A Half-Dozen Things You (Could Have) Learned in School: Lessons from a Pandemic

If you’re old and loyal to NPR, like me, you may have listened to Whad’ya Know? on the radio, out running errands on Saturdays, a decade ago. A gently sardonic quiz show, hosted by Michael Feldman, my favorite category of question was Things You Should Have Learned in School (Had You Been Paying Attention).

I was always interested in what people think is, you know, core knowledge–stuff that everyone should have mastered, in the place where I worked for more than 30 years. Mostly, it was prosaic things—the isosceles triangle or the gerund—that you likely haven’t thought of in years.

It begs the question: What do we really want—or need– kids to learn in school? Besides basic literacy and numeracy, you’d think our next highest priorities would be good citizenship, and an appreciation for the benefits of modern science, helping us make progress on the issues that have plagued mankind for centuries. But—thinking about the Governor of Texas here—evidently not.

A year ago, as it was just beginning to dawn on us that this thing was coming our way, I wrote a ridiculously sunny blog about things we could learn from being in quarantine. Naïve things. A new appreciation for teachers was one of them, as well as an up close and personal understanding of both the uses and limitations of remote learning. Increased scientific literacy. National unity in the face of a crisis. I was wrong. So very wrong.

But then—we were all wrong, at first, underestimating the spread, length and virulence of the pandemic, plus the catastrophic and politicized mishandling of it. Turning that into a Civics lesson, or an entire unit on the benefits of a functional government, might be the thing we should be doing now.

If we had been paying attention, of course.

Here are some real-time lessons you may have observed in/about school during the pandemic:

1. There is no getting away from the deal American public schools have struck with the public. We provide childcare, five days a week, for those who need it, as well as daily nutrition in many cases. Stepping away from this deal, even when it might cost teachers and school staff their health and even their lives, has created a massive societal disruption and boiling anger.

I agree with Dr. Leana Wen on this issue: Both sides of the school reopening debate have it wrong. We shouldn’t be debating whether schools are safe to reopen. Instead, we should ask whether in-person schooling is essential. If it is — as many Americans, including President Biden, insist — then we should treat schools as we do hospitals. That means doing everything possible to them make safer, starting with vaccinating teachers.

I was happy to hear President Biden prioritize teacher vaccinations (and yes, it could have come sooner), because I think this deal—we will take your kids for seven hours a day, starting at age four or five—is part of the mission of public education.

We are teachers first, sure, but we have gladly accepted other responsibilities as our niche in society, including meals, health screenings, exercise, wholesome after-school activities and even watching out for the well-being and mental health of children and teens. Lately, we’ve been connecting them to the internet and teaching them the skills of doing work electronically.

If parents now seem more interested in re-starting sports or their relieving their children’s at-home isolation than reinforcing the features of an isosceles triangle—well, we’ve made those possible for the last century, too.

And I think we should continue. Communities must understand that this costs dollars and effort, but it’s tax money well spent. It’s the right thing to do, making public schools essential to communities and the safest place in town.

1a. Corollary: There are plenty of forces that believe the pandemic has been an ideal time to do damage to public education.

2. Americans are terrible at interpreting statistics. I have had conversations with highly educated people over the past year who simply can’t understand infection rates, vaccine efficacy numbers, or why herd immunity might be difficult to achieve.

I taught 7th grade math for two years, and most of these skills sit squarely in the middle school math curriculum—including the correlation between the amount of testing done and cases identified. Every math teacher could be using the plethora of statistical analyses and colorful graphs in the news as examples of ratio, proportion, percentages and variables in human populations. It’s called tailoring curriculum to the students’ real world.

3Americans’ ability to discern truth in the media needs some work, too.

4. Working on these literacies—media analysis, statistics around our own well-being, and the benefits of a functional government dedicated to the public good—can start in kindergarten and continue until adulthood.

Right now, for example, younger adults should be outraged that their children are being forced to take pointless, stressful tests. When they are told ‘it’s the law’ or ‘it helps compare South Dakota kids to the rest of the country’–for what purpose? –their outrage should smolder and burst into flames. They can take civic action, and claim their right to opt their children out of testing. Thus reclaiming their interest and investment in public education, a common good. That’s civics, government, economics and the history of American rebellions in a single movement.

5. The most important thing we could be teaching in health class right now is long-term problem-solving. In 90 days, most of the jockeying for position in vaccine lines will be over. In the meantime, who’s getting vaccinated and who’s still waiting is like a giant, real-life example of one of those morality puzzles: Four people go out in a boat in shark-filled seas. But the boat will sink unless one is thrown overboard. Do we ditch the minister, the beautiful actress, the teacher, or the boat repairman? Discuss.

The person who is going to devise the single, annual preventative vaccine administered worldwide that will lead future global citizens to long-term viral control, or creative reversals of the damage done to our environment, is now sitting in a classroom (or on their bed, in front of a laptop).

Isn’t it our job to inspire a vision of a better world? Shouldn’t this pandemic be a real-life learning opportunity, teaching the parallels between ease of voting and ease of getting a vaccine, for example? Whose governor has made good choices for all the public? Should vaccination be required by employers? Tricky stuff, I know. But it shouldn’t be.

6. Americans are selfish. A simple glance at variance in global successes and failures in suppressing a virus and protecting citizens without destroying an economy, tells us that the United States is low on the self-discipline and community-building scale.

Where do Americans learn to get along with their neighbors and think of others’ needs as well as their own? Where do they learn the habits of order, routine and cooperation? I would argue that we’ve seen both the best and the worst of American thinking in 2021. Do we want the America that looks out for its neighbor when the power goes off in a snowstorm, and people gather to sleep in school gymnasiums—or the America that cut itself off from federal regulation in order to reap bigger profits for the oil and gas corporations?  

So what do we really want—or need– kids to learn in school?

My theory: We need our teaching and curriculum to be centered around big, future-focused questions like: What kind of country and community do you want to live in? What skills do you want to develop to support yourself and build a satisfying life there?

Summer School & Learning Loss

It is with some trepidation that I put both ‘summer school’ and ‘learning loss’ in the title of this blog. Trepidation, because both terms have been widely and egregiously mis-used in the month that we’ve had an actual president again.

We are now discussing What to Do About School in terms of safety and instructional efficacy, rather than how to force ‘unions’ (another word deserving scare quotes these days) to push their teachers into a workplace where potentially lethal viruses may be circulating.

To clarify: When I say ‘summer school,’ what I mean is some kind of age-appropriate, enriching and FREE experience for kids, K-12. Things like music camp, Lego teams, outdoor sports and recreation, river canoeing, book clubs, arts and crafts, coding, Young Writers workshop–or volunteering to pull garlic mustard in conservation areas and getting school credit for your work.

I know that a definition of ‘summer school’ generally comes with the stink of the punitive: having to go into a hot, dusty building to ‘catch up’ to your classmates while the custodians strip and rewax the floors outside your classroom. It’s not supposed to be fun, for teachers or pupils. The implication of summer school is that you screwed up—or, worse, were deficient—and need to be fixed.

I am also well aware of the fact that everyone, K-12, needs a break right now. A long, healing break. And what better time to take one than now, when most of the country can be outdoors, and vaccinated families will be able to re-unite and kids can run around and play?

It’s worth pointing out, however, that not all families will be vaccinated, come June, and not all kids will be able to play this summer, in healthy, supervised surroundings. Some kids will go to day care, and a whole lot of them will be on their own. This is also part of the equation—that for some students (and they may not be the students you’d think), summer is already too long. Too unstructured.

Students themselves are ambivalent.Some think that other kids who have ‘fallen behind’—not them, of course—could certainly use summer school to ‘catch up.’ Some are full-tilt protective of their summer break, after the rotten school year they’ve just endured. Some of them are actually worried that their favorite teachers will be asked to keep working with little to no pay. Others say they’ve learned differently this year, but they’ve learned plenty.

As for teachers, most know better than to hope for inspired school leadership that rustles up low- or zero-cost programming opportunities that will keep kids intellectually engaged and perhaps provide a place for parents to drop their children off every day so they can return to work. Nor can we expect interesting activities that will provide some structure and challenge for older students.

If the purpose of summer school were to do more of the inadequate same-old, with the goal of better test scores eventually, I would be adamantly opposed. It would be a waste of scarce resources. And I am only too familiar with teachers accepting summer-teaching roles for insulting hourly rates, because their salaries are so miniscule.

On the other hand—and this is an argument that usually falls on deaf or hostile ears, granted—why not take advantage of smaller numbers of children, the option of working outdoors, plus a window of instructional choice and creativity, and use some of that federal money to offer voluntary summer learning activities?

It might even be a lead-in to permanently changing school calendars, which would be the real cause of ‘learning loss’—if learning loss were a real thing.  

Which it isn’t. It’s pure baloney. Kids learn all the time, in school or at home. The question is what they’re learning, and whether it will be useful to them. Furthermore, schools accept kids ‘where they are,’ all the time. Public schools, that is.

Teachers will meet kids where they are in the fall, summer school or no summer school. And move them forward. As they have always done, after a summer of so-called learning loss.

This blah-blah about ‘union’ reticence to return to face to face learning (because that—ha ha–would solve this made-up crisis) is also baloney, a darker narrative to stop people from stepping back and saying maybe we should never return to normal, because normal has morphed into schooling that is inequitable, punitive and boring. By policy and grant-funded design.

Sometimes, I think the problem is that Americans have no sense of imagination around education:

What would an imaginative response to the requirement that students take tests be? We could start by simply saying no, state by state or district by district. This would take some gutsy leadership—but who’s in charge, after a pandemic? Gates-funded nonprofits or on-the-ground public school leaders?

Parents could organize opt-out campaigns—teachers would support parents, if they took the lead, because teachers want to end punitive testing without jeopardizing their jobs. Schools could devise their own return-to-school pre-assessments, the no-stakes things teachers do every fall, to get a handle on kids’ skill levels and understanding.

We could set an overarching national goal: a year of providing extras for our students—extra programming, extra attention, extra medical and mental health resources, extra tutoring.  We could gut and re-think school calendars, curricular requirements, instructional models, teacher preparation. We could work on reducing standardized tests to three or four over students’ K-12 career.  

Instead, we’re fighting over summer school and learning loss.

Photo credit: Anna Samoylova

Sports

In the 15 years that I have been blogging and creating content for education publications, there are two subjects that always draw angry (and often nasty and insulting) comments: Women in leadership. And sports.

There’s something about school sports that gets people a little overexcited. There’s a kind of passionate, Friday-Night-Lights loyalty toward school-based athletics that you don’t see for, say, Advanced Algebra or Chemistry. This fervor is often justified with old, familiar tropes: Sports are what keep kids in school. Sports build teamwork and leadership. Being an excellent athlete can lead to scholarships.

All of these have—or once had—kernels of truth. But do these benefits justify spending so much time and energy on preserving big-budget HS sports programs —especially during a virulent pandemic, for God’s sake?

Just how critical are school sports? Senator Roger Marshall (R-KS), during confirmation hearings for Dr. Miguel Carona, nominee for Education Secretary, revealed that he ‘believes that one of the biggest problems facing students and schools today is that allowing transgender students to play school sports means “there is not a level playing field.”’   This is the most important thing a sitting U.S. Senator in a basketball state could think to ask the prospective future leader of public education in America? Evidently.

Hey, I was a public school educator for 30+ years. I understand and appreciate the benefits of school sports programs. I also understand that in many school systems, especially those with privilege, athletics are the 800 lb. gorilla when it comes to making policies that are good for all the kids in a K-12 system, most of whom do not participate in competitive team sports.

I’ve got stories upon stories about that, from personal experience, but instead will share this alternative view of school sports: We had an exchange student one summer, a 16-year old girl from France. She was a recognized gymnast and talked about her passion for the sport and awards she’d won. We were building a new middle school that year, and our guest went with me to look at my new classroom, across from the gym.

She stood in the doorway and asked: Who is this gymnasium for? She was stunned by the stuff being unloaded, including some basic gymnastic equipment—and the beautiful wood-floor basketball court, the bleachers, the locker rooms and showers. Although she’d been a gymnast since she was a small child, she did not associate ‘sport’ with school. You had a physical conditioning class at school, but competitive sport took place (and was funded) out of school.

It made me realize how quintessentially American and ubiquitous school sports programs are—and wonder what that means about our collective understanding of the purpose of school. My usual response to school sports programs (and, let’s be blunt, aggressive parents) calling the shots was to advocate for kids who benefited from other programs—the arts and music, or academic challenges.  

But now there’s a pandemic. And it’s ripped up a lot of our expectations and hopes about what a rich, well-rounded, equitable education looks like, made us re-think what is most important in educating our children.

While each state, right now, is a hot, steaming kettle of clashing perspectives on what a safe return to face to face schooling looks like, the predominant voice in education policy-making in Michigan at this moment is a group called Let Them Play. They have filed suit against the MI Department of Health and Human Services. They have used the new face of ‘freedom’ from faux tyranny—a rally at the Capitol—to get attention. Even the fact that their leader is kind of shady and a conspiracy theorist has not stopped their noble quest to reinstate all contact sports in Michigan high schools—now—and get a spotlight, testifying in front of the Republican-led legislature.

The Legislature was more than happy to do that, because they’ve been in their own war with the Democratic Governor, since forever. Here’s a great headline that kind of summarizes life in Lansing: Republicans Willing to Risk the Lives and Health of Michiganders to Spit in the Face of Gov Gretchen Whitmer.

And yesterday, Governor Whitmer caved on this issue. Winter-season contact sports in high schools will resume on Monday. I’m sure she’s sick of fighting for the health of the state—even though Michigan is succeeding, big-time, in tamping down the rate of infection, currently ranking 47th in daily new case counts—and running up against brick walls with every precaution the DHHS mandates.

How will outbreaks work now, in high school sports? Will they result in temporary shutdowns? Or cover-ups? Who bears responsibility if a cluster of cases emerges after a few weeks of games?

Not my circus.

I mentioned this to a band director friend, and he said he’d long wondered whether professional associations for music education could have similar outcomes if they rallied at the Capitol and made friends with a conservative legislator or six. It was a depressing thought. Not only all that lobbying—but wondering who would advocate for American literature or World Languages or media centers?

The question, again: What benefits do school sports provide that make them worth the cost and the risk? A few kids get athletic scholarships, but only a handful. Same with preventing dropouts. Learning teamwork and leadership through sports is a function of good coaching, and therefore a variable, not a consistent factor.

I would suggest sports are a fun and worthwhile after-school occupation—as are any number of other activities, from the drama club to the robotics team. The most important purpose of public school is finding and enhancing the strengths of all students, so they will bring something positive to the community, as adults.

Too high-minded and la di da? Maybe. What do you think?