Blanket, categorical rules can be both inefficient and self-defeating, as decision-makers lack the knowledge to understand their secondary consequences.
National Public Radio recently reported on what is being dubbed the “COVID-19 Slide,” the theorized slump in schoolchildren’s academic performance as a result of mandated school closings. What grabbed my attention was a comment by Megan Kuhfeld, of the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA):
We really wanted to know how bad this could look in terms of learning losses, especially early on, when the schools were really trying to meet basic needs—[like] providing food, providing devices. There wasn’t as much instruction going on during those first couple weeks. And given we had research already on summer slide, we decided to produce a series of projections to try to understand—if schools closed in March and potentially didn’t reopen again [until] September, we’re looking at, essentially, a six-month period where students were out of school. And what we found was pretty alarming.
Alarming, indeed, but perhaps not for the reasons she thinks. As a father of three elementary students, I cringed. You see, as one of the millions of parents inadvertently pushed into mandatory homeschooling, I’ve been struck by how refreshingly easy, generally fun, and remarkably quick homeschooling has been. More ominously, it has thrown into high relief just how wasteful “normal” school is, and how we have been quietly gulled into ignoring what I will charitably call the less-than-stellar US educational “DoE Slump.”
As “Our World in Data” shows, our education system is second-tier at best, and profligately wasteful in terms of per-capita student expenditure. As a nation we spend more per student than anyone but Luxembourg (a weird outlier) but are outstripped in performance by countries like Estonia and Poland that spend less than half. Don’t even ask about China…
Some of the explanation for this can be found in Kuhfeld’s telling remark that schools were caught off-guard in the first weeks “trying to meet basic needs” like providing food. To an average parent 50 years ago, let alone 150 years ago, this would have been unthinkable: government schools as dine-in service centers for lunch and even breakfast? Today, however, over 32 million kids have learned to depend on this state-funded sack lunch replacement program. This is just one of a number of factors related to what is probably the most telling variable in educational performance, what “Our World in Data” calls “family environments and culture” but should be more bluntly called what it is—our national give-a-damn quotient. After a basic threshold, financial resources offer an increasingly diminished return. What matters more, as many an immigrant family will tell you (for example Asian families in Australia), is how, and whether, learning is emphasized in the home.
And this gets to the bigger issue at hand, one that Kuhfeld alludes to. In our ongoing COVID-19 experiment in online learning and homeschooling, how much do American parents really care about kids’ education? Kuhfeld is apparently glum, revealing her priors by planning to study “how bad this could look in terms of learning losses.” A more honest study setup would be open to the possibility that there might in fact be a net improvement. My personal experience is purely anecdotal, but I suspect I’m not alone in being utterly astounded at how relatively little time is spent actually learning in “normal” school. My kids now start their school day an hour later than they used to (no more frantic breakfasts and racing to the drop-off line), and are done (I kid you not) by 10:30 a.m. Noon, on a bad day. Their teachers assure me they haven’t slacked from the state learning requirements and are not “going easy” on them. It then begs the question: what in the hell were they doing with the other five hours a day in their earlier routine? Babysitting, mostly, I’ll warrant.
This is not to cast aspersions on their teachers, who to their credit have leapt into the breach with aplomb. This is rather to critique a lowest-common-denominator, industrial-scale knowledge delivery system that has failed our kids for a generation or more. Some sense of the magnitude of this failure revealed itself when we were forced to stop doing the normal routine.
My kids and I now spend their freed-up time doing some remarkable stuff: of their own choice they are learning, respectively, Mandarin, Latin, and Italian on Duolingo. They’re picking up guitar and piano (and request trombone if I can stomach it). We instituted an afternoon “Farm School” where they’re learning about poultry (watch your back around roosters…), metalworking (“eye-pro works!”), and gardening (tomatoes prefer to be planted roots-down). They watch videos on rocketry, economics, and engineering. We’ve finished building a glass room together and are plotting the history timeline we’re going to paint on the windows. We do P.E. in a family-style staggered footrace like Jefferson used to do. I mean, it’s a gift, really.
Yes, I know. I’m lucky because I can work from home (though balancing two full-time jobs plus homeschooling is no cakewalk, I’m here to say). My sincere sympathies to those parents who have to commute to work and hope their kids somehow stay logged in to their Chromebooks while they’re away. But perhaps there’s a lesson here. Maybe, over the last few decades we’ve ceded so much of our own and our children’s lives to the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department-of-Everything-Else, that we forgot what responsibility felt like. Maybe we were so intent on maintaining the gewgaws of a two-income household that we forgot what a home was like. Maybe we forgot what being a meaningful participant in our kids’ education felt like. Maybe we gave a damn about the wrong things.
Kuhfeld, to be fair, may be right. The lockdown response to COVID-19 may have hit our educational-industrial complex square on the jaw and our children will be set back a lap or two, especially compared to regimes that didn’t choose to shut down their school systems. I’m inclined to think, however, that Kuhfeld’s predictions, like predictions about COVID-19 more generally, are overblown. Most immediately, her model fails to incorporate the inconceivably complex, persistently shifting, stochastic phenomenon of human response. My kids are living proof that behaviors are not predictable. Though Kuhfeld and the NWEA “decided to produce a series of projections” to assess the damage sure to come “if schools closed in March and potentially didn’t reopen again [until] September,” they fail to account for an organic response to the challenge. They didn’t foresee me and many more like me suddenly embracing homeschooling. They didn’t foresee it because I didn’t foresee it.
When making superficial comparisons between a modeled “do-nothing” scenario (i.e. a six-month summer vacation) and a data baseline, what you “find” will undoubtedly be “pretty alarming.” This kind of simplistic model-based thinking and planning is endemic today and is difficult to confront. As George E.P. Box liked to say, “all models are wrong, some are useful.” The reason Kuhfeld’s models are wrong (and still potentially useful) is that that there are millions of children and parents waking up to the reality that online learning is entirely doable, and that a universe of educational possibility lies at our collective fingertips.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if fears over a “COVID-19 Slide” highlighted the outmoded, simplistic, nanny-state thinking that got us into this mess? Wouldn’t it be great, in some final analysis, if it helped save our children from the “DoE Slump”?