The pandemic didn't break our schools — it exposed the crisis they're already in
There is no question that American public schools are in crisis. But critical race theory, diversity initiatives, subversive books and online learning implemented during the pandemic are only the most recent chapters of the story in which politicians speak the language of school reform while draining actual schools of needed funding.
Instead, state and local governments rely on the private sector to address the changing needs of students. Charter schools, high stakes tests, surveillance and rote curriculum devised by consultants divert public funds to private entities. And the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives that have become so controversial in the past six months? Even they are provided by for-profit consultants.
Since none of these developments are reforms, it’s no wonder our schools folded like a house of cards when faced with a pandemic. I often wonder: what would a real reformer, like John Dewey, think?
A philosopher trained at the Johns Hopkins University, Dewey believed schools were the foundation of democracy. At a time when secondary schools featured rows of unmovable desks, and classrooms were dominated by rote memorization, Dewey proposed the radical idea of learn by doing. Reasoning, making choices and experiencing the world as it is prepared students, he said, for a modern, democratic society.
This influential turn-of-the-century scholar founded the University of Chicago Lab School to test his theories and, in 1919, my own university, The New School in New York City. Dewey believed that a school was a model community, where students and teachers cooperated in the learning process. The function of school was not to turn out students as quality products, but to cultivate individual creativity and, most importantly, incubate citizens capable of life-long learning.
While Dewey’s ideas were implemented in their most literal form in private, progressive schools, over time they had an impact on public education as well. Whenever students complete a chosen research project, go on a field trip or reorganize moveable desks into small groups to thrash out a problem, it’s an idea derived from Dewey.
But there is less and less room for students to learn by doing, and more pressure for teachers and students to consume rigid curricula that prepare them for standardized tests. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the charter school movement that began in the 1970s, and that was first enacted into state law as educational alternatives in 1991, promoted charter schools as more accountable than mainstream public schools, something that could only be gauged by tests.
The idea that private entities could provide a public service cheaper, and more efficiently, than the government (a theory otherwise known as “neoliberalism”) had a particular impact on schools in the late 20th century, as Republicans and Democrats both bemoaned the decline of public schools and refused to tax Americans to fund them properly.
Instead, school reform came to mean demanding accountability: from students, parents, teachers and principals. Pedagogies that emphasize discipline, mandatory curricula and grading resurged powerfully after Congress passed George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation in 2002, which threatened to (and did) close “underperforming” schools.
While most public charter schools showed little improvement, others like New York’s Success Academy, prided themselves on imposing rigorous discipline on both students and parents, pointing to their high test scores as proof that regimented classrooms work.
But regimented classrooms are not democratic: they teach children to take orders, not think for themselves. And as we learned during the pandemic, regimentation does not prepare students to learn on their own, nor does rote learning thrive in an online learning environment in which students must be motivated to succeed. Despite the fact that public secondary schools doubled down on rigid rules, requiring students to adhere to school dress codes, sit up straight and show a neat, utilitarian workspace – student performance steadily declined.
Worse, schools couldn’t replicate community in a virtual environment. While substance abuse among teens dropped in 2021, depression and anxiety accelerated as students experienced school without any moderating influence from teachers or friends. The National Institute of Health (NIH) measures average learning loss from school closures at 20 percent, but that number rises to 60 percent among the most disadvantaged students. Up to 3 million students simply vanished.
At a time when students need good teachers more than ever, they are in short supply. A pre-pandemic shortage, fueled by low pay that pushes one in six teachers to hold a second job, is intensifying. Two out of every three Colorado teachers are contemplating a new career, and Minnesota is reaching out to retirees.
And it’s not just the pay and the working conditions. Teachers often don’t have tools allowing them to do their jobs. Stories about teachers purchasing supplies for their students that school systems won’t, or can’t, budget for were back in the news this week when a video featuring eight South Dakota teachers scrambling for cash in a hockey arena, money intended to supplement classroom budgets, went viral.
The pandemic did not cause our school systems to break. It exposed the fact that schools’ fragile capacity to support students has declined. Not surprisingly, so have their buildings, a factor that has inhibited a full-scale return in many places. In 2020, the Brookings Institution reported 36,000 schools were in need of new heating, ventilation and HVAC systems. Over half of American schools needed approximately $197 billion in upgrades to return them to a good condition.
To be sure, the pandemic has been a sucker-punch to education at all levels. But culture-war issues, which occupy hours of broadcast time on cable news and endless social media outrage, only hide what is really wrong with our schools: long-term managed decline and disinvestment. But they do distract voters from policymakers’ repeated failures to reimagine curriculum, invest in infrastructure and create incentives to recruit and retain talented teachers.
As John Dewey would remind us, that’s a problem for democracy too.