointly an American Studies course for one semester. We taught about the American Revolution incorporating fiction, poetry, oratory of the day with the events typically studied on the run-up to the split from Great Britain, the eight year war with the mother country, and establishing a new government.

Up to that point in my career–I had taught seven years in a Cleveland high school–I had never teamed with another teacher. I found the experience a lot of hard work, learned how to collaborate, and found that our tandem teaching engaged the class in ways that I had not anticipated or seen before. Team teaching was an experience that whetted my appetite for more of it and did so both later in both high school and university classes.

Journalist Dana Goldstein interviewed Rabinoff–now married to Jack Kaplan–about her experiences in the program. According to Goldstein:

The Cardozo Project received federal funding, which meant the interns had their own mimeograph machine and other school supplies veterans often lacked. Interns were young, inexperienced, and mostly white, while Cardozo’s veterans were generally middle-aged and black. Some of the biggest clashes were over the curriculum. In the Peace Corps, Roberta Kaplan had taught African American literature at a private school in Sierra Leone. But when she tried to bring some of the same material to Cardozo, including Black Boy, Invisible Man, and the poems of Langston Hughes, she heard pushback from long-standing members of the English department, who saw a young white teacher assigning black students a second-rate reading list-these works were not yet highly regarded. “They wanted to make sure the kids were exposed to the same classic literature white kids were,” Kaplan told me, works like My Antonia, Willa Cather’s novel about white pioneers in Nebraska. “Even To Kill a Mockingbird was not considered a classic then!”

Rabinoff decided to stay on as a fulltime English teacher at Cardozo and did so for nine years also sponsoring the annual yearbook called the Purple Wave.

Background and Career

Roberta grew up in Denver. She was valedictorian of her South High School graduating class in 1954. She received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver, graduating valedictorian and also voted Outstanding Woman of her class. She volunteered for the Peace Corps’s first group of volunteers serving two years in Sierra Leone 1962-1964. After working as a reporter for a Honolulu newspaper, she entered the Cardozo Project, became a certified teacher, and stayed at the high school for nearly a decade where she also served as yearbook advisor.

After Cardozo, she freelanced writing and editing for various organizations in the D.C.

Kaplan remained active in Returned Peace Corps activities. One of her former secondary school students in Sierra Leone, Ibrahim Conteh, had become Deputy Chief of Mission for the Sierra Leone Embassy and when he came to D.C., for a Peace Corps event, he asked the staff to locate his English teacher, Roberta Rabinoff. Their reunion marked the first time they had seen each other since Rabinoff’s tour of duty 47 years ago. “I bow to you. I am very grateful. God bless you,” said Conteh as he introduced his former teacher to the audience.”

As the formal ceremonies gave way to informal conversation, Conteh and Rabinoff-Kaplan returned to their days together at the Magburaka Government Secondary School for Boys in theTonkolili District of Sierra Leone. She received updates on the lives of many school officials and students. Conteh recalled when his teacher read out loud one of his particularly good essays and how “the class went wild!” Rabinoff-Kaplan said “it was a most amazing coincidence that he would remember my name and that I would be in DC.”

Teacher and writer

Rabinoff-Kaplan was a teacher I respected and admired. She loved literature and communicated that passion to her students over the years. She listened to what students said and developed close relationships with those students who saw writing fiction or non-fiction as a way of expressing deep emotions. She drew out students rather than poured in content. Her work as yearbook adviser drew her closer to seniors who she had two or three times in English classes. And they responded with both affection and continued contact after they completed college and entered careers. Her love of literature continued as our life paths diverged. Whenever I came to D.C., I had dinner with her and her husband often regaling each other with Cardozo stories. The fact is I miss her since she died over a year ago.

__________

Sources:

My journal for years 1963-1967

Washington post obituary at:

Western Montana RPCV News, June 2010, p. 4 at: http://wmrpcv.com/uploads/3/4/2/0/34200782/610news.pdf

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Teachers I Respect and Admire–Carmen Wilkinson

I was stunned when I walked into the classroom of Carmen Wilkinson at Jamestown Elementary School in 1975 (all names are actual people and places). In my first year as Arlington (VA) school superintendent, I had already seen hundreds of elementary classrooms. This was the only one I had seen that had mixed ages (grades 1 through 4) and learning stations in which 50 students spent most of the day working independently and moving freely about the room; they worked in small groups and individually while Wilkinson–a 27-year veteran of teaching–moved about the room asking and answering question, giving advice, and listening to students. Called “The Palace” by parents, children, and staff, the class used two adjacent rooms. Wilkinson teamed with another teacher and, at the time, two student teachers. She orchestrated scores of tasks in a quiet, low-key fashion. Wilkinson’s informal classroom was unusual at Jamestown–I did discover a few more in other schools–in the 500 other elementary classrooms in the Arlington public schools.

Wilkinson began teaching in Arlington in 1950 and came to Jamestown in 1957. She taught first through third grades. She was one of the first teachers in the County schools to try and then embrace “open classrooms” in the late-1960s. Parents vied to get their children into “The Palace.” Local colleges sent their student teachers to Wilkinson where she trained them in the different ways to construct and run an “open classroom.” Her know-how and commitment to this type of teaching and learning garnered her many requests to lead workshops and seminars both in out of the district. In 1987, Wilkinson was named Teacher of the Year in Arlington.

While I wish I had my smart phone in 1975 to take photos, sadly I have no snapshots of “The Palace.” So here are a few photos of “open classrooms” that exist today that remind me of what I saw decades ago in Wilkinson’s room.

As a superintendent, I was delighted to see Wilkinson’s “open classroom” not only because it was uncommon in the district’s elementary schools but also for making three points which I believed strongly in before I served as superintendent and continue to believe now.

First, in listening to Wilkinson after the lesson and subsequent visits, it was clear that she deeply believed in building and strengthening students’ decision-making skills and giving them choices in what and when to learn, all within a framework of the district’s curriculum standards for content and skills in the primary grades.

Some readers may ask: “I wonder if her students did well on state tests?” In the mid-1970s, state tests were mandated and, yes, her students and those in the entire school did well on such tests. Keep in mind that Jamestown was also a neighborhood school that received students from many white middle- and upper-middle class families.

Second, creating and sustaining an “open classroom” requires a great deal of planning, reorganizing classroom furniture, coordinating a variety of simultaneous activities and constant scrutiny of individual children as lessons unfolded. She teamed with another Jamestown primary teacher of similar beliefs and recruited annually student teachers from nearby colleges who wanted to learn this way of teaching.

Third, gusto for teaching in this veteran teacher–she had been in Arlington classrooms for 25 years when I saw her the first time–was both evident and deeply rooted in convictions of how best to teach young children. After a quarter-century in classrooms, Wilkinson’s enthusiasm for teaching, as I observed over numerous times over the seven years I was superintendent, remained high-pitched. Jamestown parents and former students who visited her often appreciated what she had accomplished in “The Palace.”

Wilkinson believed that reading and writing went together even for the youngest of students. She consistently taught writing to her second graders. A Washington Post reporter watched her teach in 1991 and wrote:

“The children are responsive. They feel they are more successful. They’re enthusiastic; they have more confidence,” said Carmen Wilkinson, 70, Ashley’s teacher, who has been helping children learn to read for 42 years.

An end-of-year project she has assigned her most advanced readers will be a research paper using books from the school library, on the sport of the child’s choice.

At a biweekly writing workshop that Wilkinson runs with second-grade teacher Susan Swift, students write and revise three stories, then “publish” their collected pieces, illustrating and displaying them in the classroom for other students to read.

Wilkinson retired in 1995 and continued to work with student teachers in local colleges while volunteering to teach writing to elementary school students. She died in 2006.

I offer these vignettes of Wilkinson’s teaching in the mid-1970s and early 1990s to underscore her commitment to the “open classroom,” as she defined it. I make the simple point that there are many ways to teach and many ways to learn even within the seemingly inflexible structure of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

For all of these reasons, I admired Carmen Wilkinson and had the utmost respect for her as a teacher.

_____________________________________

SOURCES:

*My personal journal of the years I served as superintendent.

*Obituary of Wilkinson in Washington Post at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2006/06/03/obituaries/bb69a701-9f6d-44be-bf8a-4cf283cedd7d/

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Whatever Happened to Monitorial Schools?

When, where, and why did these schools appear?

Deep concern for the untended and mostly poor English children of factory workers and others flocking to cities for jobs led Joseph Lancaster to found schools that would gather and help the unschooled. Lancaster opened his Royal Free School in London during the 1790s. The dearth of teachers for these students pushed Lancaster to design schools that accommodated large numbers of children in huge rooms under the guidance of one paid teacher who would then supervise older students–“monitors” as they were called–who actually taught younger children. Often called “charity schools,” these early Lancastrian schools, as they became known, spread throughout England and crossed the Atlantic to the U.S, often sponsored by the Society of Friends or Quakers–social reformers of the day both in England and America.

When Lancaster visited the U.S. in 1818, there were many “monitorial schools.” Historian Dell Upton found that “Lancasterianism was adopted up and down the Atlantic seaboard as the official pedagogy of emerging public schools in New York City (1805), Albany (1810), Georgetown (1811), Washington, D.C. (1812), Philadelphia (1817), Boston (1824), and Baltimore (1829)….”

These “monitorial schools,” then, were reform-driven schools aimed at educating poor children in Bible reading, work, and citizenship to lower threats of crime and civil disorder from unschooled children who would soon become adults. Middle- and upper-class families including the Quakers had the funds to educate their own children, however, through tutors and privately-funded academies.

What were monitorial schools like?

There are written accounts of what Joseph Lancaster did in England when he started such schools for poor children in the early decades of the 19th century. When monitorial schools crossed the Atlantic Ocean and opened in U.S., historians have plumbed archives to locate accounts of students, teachers, and visitors to these schools (see here, here, and here). Apart from these historical accounts there are pen-and-ink drawings and paintings of what the school looked like.

By having one teacher supervise a huge room of children through older students (called “monitors”) who themselves had gone through such a school primarily memorizing texts and rote recitation and pursuing the same methods with their younger students, the cost of schooling was inexpensive compared to private instruction at that time.

In the second and third above drawings of monitorial classrooms, note that students have their hands clasped behind their backs. Historian Carl Kaestle quotes a boy in such a New York City school in the 1820s. “The monitors then unanimously gave the order, ‘Hands behind!! One the instant every boy has his left palm enclosed in the right behind his back, in aa sort of hand-cuffed state, and woe be to him who is not paying attention when the order is given, or is tardy in obeying it” (Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic, p.43).

Did monitorial schools work?

They surely “worked” in gathering many urban poor children into buildings giving them a taste of literacy for little cost to the community. Philanthropic and religiously-inspired reformers underwrote these “monitorial” schools in the hope that there would lead to social stability in communities avoiding the record of over 100 food riots over the price of flour and essential food that erupted in English cities between the 1750s and early 1800s and occasionally took place in American cities.

What happened to monitorial schools?

Criticism from parents and educators of the day about how little children and youth learned within the monitorial system got harnessed to a growing reform movement in the 1830s and 1840s that looked to schools as an economic and social instrument to make America stronger. A reform-driven awareness grew that all children, not just poor ones, had to master basic skills and literacy in order to enter the workplace and carry out civic duties from serving on juries to voting led to a large-scale and widespread reform movement . School reform was part of larger efforts to improve American society such as crusader-inspired reforms aimed at abolishing slavery, improving prisons (newly created “reform schools” for younger law breakers), extending rights of women, and levying taxes on all families to support a “common school” for all children within a community. By the 1840s, the eight-grade “grammar school,” an organizational innovation imported from Prussia, appeared across New England and slowly spread through pre-Civil War America. Monitorial schools disappeared.

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 4)

Why have U.S. public schools rebounded from natural disasters like Covid-19?

Answer: Americans’ social beliefs both in the importance of schooling, what a “real” school looks like, and the long-term efficiency of the age-graded school organization with its “grammar of schooling” explain why public schools gradually reopened its doors.

American confidence in tax-supported schools giving all children an equal shot at getting educated (albeit marred by continuing inequalities), receiving a diploma, and entering the labor market has been sustained through economic booms and busts, through war and peace, through closures from disasters and reopenings. [1]

While public support for tax-supported schools has wavered over the decades, it remains a trusted institution that a majority of parents support. In answer to the question: How satisfied are you with the quality of education your oldest child is receiving? Since 1999, the percentage ranged from a low of 68 percent to a high of 82 percent in 2019 saying they were “completely” or “Somewhat Satisfied.” Parents registered a drop from 2019 to 2020—the poll was done during the pandemic—of 10 points, from 82 to 72 percent satisfied.[2]

Public confidence in schools is embedded in the common picture held by most Americans of what a “real” school is like. A “real” elementary school, for example, has a teacher for each grade who manages and teaches the group for up to six hours a day. In a “real” school, students listen to teacher directions, and become literate in language and arithmetic.  A “real” elementary school has a playground, lunchroom, and allows a morning and afternoon recess for the children. Between kindergarten and the sixth grade, children follow school rules, learn to negotiate the system of explicit and implicit norms, do homework, pass tests, and graduate to the next level of schooling.

A “real” high school has daily schedules for students to attend 50-60 minute periods of instruction. In a “real” high school, subject-matter teachers stand at their doors in long hallways as students pass from one class to another; teachers sit behind a desk as students enter to study algebra, English, biology, Spanish, or history. Teachers lecture, guide large group discussions, and have small groups work on academic tasks. Textbooks, homework, and tests are ubiquitous. After school clubs and sports engage students once the final period of the day ends. That is what a “real” high school is. These features of elementary and secondary “real” schools is what historians of education have called the “grammar of schooling.”[3]

Of course, in the U.S.’s decentralized system of schooling, there is much variation in how much money is spent per student, age and architecture of buildings, the racial and ethnic makeup of the student body, and other differences. Amid those variations, nonetheless, tax-supported schools historically have grown into a standardized “real” elementary and secondary school across the nation.

Initially, in urban schools by 1900 and then across consolidated rural schools by the 1960s, age-graded school organization with its basic rules and norms guiding both teachers and students through the school year became dominant. In that half-century, the eight-year grammar school has morphed into over 100,000 age-graded public schools that now enroll 4 year olds to 18 year-old graduating seniors.  Student careers that once were limited to a few months a year attending one-room schoolhouses now spend 13-15 years in age-graded organizations. [4]

Reformers have attacked this age-graded structure and its “grammar of schooling” repeatedly for the ways it isolates and insulates teachers and students from one another, establishes standardized behavioral and academic norms, encourages competition for letter grades, and moves students in lockstep through elementary and secondary schools. Yet continued American confidence in “real” schools continues thereby explaining, in part, the resiliency of this institution since the mid-19th century.

While former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden called for schools across the country to reopen (their White House pronouncements were no more than exhortations since U.S. Presidents cannot order public schools to either shut or open their doors). The process was slow, bumpy, and marked by two steps forward, one step backward.

Neither the White House nor any national agency offered scientifically sound guidance for in-person classrooms in 2020.  The lack of reliable knowledge on the virus and course of disease combined to political and economic pressure from parents, state officials, and employers within a thoroughly dispersed system of national schooling surely account in part for the sporadic and helter-skelter reopenings that did occur.[5]

No one can ignore the fact that U.S. public schools are decentralized.   In nearly all 50 states (except Hawaii) responsible for schooling the young delegate each state delegates its operational authority to school districts. Thus, there are now 13,000-plus districts in the U.S. (there were 200,000 in 1910) that use federal, state, and local funds to operate schools as they see fit. Given this official system of decentralization, some states and districts reopened completely, others stuck to remote instruction for the entire school year, and even others shifted to a hybrid approach.Yet schools did reopen to both applause and criticism. [6]

So within a society where public confidence in a decentralized system of tax-supported schools continues to run high, where high expectations reign for what “real” schools can do for both the nation and individual students, a national pandemic shuttered the economy and closed community institutions. Schools—with all of their strengths and inequalities–slowly and steadily rebounded in 2021 from this once-in-a century crisis. They are resilient institutions.

Such signs of resiliency as the capacity for absorbing unplanned and planned changes, regaining stability after natural disasters, continued innovations under uncertainty, and withstanding hardships–clearly emerged as this institution slowly returned to its familiar organization, Common Core curriculum, and customary instruction.

The dark side of resiliency

Up to now I have implicitly suggested that institutional resiliency is positive. Businesses, universities, health care systems that adapt to adversity, bounce back from disasters, and retain their flexibility are seen as stalwart institutions that serve patrons well. That many schools have recovered and now have in-person instruction across the nation surely is a plus for the economy and parents who sought relief from being at-home teachers.

But there are negatives to resiliency as well.

Constant and unrealistic talk of what public schools can do to improve society undermines confidence in what public schools can do. Since the end of the 19th century, for example, fervent reformers have repeatedly called for public schools to be agents of societal change. By educating children the “right” way—the word is in quote marks because visions and versions of “right” differed then and now—schools can banish community ills, solve national problems, and create a better society. Such dogged visions for schooling to alter the community and larger society have been ultimately disappointing in results. Worse yet, such rhetoric has bred cynicism about what schools can actually do.

When John Dewey said In his “Pedagogic Creed” (1897), “I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform,” he called for schooling to be an instrument for large change in society. That call has remained a bedrock belief among Progressive reformers since the 1920s. [7]

When President Lyndon Johnson drafted the nation’s schools in ending poverty in the mid-1960s—think The Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the belief among White House and top policymakers was that better schools can move poor boys and girls into the middle class and make a “Great Society.” [8]

Certainly schools educate individual children but they can also turn those children into adult reformers who lead the march to a better, more equal society. Today, calls for schools to press for social justice continue the Deweyan rhetoric.[9]

In addition to decades of unfulfilled rhetoric and empty words eroding confidence in what tax-supported schools can do, the “dark side of resiliency” also points to excessive patience with, even neglect of, severe institutional problems that have needed attention but in the name of maintaining political and social stability have gone untreated much less unsolved.

Consider that the history of educational and economic inequalities in American society that pervade U.S. public schools has been documented since the Civil War. The civil rights movement during the 1950s to 1970s, for example, resulted in federal court decisions and legislation ending legal segregation and many Jim Crow practices. Yet residential segregation continues in the 21st century reproducing segregated neighborhoods and schools in both cities and suburbs. So when data show that Black children are five times as likely than white children to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity or that Black children are more than twice as likely than white children to enroll in high-poverty schools, few expresse surprise over this fact, a truth that has been around for over a century? [10]

Persistent patience with racial, ethnic, and social class differences in America becomes all too tangible when one confronts the three tiered school system that had become apparent for decades. Even after federal and state legislation, philanthropic infusions of dollars, and much wringing of hands, this durable segregated system of schooling remains painfully obvious to current policymakers, parents, and practitioners. So another negative to resiliency is apologetic forbearance with inequalities that are plain to see, such as the nation’s three-tier system of public schooling..

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Fairfax County (VA) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.

Second-tier schools—about 60 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet and occasionally exceed state standards and send most of their graduating seniors to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of closure. Occasionally, stellar principals and staffs will lift such schools into the second tier but that is uncommon.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S, rife with inequalities, maintains social stability yet, and this is a mighty big “yet,” good teachers and schools even in the lowest tier of schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth.

Because the three-tiered system of schooling has existed for well over a century, it has had a persevering resiliency that has withstood federal, state, and philanthropic interventions. An abiding example of stable inequality that continues into the 21st century.

Even during calls for transforming academically low-performing schools into citadels of high performance—such as occurred during the Obama years (2009-2017), the three-tiered system plodded on. Because of residential segregation and inadequate state and federal funding, inequalities are preserved in amber within the three-tier system of U.S. schooling, an arrangement that has soldiered on revealing the  dark side of resiliency.[11]

Unflagging rhetoric promising that schools can reform society has endured for decades as had the three-tier system of schooling that marks American society. These tenacious, futile fantasies of schools overhauling society and abiding patience with unequal schooling structures make up the dark side of resiliency.

*******************************

Yes, public schools have survived major disruptions ranging from hurricanes, floods, blizzards, and pandemics. Yes, they are resilient institutions that have contributed socially, economically, and politically to a stable American society for nearly two centuries. Both in the past and present, school districts drafted the technologies of the day to provide schooling during and after natural disasters. 

In the most recent disruption, public schools have bounced back from Covid-19 as students, parents, and employers welcome reopened schools in 2021. Tax-supported public schools are surely resilient institutions in both positive and negative ways.

With all of their imperfections, public schools remain high in public regard as they once again adapted to emergencies and adopted new ways of teaching and learning including remote instruction. While schools rapidly reorganized teaching by pivoting to distance instruction, no district has seriously considered reorganizing the century and a half old model of schooling, the age-graded school. And that structure remains steadfast and central to the conduct of schooling in 2021. A final sign of enduring resiliency.


[1] Gallup, “In Depth Topics A to Z: Education; Satisfaction with K-12 Education in the U.S.” at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

[2]Gallup, “In Depth Topics A to Z: Education; Satisfaction with K-12 Education in the U.S.” at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

[3] Mary Metz, “Real School: A Universal Drama amid Disparate Experience, Journal of Education Policy, 4(5), pp. 75-91; David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[4] William Fischel, “Neither ‘Creatures of the State’ nor ‘Accidents of Geography’: The Creation of American Public School Districts in the Twentieth Century,” University of Chicago Law Review . 2010, 77 (1), p177-199.

[5] Derek Thompson, “The Whole Truth about Kids, School, and Covid-19,” The Atlantic, January 28, 2021; Susan Dominus, “Where the Schools Stayed Open,” New York Times Magazine, February 14, 2021, pp. 32-40.

[6] David Cohen and James Spillane, “Policy and Practice: The Relations between Governance and Instruction,” Review if Research in Education, 1992, 18, pp. 3-49; John Meyer, et. al., “Centralization, Fragmentation, and School District Complexity,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 1987, 32(2), pp. 186-201; the 200,000 school districts in 1910 come from Fischel, “Neither ‘Creatures of the State’ nor ‘Accidents of Geography’: The Creation of American Public School Districts in the Twentieth Century.

[7] John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,” School Journal, 1897, pp. 77-80 at: http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm

CITE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE SCHOOLS

[8] Wikipedia, “The Great Society,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Society

[9] Brenda Alvarez,, “Why Social Justice in Schools Matter,” neaToday , January 22, 2019 at: https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/why-social-justice-school-matters

Jeanine Harmon, “Social Justice: A Whole-School Approach,” Edutopia, February 18, 2015;Crystal Belle, “What Is Social Justice Education Anyway?” Education Week, January 23, 2019.

[10] Horace Mann Bond, Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton and Steel (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1994); James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC:: University of North Carolina Press,  1988). Emma Garcia, “Schools Are Still Segregated, and Black Children Are Paying the Price, “ Economic Policy Institute, February 12, 2020.

[11] Grace Chen,  “What Is the Race To the Top and How Will It Benefit Public Schools?” Public School Review, November 11, 2019 at: https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/what-is-race-to-the-top-and-how-will-it-benefit-public-schools

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 3)

In part 3 of this series, I describe and analyze the growth and spread of computer devices over the past four decades as incremental, not fundamental changes in classroom instruction.

*In 1981, 18 percent of schools had computers; in 1991, 98 percent had them.

*In 1981, 16 percent of schools used computers for instructional purposes. By 1991, 98 percent did so.

*In 1981, there were, on average, 125 students per computer; in 1991, there were 18. [i]

In these years, using classroom computers was a glistening novelty that policymakers, parents and vendors urged schools to buy and use. The beliefs then were that increased use of these seemingly magical machines would improve teaching by getting students to learn more, faster, and better. Moreover, using these devices would provide job entrée into companies that were quickly moving from analog to digital and the rapidly growing occupations of programmers, engineers, and technical support.

There was an initial Golly, Gee Whiz moment when computers appeared in school libraries and special rooms called “labs” in the 1980s.  Then, as prices for the devices fell, teachers and boosters of the technology crowed about better lessons. New software promised gains on test scores (keep in mind that the 1980s and 1990s were the heyday of high stakes standardized tests and accountability machinery).

Fast-forward two decades and the picture of access to technology in school and at home had leaped to near universal. In 2015, 94 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had a computer at home and 61 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had home Internet access. The percentages of children with computer and Internet access at home  were higher for children who were older, those whose parents had gone to college and those whose families had higher incomes. Also, higher percentages of children who were white (66 percent), Asian (63 percent), and of two or more races (64 percent) had home Internet access than did Black (53 percent), Hispanic (52 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native children (49 percent).[ii]

By 2020, as tablets and laptops sold for a few hundred dollars each, student and teacher access to a full range of electronic devices in classrooms unfolded although connecting to the Internet was spotty, lagging in rural and urban schools.  Near universal access is one thing, however, classroom use is another.  

A buying boom had brought laptops and tablets into nearly all schools, save for many urban schools serving low-income, minority students. Federal pressures to hike test scores through No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2016-) multiplied.

By 2020, most districts had either placed mobile carts of laptops in classrooms or distributed devices to each student. By this time, most elementary and secondary teachers had learned to quietly integrate these devices into daily lessons. [iii]

In short, the once innovative device decades earlier had been widely embraced as a tool tailored now to the curves and straight lines of age-graded classrooms. The adopt-and-adapt phenomenon described with earlier reforms has turned up again with computers.

Keep in mind, however, that none of the reforms, including the absorption of technology devices, have altered substantially the school organization, curriculum, and instruction offered to children and youth. Some readers may express surprise at this statement. If so, they will need to distinguish between incremental and fundamental changes in schooling. [iv]

Types of Change

Surely, there have been incremental changes in schools over the past century. Inserting kindergarten into the age-graded 1-12 structure. New curriculum added (e.g., computer science and coding) and subtracted (e.g., cursive writing).  Teachers’ instructional repertoires expanded to include frequent small group activities, independent work, and using new technologies.[v]

 The major alterations in schools that did occur in the past directly resulted from social and political movements aimed at reforming public and private institutions to better serve people while righting wrongs that harmed many Americans. Such movements spilled over schools again showing interconnectedness with other societal institutions.

Consider the creating of tax-supported public schools—the Common School– was an outgrowth of mid-19th century social reforms. Taxing citizens with or without children to create public schools in villages, towns, and cities, engineered by Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and other reformers, was a fundamental change in what had largely been multi-aged one-room school houses and individuals securing one-to-one private instruction. These Common School reformers latched on to a more efficient structure for schooling the growing numbers of students flocking to tax-supported schools: the eight grade grammar school. [vi]

Similarly the Progressive movement of the early 20th century, the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, and the standards, testing, accountability movement of recent decades have produced federal and state laws that protected Americans, extended first class citizenship to those who suffered second-class treatment, and sought to tie together more closely the economy and education. Each of these politically driven reform movements saw schools as places that needed improvement. [vii]

In most cases, however, calls from movement-driven reformers for transforming “traditional” age-graded schools in the 20th century that would create entirely different ways of educating the young have fallen as flat as punctured balloons. Incomplete, partial, or non-existent implementation of fundamental alterations in governance, funding, structure of and processes in age-graded schools have marked most district systems. In fact, efforts to install fundamental changes often became a series of adopted incremental ones.

Think of such past calls for reforms to turn around failing urban schools or to establish personalized instruction in every classroom. Rhetoric about transforming schools has far outpaced concrete policy action. Incremental changes have surely occurred but few academically failing schools have turned from low-performing to high-performing and most students continue to be taught with familiar classroom pedagogies in a mix of large and small groups across the nation.

Of courses, there were proposed fundamental changes that occasioned media reports. Magazines and newspapers carried pieces on non-graded schools, open-space and open classroom schools, cyber schools that had customized instruction to the needs of individual students. Pilot projects and demonstration schools appeared but then in a few years vanished.

Districts absorbed and tailored changes to fit their schools. Schools adapted changes as principals entered and exited and older teachers retired and younger teachers came aboard. The age-graded school with its persistent malleability, however, remained intact.

Testing the resilience of public schools, 2020-2021

Face-to-face instruction slowly resumed in U.S. schools for the simple reason that voters and taxpayers (including parents, of course) have historically expected both change and stability from their schools.  The turn-on-the-dime move to remote instruction was an astonishing swing yet continued teaching of Common Core academic content and skills remained a constant. But that dramatic shift in teaching and learning and a return to familiar schooling was only one of the many expectations Americans have of this public institution.

Schools, after all, are custodial institutions intimately tied to the economy insofar as permitting Moms and Dads to work either at home, the shop, or the office. Beyond feeding and housing the young, these familiar community institutions socialize children into the dominant cultural values ranging from social and civic norms–taking one’s turn, cooperating with others, pride in American democracy–to earning necessary credentials to succeed in an stratified society. In doing so, schools replicate, even reinforce norms of excellence, competition, and socioeconomic and racial inequalities that pervade America in 2021.[viii]

Reopened schools, then, again reveal those norms and still untouched inequalities but also worry parents (and teachers) about risks to the health of children and school staffs. Nonetheless, fulltime remote instruction—except for those cyber schools expressly established for those who seek credentials using that medium–will shut down, albeit in slow-motion.[ix]

Why slow-motion?

Depending upon how far vaccinations extend into the population– not clear by the start of March 2021—schools will slowly move beyond complete closures and reliance upon remote instruction (19 percent) to partially open (35 percent) or hybrid arrangements of children attending a few days a week with combined online instruction at home to full restoration of in-person schooling (35 percent). [x]

Predictions of when all U.S. schools will reopen fully range from summer to fall 2021. No one knows for sure because too much remains either unknown or uncertain about the paths that variants of the initial coronavirus will follow, whether existing vaccines will cover mutations, and, of equal importance, how long vaccine-conferred immunity lasts.

Even with these uncertainties and unknowns, public schools closed for months and slowly resuming in-person instruction have shown their resilience once again in both organization and measured use of technologies to continue instruction under unusual conditions:  All students and teachers masked; fewer students in classrooms; those students present have plexiglass separators and partitions to keep them six feet apart; many teachers concurrently teaching students sitting in their classes with students facing screens at home; no large groupings such as in lunchrooms and auditoriums. Under these conditions, face-to-face schooling resumed under uncommon restraints. Again, tax-supported public schools bounced back.


[i] Larry Cuban, “Computers Meet Classroom; Classroom Wins,” Education Week, November 11, 1992.

[ii] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom (NCES 2017-098), Executive Summary.

[iii]Cuban, Flight of a Butterfly.

[iv] Larry Cuban, “Why So Many Structural Changes in Schools and So Little Reform in Teaching Practice?”, Journal of Educational Administration, 2013, 51(2), pp. 109-125. Also see Cuban, “Parsing the meaning of School Reforms (Part 1) at: https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2010/04/03/parsing-the-meaning-of-school-reforms/ For a critique of my distinctions between incremental and fundamental changes, see Leonard Waks, “The Concept of Fundamental Educational Change,” Educational Theory, 2007, 57(3), pp. 277-295.

[v] David K. Cohen and Jal Mehta, “Why Reform Sometimes Succeeds: Understanding the Conditions That Produce Reforms That Last,” American Educational Research Journal 54(4), pp. 644-690.

[vi] Lawrence Cremin,, American Education: The National Experience. (New York: Harper Collins, 1980); Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983); Michael Katz, Reconstructing American Education. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987); David Angus, et. al., “Historical Development of Age Stratification in Schooling,” Teachers College Record, 1988, 90(2) pp 211-36

[vii] Larry Cuban, Confessions of a School Reformer (forthcoming).

[viii]Jean Anyon, “Education, Ideology, and the Hidden Curriculum,” The Journal of Education, 1980, 162(1), pp. 67-92; David Labaree, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[ix] Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, et. al..” Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019,” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, May 2019.

In 2017-18, 501 full-time virtual schools enrolled 297,712 students, and 300 blended schools enrolled 132,960. Enrollments in virtual schools increased by more than 2,000 students between 2016-17 and 2017-18 and enrollments in blended learning schools increased by over 16,000 during this same time period.

Thirty-nine states had either virtual or blended schools. There were four states that allowed blended schools to operate but still have not allowed the opening of full-time virtual schools. A total of six states have full-time virtual schools but do not currently have full-time blended learning schools.

Virtual schools operated by for-profit EMOs were more than four times as large as other virtual schools. Virtual schools operated by for-profit EMOs enrolled an average of 1,345 students. In contrast, those operated by nonprofit EMOs enrolled an average of 344 students, and independent virtual schools (not affiliated with an EMO) enrolled an average of 320 students.

Although private (profit and nonprofit) EMOs operated only 34% of full-time virtual schools, those schools enrolled 64.4% of all virtual school students.

Just under half of all virtual schools (46.5%) were charter schools, but together they accounted for 79.1% of enrollment. While districts have been increasingly creating their own virtual schools, those tended to enroll far fewer students

 (p.8)

[x] Christensen Institute, “Fall 2020 National Online and Blended Learning Survey,” at: https://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/OnlineBlendedLearning_data_2021.pdf

Survey was completed October 2021.

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series of posts, I described the times that public schools have closed because of the influenza pandemic a century ago, polio epidemics during the middle decades of the 20th century, and the disruption of schooling in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Of note, then, is that on all of these occasions the age-graded school withstood disasters and adapted, essentially remaining the primary way of organizing school for instruction. Also of note is that districts mobilized technologies of the day for emergencies (except for New Orleans) and downsized classroom usage of technology when crises had passed. Part 2 looks more closely at the uses of technology in classroom lessons.

Technology in age-graded schools before, during, and after disruptions

Only three times in the past century has technology been the primary medium of instruction. One was planned and two were unplanned occurring after natural disasters.

The planned use of technology as the primary medium of instruction occurred in the mid-1960s. Research studies comparing lessons taught via television and those by teachers in classrooms concluded at the time that learning—as measured by standardized tests—was equivalent.  So the idea that this brand-new technology might upend traditional instruction captured U.S. educational decision-makers.

 In one ambitious innovation, the federal government established television  as the primary means of instruction in American Samoa. Daily lessons aimed at each elementary and secondary age-graded classroom would appear on a monitor placed at the front of the classroom. A teacher would then follow up the televised lesson. This centralized, top-down imposition of technology lasted in Samoa and many districts until the mid-1970s when it was largely abandoned.[i]

Unplanned reliance of technology occurred twice. The first happened during the polio epidemic of 1937 in Chicago described above. Once schooling resumed, radio lessons lost its central, albeit temporary, place in teaching Chicago students.

The second unplanned dependence upon technology occurred in 2020 when Covid-19 swept across.13,000-plus districts, closing over 100,000 public and private schools and keeping home over 50 million students. Within a few weeks the dominant medium of instruction became home computers and smart phones. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, after three months of shuttered schools, 93 percent of people living in households with school-age children reported some form of distance instruction going on in their homes. Access to devices and the Internet depended upon income levels, however, another sign of historic economic inequalities plaguing public schooling. [ii]

Within a few months, as more and more scientific data became available about children and youth being less infectious than adults, more and more schools reopened under strict protocols of improved ventilation, mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing. By winter 2020-2021, hybrid forms of schooling combining in-person with remote instruction appeared in many public schools. Apart from big cities, suburban and rural districts, following health and safety guidelines, reopened. Vaccinations of teachers across the country occurred through winter 2021—as I write– reducing flare-ups of friction between teacher unions, parents, and district school boards over health and safety issues. [iii]

As most students returned to face-to-face instruction, have home laptops and desktops gone dark as remote instruction vanished, repeating what occurred with radio after the polio epidemic in Chicago?

Schools change yet remain stable during Covid-19

Remote instruction is here to stay.  Flickering screens in bedrooms, kitchens, and dining rooms will continue but in a much reduced fashion. In schools, technological infrastructure and student use will be, as before, an important but partial piece of daily lessons. And this is yet another marker of the resilience of schools to adopt changes and then adapt those alterations to the existing situation. In short, schools fight to remain the same as they absorb big and small, planned and unplanned changes. Those who study institutional change call this historical pattern “dynamic conservatism.” [iv]

And this pattern has occurred many times.

Consider kindergartens. Following the Civil War, industrialization and urban growth exploded. Family life, particularly among poor immigrants seeking jobs in cities, turned grim. To escape poverty, both parents had to work often leaving young children to fend for themselves. Left alone in crowded tenements, many children took to the streets.

At this time, some middle and upper-income mothers had introduced private kindergartens in the Midwest and New England for their own children. Borrowing the principles of play from German school reformer Frederich Froebel, these private kindergartens used blocks, sand boxes, art corners, and other ways of captivating four and five year-olds to spend a day learning rather than in the street.

Slowly, a movement led by these mothers and other Progressives of the day to get city districts to add kindergartens to their age-graded schools in order to remove very young children from the street gained political support. Especially since another purpose for these early public kindergartens was to teach immigrant parents how to best raise healthy children in densely populated, often unclean, neighborhoods. These reformers succeeded in gaining urban superintendents’ endorsements of tax-supported public kindergartens so that by the 1960s, kindergarten had become a mainstay of public schools, now relabeled K-12. 

Early childhood educators were trained within the Progressive tradition to see kindergartens as places where children could learn through play. Focus on learning to read and basic arithmetic operations were tasks for first grade, not kindergarten. Noteworthy is that when public schools adopted this reform in the early decades of the 20th century one purpose for kindergarten disappeared: teachers making home visits to help low-income parents better rear their five year-olds.

Gradual growth in school districts adding kindergartens came not only from the formation of constituencies politically tied to this reform but also from a shift in public attitudes that kindergartens were more than play. Five year-olds can learn academics. The emerging belief among policymakers and many but not all parents was that the earlier a child learns basic skills, the better chance that child will have for academic success as they move through the grades and, as economists pointed out– greater earnings as adults. [v]

Most parents view public schools as an up-escalator for social mobility that give their children an edge. Kindergartners who learned to read as five year-olds became stars in many parents’ and teachers’ eyes as they aced first grade. Even with this tension between play and academics, no contemporary reformer or parent would gain supporters for a campaign to ban kindergartens. Not for the first (nor last) time, public schools had embraced a reform modifying it to the contours of the existing age-graded school. The same practices occurred with the introduction of innovative technologies into public schools since the 1980s.

In Part 3, I describe and analyze the growth and spread of computer devices over the past four decades. [vi]


[i] Audrey Watters, “Teaching by Television in American Samoa: A History,” at: http://hackeducation.com/2015/06/06/american-samoa-educational-tv

Researcher Wilbur Schramm reviewed about 400 studies and concluded: “A striking fact has been presented here-the fact that about as much learning seems to take place in a TV class as in an ordinary class.” Schramm, “Learning from Instructional Television,” Review of Educational Research, Apr., 1962, Vol. 32, No. 2), pp. 156-167. Quote is on p. 164. Schramm also published Bold Experiment: The Story of Educational Television In American Samoa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1981).

[ii]Kevin McElrath, “Schooling during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” U.S. Census Bureau, August 26, 2020.

[iii] Education Next surveyed a representative sample of parents with children in late-2020 and found 53 percent of all students using distance learning and 19 percent in some form of hybrid situation between home and school. Twenty-eight percent were attending in-person. Michael Henderson, et. al., “Pandemic Suvey Finds Perverse Pattern” Students are More Likely To Be Attending School in Person Where Covid Is Spreading More Rapidly, “ Education Next Poll 2020 at: https://www.educationnext.org/pandemic-parent-survey-finds-perverse-pattern-students-more-likely-to-be-attending-school-in-person-where-covid-is-spreading-more-rapidly/

Teacher unions in big cities resisted an early return of their members to classrooms. A strike was averted in Chicago, for example. Kate Taylor, “Chicago Teachers Tentatively Agree to Return to Classrooms,” New York Times, February 7, 2021

[iv]Donald Schön, Beyond the Stable State. Public and private learning in a changing society (New YorK: W.W. Norton, 1973).

[v] National Science Foundation. “Learn more in kindergarten, earn more as an adult.” Science Daily. August 12, 2010.

[vi] For a history of kindergartens, see Nina Vandewalker, The Kindergarten in American Education (New York: Macmillan, 1908); Barbara Beatty, Preschool Education in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 1)

For the past few months I have been thinking a lot about the upending of public schools by the Covid-19 pandemic. As someone who has studied the history of school reform in the U.S., I have been trying to make connections with the past that might inform present-day debates over district policies and classroom practices. So I am beginning a multi-part series of posts on the central point I have found that connects the past with the present: the resiliency of public schools over the past century and a half.

When educators speak of resiliency, they more often than not speak of it as a personal trait that individuals have such as perseverance, grit, the capacity to bounce back from adversity, and similar points. In these posts, I use the concept to capture one critical institutional feature of a well-known community institution that too often goes unnoticed.

In doing the research on the institutional resiliency of public schools over the past 150 years, I have also discovered that there is a bright and dark side to this important concept as applied to public schools. I welcome comments on these draft posts.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, and viral pandemics have closed schools in the past. These temporary disruptions forced parents, government officials, and school leaders to find alternative ways to organize schooling and teach the young. Each emergency revealed anew the interconnectedness of our lives. Parents realized the complexities of home teaching of content and skills, the need for enormous patience, and, yes, the importance of schools to the rest of society. Each upheaval also revealed dependence upon new technologies of the day such as newspapers in the 1910s and 1920s, radio in the 1930s and instructional television in the 1950s; school officials drafted the technologies of the day to use in coping with short-term school closures.

When disasters struck later in the century, classroom lessons had already become mixes of face-to-face instruction layered with teacher-directed activities where students used classroom and personal devices (e.g., 1:1 laptops, tablets, smart boards, and phones). Then Covid-19 arrived.

As a result of the 2020 pandemic, school boards shuttered schools and quickly shifted to home-based remote instruction. Moving from age-graded, bricks-and-mortar buildings to home schooling, out-of-work parents including single moms, were suddenly sitting with their children in kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms at laptops and tablets following teacher-directed lessons.

Many districts, however, after altering ventilation systems, disinfecting surfaces, providing soap and water, put in place protocols of masking, spacing students in classrooms, and washing hands before offering in-person instruction for limited days a week. Hybrids of remote and face-to-face instruction sprang up across the nation’s schools.[i]

The rush to technology over two pandemic years, however, should not obscure other ways that schools have adapted to crises of massive school closures. While surely technologies can and should play a role at such times—and did so in the past–it is not the only way that schools have dealt with crises by altering operations; schools have absorbed rapid, unplanned changes also by re-organizing instruction.

Much can be learned, then, from prior experiences with massive school closures when different ways of organizing and dispensing instruction have arisen out of necessity. Examining such varied ways of organizing schooling and using technologies of the day can make clear to parents, policymakers, and practitioners that public schools and the age-graded school structure are (and have been) resilient institutions when disasters strike.

Prior disruptions

1. Influenza pandemic in U.S. 1918-1919

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic killed millions across the globe and around 675,000 Americans (ten times more than died in World War I). While that pandemic occurred, U.S. schools and businesses closed, crowds were banned, and other similar responses to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic occurred.

Schools eventually reopened after the influenza pandemic (Philadelphia had closed its schools October 3, 1918 and welcomed students back October 28; Seattle, Washington closed its schools October 6, 1918 and allowed students to return on November 12).[ii]

And what happened when schools reopened?

They returned to their original state—another marker of resiliency. In examining those districts following the influenza pandemic, knowing what the reform-driven Progressive movement had done across the country in the 1910s is helpful. These reforms included governing districts through bureaucratic hierarchies, creating new curricula focused on children and youth learning by doing such as with projects, using new technologies such as film, and schools becoming medical, social service, and community centers. After the influenza pandemic ended, schools returned to the familiar age-graded school organization and those Progressive reforms. [iii]

2. Polio epidemics

In 1916, 1937, and 1944, polio epidemics struck down children across the nation. Poliomyletis or “infantile paralysis,” as it was called, had broken out in other years but in the three years cited here, newspaper accounts and reports document the onset and spread of the disease. Usually occurring during summers, these epidemics lasted into the fall resulting in school closures.

For example, in 1937, Chicago, a district serving over 325,000 students, delayed opening their schools for three weeks due to the spreading virus. Recall that the earlier decades of Progressive innovations had been incorporated into schooling, particularly affection for modern technology (e.g., stereopticon viewers, films, radio). Elementary and secondary school teachers developed brief 15-minute radio lessons that were beamed into students’ homes.

Aided by six radio stations and public libraries, schedules for lessons with assignments, questions, and directions—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for social studies and science with math and English slotted for Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday–appeared in daily newspapers so students could locate the time and radio frequency to dial up the particular teacher-directed lesson.  To help parents negotiate radio lessons, over 20 teachers staffed a special telephone number—a “hot line”—to answer questions.

Of course, there were complaints from parents and teachers. The lessons moved too quickly; there was poor signal reception; a sizable fraction of families lacked radios.  After polio cases subsided, school reopened later in the fall. Radio lessons disappeared. [iv]

3. Katrina hurricane

In 2005, hurricane Katrina flattened the city of New Orleans. Nearly all public schools (110 out of 126) were destroyed or extensively damaged. Many students went to school elsewhere in Louisiana, Texas, and other states. Some did not attend any school for months. In place of parish public schools, a system of public charter schools under private management appeared under the jurisdiction of a state-authorized Recovery School District. Political muscle from state officials and private donors supported the venture. Except for three non-charter schools, 95 percent are now charter schools operating under the Orleans Parish School Board.

What occurred in New Orleans after Katrina was a revolution in public school governance. Instead of local citizens elected to district boards (parishes in Louisiana) to direct schools, the state created independent charter schools and companies that managed chains of such schools in the city. As for technology use in classrooms, it played a non-consequential role in these changes then and since.

In effect, then, the historic shift in funding and governance that occurred after Katrina did not disturb the fundamental age-graded structure of New Orleans schools. District governance changed but school structures endured. Keep in mind that adaptability is another sign of institutional resiliency. [v]

These prior disruptions of schools, except for New Orleans where destruction and closure of schools resulted in major governance changes, produced no substantial shifts in school organization, curriculum, or instruction a century ago, before World War II, and in the early 2000s.  Districts mobilized technologies of the day for emergencies and downsized classroom usage of technology when crises had passed.

Of note, then, is that the age-graded school withstood disasters and adapted, essentially remaining the primary way of organizing school for instruction.



[i] I use the noun “instruction,” as in “remote instruction,” “online instruction,” and “distance instruction” rather than the noun “learning” simply because there is no body of evidence that “online learning,” or similar descriptors does, indeed, benefit students.

I do not include school closures that resulted from policy decisions such as the closing of Prince Edward County schools in Virginia to avoid desegregating their schools. See: https://www.virginiahistory.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/closing-prince

In the winter of 2021, the Centers for Disease Control issued a step-by-step plan for reopening schools. Guidelines for a safe return to in-school instruction gave authoritative permission for many previously closed schools to reopen. Apoorva Mandevilli, et. al., “C.D.C. Offers Path to Reopening Nation’s Schools,” New York Times, February 13, 2021.

[ii]For Seattle schools, see “American Influenza Epidemic: Seattle Washington,” in University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine at: https://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-seattle.html#;

for Philadelphia, see Alfred Crosby, Americas Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 74, 85

[iii] Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957 (New York: Vintage Books, 1964); Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986); and Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000); Tracy Steffes, School, Society, and State: A New Education To Govern Modern America, 1890-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); David Gamson, The Importance of Being Urban: Designing the Progressive School District, 1890-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

[iv] Michael Hines, “In Chicago, Schools Closed during a 1937 Polio Epidemic and Kids Learned from Home–over the Radio,” Washington Post, April 3, 2020.

[v] Rebecca Klein, “These Are the Schools That Hurricane Katrina Destroyed,” HuffPost, August 26, 2015; Kate Babineau, et. al,  “The State of Public Education in New Orleans, 2019-2020,” The Cowen Institute at Tulane University at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED607281.pdf

Douglas Harris, Charter School City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).

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Anxiety over Pandemic Learning Loss (Alfie Kohn)

Alfie Kohn has been writing and speaking about education, human behavior and parenting for more than two decades. His most recent book was “Schooling Beyond Measure and Other Unorthodox Essays About Education,” This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe on September 6, 2020.  It, along with much of Kohn’s other work, is also available on his website, www.alfiekohn.org.”

Anguish and even anger are entirely appropriate reactions to the fact that coronavirus infection rates are still too high in most areas to permit the safe reopening of schools. Not only do many of our kids miss their friends and the chance to make new ones, but school attendance also is a prerequisite for millions of parents to go to work. Also, schools provide healthy meals, which matters in a country with appalling levels of poverty and hunger.

The shutdown is bad enough. Must we also deal with the fear that children who are spending less, or even no, time in classrooms are destined to fall behind academically?

Not necessarily. The research that fuels dire warnings, which largely extrapolates from claims about “summer learning loss” (SLL), is much less persuasive than most people realize. For example, Paul T. von Hippel at the University of Texas at Austin looked carefully last year at a foundational study on SLL in low-income students and discovered he was unable to replicate its findings, partly because of problems with its methodology, such as a failure to adjust for the difficulty level of the questions.

More important, none of the research on this topic actually shows a diminution in learning — just a drop in standardized test scores (in some subjects, in some situations, for some kids).

By now we shouldn’t be surprised that older studies on SLL, along with attempts to apply it to our current situation, uncritically conflate the results of standardized tests with broader concepts such as learning, achievement, educational excellence or academic success. After all, many politicians, journalists, parents and even educators make the same mistake.

But as numerous analyses have shown, standardized tests are not just imperfect indicators; they measure what matters least about teaching and learning. And their flaws aren’t limited to specific tests or to how often they’re administered or to the way their results are used. Standardized testing itself, particularly when exams are timed or consist primarily of multiple-choice questions, mostly tell us about two things: the socioeconomic status of the population being tested and the amount of time that’s been spent training students to master standardized tests.

It is entirely possible to raise scores without improving the quality of teaching and learning at all, which means that a bump in those scores isn’t particularly meaningful. Worse, concerted efforts to raise scores often have the effect of lowering the quality of teaching and learning, which means that improved test results may actually be bad news. Indeed, several studies have found that higher scores can signify shallower thinking.

Standardized testing simultaneously overestimates students who are just skilled test-takers and underestimates talented thinkers who aren’t. Sadly, these flawed scores are still widely used to evaluate students, teachers and schools, which makes them hard to ignore, at least for the time being. But we should view skeptically any claims about education based on these scores — including the supposedly negative effects of missing school.

So, too, for those who are rightly concerned about race- or class-based “achievement gaps”: If these gaps are defined mostly by test results, the goal will be to narrow the test-score gap, which may widen the gap in high-quality instruction and deep learning. Anyone who warns that poor children will suffer disproportionately from closed schools may be romanticizing what was really going on in their schools. The pressure to raise test scores exacerbates an already disturbing dynamic by which the rich get richer and the poor get worksheets.

But is there a real academic “slide” from being out of school, as judged by high-quality, nonstandardized assessments? The honest answer is: We just don’t know.

To its credit, the meta-analysis that’s still the most widely cited source on the topic, conducted by Harris Cooper and his colleagues, was accurately titled “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores,” not “… on Learning.” But even given that narrow focus, it’s noteworthy that the declines were mostly confined to “factual and procedural knowledge” such as “math computation and spelling skills.”

In fact, some studies have shown that the capacity for thinking not only isn’t lost over the summer but also may show greater gains than during the school year. As Peter Gray at Boston College, who reviewed some of that research, puckishly proposed, “Maybe instead of expanding the school year to reduce a summer slide in calculation, we should expand summer vacation to reduce the school-year-slide in reasoning.”

What, after all, does it mean to say that children can “lose what they’ve learned?” True, time away from school may entail less exposure to academic content, but that shouldn’t be equated with — nor does it imply the absence of — intellectual development. (Similarly, let’s not forget that time away from school doesn’t mean kids can’t flourish in all sorts of other ways: emotionally, physically, artistically, socially and morally.)

Too often, schooling consists of cramming bits of knowledge into students’ short-term memories — by means of lectures, textbooks, worksheets, quizzes and homework — all enforced with grades. Many of these facts and skills are indeed forgotten, but that doesn’t mean that being out of school is calamitous. Rather, it suggests that we should reexamine what too often takes place in school.

Suppose our kids end up missing a full year of school. When they finally return, they may be unable to recall some of what they were told: the six stages of cell division, or the definition of a simile, or the approved steps for doing long division. Heck, they’ll forget even more facts once they’ve graduated. (Haven’t you?)

But over the course of a summer or a year spent at home, they are much less likely to forget how to set up an experiment to test their own hypothesis (if, when they were last at school, they had the chance to do science), or how to write a story that elicits a strong reaction from a reader (if they had been invited to play with prose with that goal in mind), or what it means to divide one number by another (if they were helped to understand mathematical principles from the inside out).

Warnings about academic loss are not just dubious; they’re dangerous. They create pressure on already-stressed-out parents to do more teaching at home — and, worse, to do more of the most traditional, least meaningful kind of teaching that’s geared toward memorizing facts and practicing lists of skills rather than exploring ideas. Parents may just assume this is what instruction is supposed to look like, partly because that’s how they were taught (and no one ever invited them to rethink this model). And if standardized tests rather than authentic kinds of assessment will eventually be used to evaluate their children, parents, like teachers, will be inclined to do what is really just test prep.

We’ve been here before. Claims of slippage in reading proficiency over the summer have led to an awful lot of kids, disproportionately Black and Latino, being sentenced to highly structured remedial summer programs. Richard Allington, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who specializes in this issue, points out that such programs, or summer homework assignments, aren’t necessary or even sensible. Rather, he and his colleagues recommend “easy and continuing access to self-selected books for summer reading” — a solution that’s also much less likely to cause kids’ interest in reading — a key predictor of proficiency — to evaporate.

When schools are finally able to open their doors again safely, let’s not return to the status quo ante covid, with its emphasis on the kind of test-focused instruction that can be lost. The good news — at a time when we’re all desperate for some — is that when the learning was meaningful to begin with, it doesn’t slip away.

Copyright © 2020 by Alfie Kohn.

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The Whole Truth about Kids, Schools, and Covid-19 (Derek Thompson)

The following article comes from The Atlantic, January 2021. “Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, technology, and the media. He is the author of Hit Makers and the host of the podcast Crazy/Genius.”

Those school boards and superintendents who continue to keep schools closed in light of this evidence have the duty of explaining to their patrons why district schools have not re-opened. Perhaps the rates of infection among adults in the geographical area are very high and they are waiting for rates to come down. Or maybe there are insufficient funds to prepare buildings to meet Center for Disease Control guidelines. Or there are too many teachers refusing to enter schools because of underlying medical condition. Or there is a lack of phase-in plans for younger children and then older ones attending.

Whatever the reasons are, district policymakers need to explain clearly and coherently why their schools have not re-opened in light of the preponderance of evidence for opening classrooms to in-person instruction. That is task number one.

Federal health officials at the CDC this week called for children to return to American classrooms as soon as possible. In an essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they wrote that the “preponderance of available evidence” from the fall semester had reassured the agency that with adequate masking, distancing, and ventilation, the benefits of opening schools outweigh the risks of keeping kids at home for months.

The CDC’s judgment comes at a particularly fraught moment in the debate about kids, schools, and COVID-19. Parents are exhausted. Student suicides are surging. Teachers’ unions are facing national opprobrium for their reluctance to return to in-person instruction. And schools are already making noise about staying closed until 2022.

Into this maelstrom, the CDC seems to be shouting: Enough! To which, I would add: What took you so long?

Research from around the world has, since the beginning of the pandemic, indicated that people under 18, and especially younger kids, are less susceptible to infection, less likely to experience severe symptoms, and far less likely to be hospitalized or die. But the million-dollar question for school openings was always about transmission. The reasonable fear was that schools might open and let a bunch of bright-eyed, asymptomatic, virus-shedding kids roam the hallways and unleash a pathogenic terror that would infect teachers and their families.

“Back in August and September, we did not have a lot of data” to make a recommendation on schools, Margaret Honein, a member of the CDC’s COVID-19 team, told The New York Times. Okay, but September was 100 days, 15 weeks, and several dozen remote-learning school days ago! Meanwhile, anybody paying attention has long figured out that children are probably less likely to transmit the disease to teachers and peers. This is no longer a statistical secret lurking in the appendix of one esoteric paper. It has been the repeatedly replicated conclusion of a waterfall of research, from around the world, over the past six months.

In May 2020, a small Irish study of young students and education workers with COVID-19 interviewed more than 1,000 contacts and found “no case of onward transmission” to any children or adults. In June 2020, a Singapore study of three COVID-19 clusters found that “children are not the primary drivers” of outbreaks and that “the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission among children in schools, especially preschools, is likely to be low.”

By September, many U.S. scientists were going on record to say that transmission in schools seemed considerably rarer than in surrounding communities. “Everyone had a fear there would be explosive outbreaks of transmission in the schools,” Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told The Washington Post. “We have to say that, to date, we have not seen those in the younger kids, and that is a really important observation.” Throughout the fall, the evidence accumulated. “Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19,” Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, wrote last October in The Atlantic, summarizing the conclusions of her national dashboard of school cases.

In a January 2021 paper, a team of Norwegian researchers traced more than 200 primary-school children ages 5 to 13 with COVID-19. They found no cases of secondary spread. The findings “demonstrate the limited role of children in transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in school settings,” they wrote. Another study by researchers at Duke University of 35 North Carolina school districts with in-person teaching found no cases of child-to-adult spread in schools. They concluded that typical mitigation policies, such as masking and physical distancing, are sufficient to prevent school outbreaks. “Our data indicate that schools can reopen safely,” they concluded, as long as such policies remain in place.

If you have been intermittently following the news about COVID-19 transmission and children and remember only the scariest reports, you likely have two questions. What about that scary South Korean study? and What about that horrible summer-school outbreak in Israel?

Let’s start with South Korea. In July, a large Korean survey found that children ages 10 to 19 spread the coronavirus about as efficiently as, or even more aggressively than, older adults. (It found that kids under 10 did not transmit the virus as much.) This frightening conclusion was widely interpreted to rule out the possibility of in-person school for any children in fifth grade or above. But in August, the same Korean research team caveated those conclusions, saying it couldn’t prove whether the children in the study were infecting their parents, or whether those parents were infecting their kids, or whether entire households were being exposed by a third party.

More infamous was the reported outbreak at a Jerusalem high school over the summer, which made headlines around the world. The New York Times’ summary was representative: “When Covid Subsided, Israel Reopened Its Schools. It Didn’t Go Well.” Here’s how the Times described the outbreak:

The Israeli government invited the entire student body back in late May. Within days, infections were reported at a Jerusalem high school, which quickly mushroomed into the largest outbreak in a single school in Israel, possibly the world. The virus rippled out to the students’ homes and then to other schools and neighborhoods, ultimately infecting hundreds of students, teachers and relatives.

The Israeli lesson seemed simple: If you open your schools, cases will explode, the outbreak will reverberate throughout the country, and people will die.

Except it wasn’t that simple. Last week, a follow-up study of the Israel cluster found that what had been universally described as a school outbreak was really nothing of the sort. At the same time that Israel reopened schools, it eased restrictions on large group gatherings. “Easing restrictions on large scale gatherings was the major influence on this resurgence,” the authors concluded. “No increase was observed in COVID-19 … following school reopening.” The causal chain described by The New York Times was backwards. The real story went like this: Relax social-distancing measures in your community without vaccines, see cases explode, and then watch the outbreak ripple into schools.

As the evidence of children’s COVID-19 risk has diminished in the past six months, the evidence that families are struggling with school closures has mounted.

“If you ask me whether we are doing our duty as a society to look after children, my answer would be ‘No, I don’t think so,’” Matthew Snape, a pediatric researcher at the University of Oxford, told me. “There is clear evidence that shutting schools harms students directly, in terms of both their education and their mental and social health.”

Although the long-term scholastic and social effects of a year of remote learning on this generation of children are not yet clear, what we know already is damning enough: Remote learning has gutted public schools as high-income parents pull their kids into private schools and bespoke learning pods. Calls to mental-health hotlines have increased. In Las Vegas, home to the nation’s fifth-largest school district, a cluster of student suicides has pushed local officials to phase in elementary schools. More indirectly, school closures also result in the delay of immunization programs, interrupt free-lunch programs, and make impossible the edifying effects of play.

Nobody should claim that children cannot transmit this virus, or that schools are “safe” during the pandemic the same way that, say, talking on the telephone with a sibling who lives 2,000 miles away is safe.

But people under 18, and young children especially, are less susceptible to infection, less likely to experience severe symptoms, less likely to be hospitalized or die, and less likely to transmit the disease than older teenagers and young adults. Scientists aren’t entirely sure why, but one theory is that it has something to do with the way the virus docks with our cells. Coronaviruses are covered by a halo of spike-shaped proteins (that’s where the name comes from: corona, as in crown). These spikes are thought to attach to another protein on the surface of our cells called ACE2. Children have lower levels of ACE2 in their nasal tissue than adults do. That suggests that, under this theory, kids would provide fewer open ports for the virus to dock, invade, and ransack the rest of the body.

Overall, school cases are a reflection of their environment. If COVID-19 is running rampant through your town and you throw a bunch of kids and adults into a building without any safety protocols, the odds are pretty high that you’re going to exacerbate an outbreak. But as cases fall across the country we have to adjust the risk calculus. The choice before us is not between “Keep the schools closed until COVID-19 is eliminated, smallpox-style, from the face of the Earth” and “Open every school immediately.”

Instead, the United States needs a focused framework, guided by science and common sense, for how to open schools as safely and as soon as possible, considering the risk to students and parents from closed classrooms, while keeping teacher fears front of mind. That plan would look something like this.

  • Reopen the lower schools. Start with day cares and elementary schools, given their reduced transmission risk.
  • Enforce COVID-19 protocols both within schools and throughout the community. That means mandatory mask wearing in public and social distancing. It also means public officials should encourage “library rules” in public space—keeping quiet, or talking in whispers.
  • Accelerate vaccination procurement and distribution. The U.S. could be well below 100,000 daily COVID-19 cases by the middle of February, at the current rate of decline. The faster we vaccinate, the faster we can get back to normal.
  • Distribute high-quality scientific information. Most important, educate teachers about the lower transmission risk of young students—and the ongoing necessity of COVID-19 protocols—to get their enthusiastic buy-in, which will naturally be contingent on our success at reducing community spread and accelerating vaccination.
  • I don’t blame teachers for keeping schools closed—yet. I blame the government and the media. Public communication about this disease has been horrendous, and the Trump White House was a fount of nonsense. Meanwhile, some journalists and professionals, in an attempt to fight back against Trump’s disinformation, leaned too heavily into COVID pessimism and clung to outdated fears about secondary spread among young kids. That’s made a lot of people unnecessarily concerned that kids are silent vectors for this disease, and made teachers feel like they were being thrown to the wolves in a country that has failed in just about every pandemic test. If I were a teacher relying on information from the mainstream press—especially a teacher in a pandemic pod that included immunocompromised relatives—I might be pretty scared of going back to school.
  • Under the banner of safety, too many people have passed along alarmist information that has contributed to a lot of misery. Americans have to learn, and accept, that the preponderance of evidence simply doesn’t support the fears that govern school policy today.

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