Bruce Deitrick Price
For many decades, the Education Establishment has shown itself unable or unwilling to improve public schools. I suspect they actually prefer wallowing in failure; this serves their ideological goals – namely, Americans should settle for mediocrity because that's how we make the world more equitable.
A big topic now is how will students recover from the Covid pandemic. Sounds reasonable, but the Washington Post ran a long article full of double talk: on the one hand this, on the other hand that. This smorgasbord of expert opinions pointing in every direction gives each teacher and administrator a choice of excuses for letting their school remain stunted.
The Post story, by Jay Matthews, starts with a large bold headline: "Experts say schools could recover pandemic losses by 2028.".What?! Why in the world does one- to-two years of disruption wipe out all education for another five years! We’re talking about children in elementary school. What they're doing is not very complicated. Also recall that most children have been going to school in some sense throughout the two years. School leaders with half a brain would have devised emergency responses to mitigate the worst effects of the lockdown. Instead they seem to welcome the opportunity to continue doing an inferior job. This is shameful.
Early on, Matthews sums up the problem by citing a subhead he came across: “Two Decades of Growth Wiped Out by Two Years of Pandemic.” A good question is, what growth?
People who have been studying our schools for decades are cautious when talking about “growth.” Some say reading and math averages could rebound by 2028, but they admit many children will never get everything they missed.
Why not? What if the schools started teaching all subjects like they sincerely want the children to master them?
The experts have lots of questions, but few answers. “How willing are we to invest the effort and money needed to improve the learning of children whose families are at the bottom of the income scale? Giving students more time to learn and better-trained teachers appears to work. But many students didn’t have such help before the pandemic. How can we expect them to get it now?” Translation: we always knew what works but refused to do it.
Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, noted that focusing on exam results ignores harm to children too young to be tested. Matthews quotes him saying, “Not only do we have to consider the serious negative consequences of the pandemic and school closures on kids who were school-age during 2020-22, but also how the crisis impacted children ages 0 to 5.”
Diane Ravitch, our best-known writer about schools, wrote: “My hunch is that the downward slide in test scores can be overcome, not quickly, but in less time than the time stolen by the pandemic.… My hope is that students will make up for lost time in a year or two if they have experienced teachers and stability — no school closures or disruptions.” Of course, they won't have those things.
Official experts can go on like this all day. The weirdest thing is that nobody seems able to suggest, hey, what if we taught all kids to read in the first grade? We could catch up with this so-called Covid delay in no time. (Note, first-grade reading is routine with phonics.) Here's another idea. What if these people concede, maybe we don't always know what we're doing. Maybe another bunch of experts can do a much better job.
Education policy guru Chester E. Finn Jr.’s latest book assesses the national tests we use to measure progress in learning. He, too, offers a mix of hope and fear about the future. “Based on what we know today, history suggests that gains equivalent to the pandemic losses could be seen in as little as four or six years.”
Another expert speculated that disadvantaged kids are hurt by keeping the pandemic’s relaxed teaching style. “Tying shoes, opening bottles: pandemic kids lack basic life skills.”
Karin Chenoweth, author of the books “Schools That Succeed,” mentioned an important fact left out of the debate: “The ironic part of all the doomsaying panic about how the pandemic erased two decades of progress is that hardly anyone noticed that we had made such progress while we were making it.”
Kinnari Patel-Smyth is president of the KIPP Foundation, which oversees the nation’s largest charter school network. “Moving forward in this recovery means that federal and state politicians need to prioritize educational spending, at least for another decade,” she said. “It means we need to work harder to ensure every child is a strong reader. It means we need to address the trauma caused by this pandemic and the inequities in this country.
“There are many other suggestions for reform. Unfortunately we did not get very far with most of them before the pandemic. It is unlikely we will do better when our principal emphasis is just getting back to where we were.”
Some experts are a little optimistic. “This year’s NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores should be the bottom in terms of pandemic effects,” said Tom Loveless, author and former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Barring another pandemic or Great Recession, I expect NAEP scores to return to 2019 levels within two NAEP cycles, by 2026.”
Recovering from the catastrophe, he said, requires recognition that progress in the recent past came “in large part because for the first time, schools were expected to teach all children, not just some.”
Some experts emphasized that huge gaps in the public education system existed before the pandemic hit. “In 2019, just 15 percent of Black eighth-graders were at or above reading proficiency,” said Eva Moskowitz, chief executive of the Success Academy charter schools in New York City. “Low-income children of color deserve better, much better. First, schools should stop lowering standards and dumbing down curriculum.” Did nobody think about this before?
The Post article suggests these ineffectual experts are too comfortable with ways to evade their responsibility to provide better schools. Furthermore, they seem determined to keep promoting every method that doesn't work instead of urging the public to embrace superior ideas. Meanwhile, everything is kept muddled, stymied, stagnant.
(NB: All quotes in this article come from the Post article.)
Bruce Deitrick Price’s new novel is Frankie. A unique mystery. Logline: Frankie is harmless, chaos ensues.© Bruce Deitrick Price
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