The litany of tragedies and inconveniences visited upon Americans by COVID-19 is long, but one of the more pronounced sources of misery for parents has been pandemic schooling. The logistical gymnastics necessary to balance work and school when all the crucial resources—time, physical space, internet bandwidth, emotional reserves—are limited have pushed many to the point of despair.
Pandemic school is clearly not working well, especially for younger children—and it’s all but impossible for the 20 percent of American students who lack access to the technology needed for remote learning. But what parents are coming to understand about their kids’ education— glimpsed through Zoom windows and “a synchronous” classwork— is that school was not always working so great before COVID-19 either. Like a tsunami that pulls away from the coast, leaving an exposed stretch of land, the pandemic has revealed long-standing in attention to children’s developmental needs—needs as basic as exercise, outdoor time, conversation, play, even sleep. All of the challenges of educating young children that we have minimized for years have suddenly appeared like flotsam on a beach at low tide, reeking and impossible to ignore. Parents are not only seeing how flawed and glitch-riddled remote teaching is—they’re discovering that many of the problems of remote schooling are merely exacerbations of problems with in-person schooling.
It’s remarkable how little schools have changed over time; most public elementary schools are stuck with a model that hasn’t evolved to reflect advances in cognitive science and our understanding of human development. When I walked into my 10-year-old son’s fourth-grade classroom a year ago, it looked almost exactly like my now-28-year-old son’s classroom in 2001, which in turn looked strikingly like my own fourth-grade classroom in 1972. They all had the same configuration of desks, cubbies, and rigidly grade-specific accoutrements. The school schedule also remains much the same: 35 hours of weekly instructional time for about 180 days. The same homework, too, despite the growing wealth of evidence suggesting that homework for elementary- school children (aside from nightly reading) offers minimal or no benefits. Elementary education also values relatively superficial learning that’s too focused on achieving mastery of shallow (but test-friendly) skills unmoored from real content knowledge or critical thinking. School hours are marked by disruptions and noise as students shift, mostly en masse and in age-stratified groups, from one strictly demarcated topic or task to another. Many educators and child-development experts believe that some of the still standard features of pre-K and elementary education— age and ability cohorts, short classroom periods, confinement mostly indoors— are not working for many children. And much of what has changed—less face time with teachers, assignments on iPads or computers, a narrowed curriculum— has arguably made things worse.
As distance learning has (literally) brought home these realities about how we educate young children, an opportunity to do things better presents itself—not just for the duration of the pandemic but afterward as well.
EVER SINCE it became clear last spring that school closures would be protracted, we’ve heard an outpouring of concern about potential learning loss and other serious costs for kids, including undetected child abuse and hunger. For a sizable fraction of children— those with disabilities whose educational needs can’t be met remotely, and the millions of kids eligible for free or reduced-price lunch who weren’t fed during the spring and summer—that concern has obvious merit. A McKinsey analysis concluded that if remote learning continues into 2021, students will suffer an average of seven months of “learning loss”— in essence, they’ll be seven months behind in mastering certain concepts and skills. Latino and Black students will fall a little further behind, Mc Kinsey found, and low-income students will lose more than a year. A report out of the Brookings Institution in the spring projected that an extended break from in-person school could cause a “COVID Slide,” in which third-to-eighth-grade students could lose a substantial portion of the progress they would have been expected to make in math and reading.
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