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Schools Were Failing Children and Society Before the Pandemic

We’re having the wrong conversations about school


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Kevin Miller

3 years ago | 10 min read

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Pre-pandemic schools weren’t effective for past generations let alone today’s children. Yet all our school discussions are about returning to that model and 2019 learning levels.

Stop talking about opening schools and start talking about making them better. Don’t settle for barely adequate. Demand exceptional!

COVID 19 has already devastated the U.S. and world economies. Unless solutions are found, learning losses by K-12 students will lead to economic devastation for decades to come.

Yet these impacts are a drop in the bucket compared to the economic losses from ineffective schools prior to the pandemic.

Economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a paper in early September 2020 titled The Economic Impacts of Learning Losses.

Specifically, they attempt to quantify the economic impact of closing schools and being unable to resume normal instruction due to COVID 19.

The report notes, “The typical current student might expect something on the order of 3% lower career earnings if schools immediately returned to 2019 performance levels” and “For nations, the impact could optimistically be 1.5% lower GDP throughout the remainder of the century.”

Hanushek and Woessmann further state the fallout will be significantly greater on children with disabilities and those economically disadvantaged.

Some argue tools have emerged or been scaled up during the pandemic which could be leveraged to improve on pre-pandemic learning.

However, there would be considerable inequity of improvements due to huge disparities in resources across school districts and limited numbers of teachers with the necessary skill set.

Across the country, most are pushing a return to how things were prior to the pandemic with hope for a few pockets of improvement. We are choosing to ignore that our schools were already inadequate.

Returning to that “normal” should be completely unacceptable, especially when there is a better option.

The conversation we must have is how to leapfrog past pre-pandemic education. We need to ensure our children’s learning, growth, and development can never be derailed by a similar crisis.

We have to elevate our hopes and dreams for children rather than settling for such an incredibly low bar.

The vast majority of school challenges prior to the pandemic resulted from the model of school used in the United States since 1893.

Those challenges include achievement and opportunity gaps, student absences, growing costs, teacher burnout and attrition, bullying, student misbehavior, and more. Further, our school model is the reason the pandemic is devastating our children and families.

In discussing school during the pandemic and in the future, we must be honest about one critical reality: Children weren’t learning effectively in school before the pandemic relative to the cost in time and resources and definitely not relative to what children are capable of learning.

Our current school model is designed entirely around delivering curriculum. Everything, including learning, is secondary to that.

To deliver the curriculum, schools have to compromise on everything else. Most critically, schools strip children of all meaningful power over their learning, growth, and development. From there, the challenges pile up.

Current schools need compliance systems to control (“manage” in education speak) students who would rather be elsewhere. They need numerous interventions because students are not at the necessary developmental levels for the curriculum being delivered.

They need to account for huge disparities in economic and social situations of students and corresponding impacts on student readiness to learn.

Schools then need systems, staff, and resources to address all the above challenges which add substantial costs. Teachers need to function within these systems and help address the challenges detracting from their ability to focus on teaching.

This leads to teacher burnout and attrition as well as discouraging people from becoming teachers.

Standardized tests reveal academic shortcomings and achievement gaps leading to more interventions, new systems, new initiatives, and new costs along with calls for setting higher academic standards.

All these factors result in student anxiety which interferes with learning and requires more support staff and interventions with their associated costs.

Our schools were a hot mess prior to the pandemic; the pandemic revealed how poorly schools are preparing children for a dynamic and totally unpredictable world. And now everyone is calling for a return to that.

Granted, many schools appeared to be doing a great job because the challenges noted above were not obvious. Those schools learned to deliver curriculum and manage students very well, but even those students were not coming close to their potential.

This system wasn’t serving any children exceptionally and only a few adequately. It’s time to discuss serving every child exceptionally — high fliers, homeless, gifted, those with disabilities, English Learners, and everyone else.

This isn’t just possible; it can be done in any community. Doing so can address every challenge our schools have been facing for decades including the growing costs.

Any community can create an educational system to unleash every child’s potential.

Our current school model was a compromise from the beginning. It was meant to be replicated in every community in the country. That was efficient and reflected society of the time, though it was never effective for learning.

In 2020, we recognize every community and every child are unique, and we know equal does not mean equitable.

A community wanting to meet every child’s needs must design its own school model that will serve every child. Adapting the current model is not an option because the underlying premise and structure of that model are obsolete.

The community begins with open honest dialogues about hopes and dreams for their children. They explore research on learning and development and reflect on their own experiences. They offer ideas and resources.

They collaborate on possible models for ensuring every child can reach for their dreams and approach their potential. This is what is truly meant by a village raising a child.

Many communities have had such dialogues about children’s futures and preparing them for success, but they never consider fundamentally changing the school model. Instead, they adapt their ideas and insights — they compromise — to accommodate the school model.

The most important single element of helping children unleash their potential — the school they attend — is the one thing they will not try to systemically change.

Yet COVID 19 has opened this door. There are no good school solutions right now. It will be months or years before curriculum can be delivered at 2019 levels, and learning will continue to suffer.

Replace conversations about how to do school now with those about how to do school better, and realize every person in a community can contribute to these conversations.

Everyone can reflect on their own life experiences for insights on what does and doesn’t work effectively to learn, grow, and develop, which varies from person to person.

Most “experts” on education don’t have training or experience to maximize learning for every individual student; their training and experience is for delivering curriculum as efficiently as possible to groups of students. Even those with such expertise know it can’t be done in our current school model.

You can’t even imagine it.

You won’t be able to imagine what a new, better school model might look like — at least not at first. The current model is so institutionalized and ingrained in our minds it’s nearly impossible to get past. But there are critical elements a new model must consider.

Children must be given power and control over nearly all aspects of their learning, growth, and development. That doesn’t mean they are let loose to do what they please.

Rather, they are guided, coached, and mentored to leverage their innate curiosity and drive to learn. Given power over their learning, children will take responsibility for it. They won’t need to be coerced into learning.

Want proof? Watch the dedication and drive of a child over something they chose and truly care about. When it’s their choice and they are in control, children will leverage countless resources and tools and overcome numerous obstacles to learn more and/or improve skills.

Unfortunately, some children have stopped getting excited for or dedicated to anything; they go through the motions in life and spend all their time in mindless and thoughtless activities.

Such children have given up expecting to have any real power over anything of value. Real power over their learning is the spark they need to get reengaged.

This power and control mean children (with guidance and coaching from adults) develop personal goals and learning outcomes for which they will strive.

They come up with the methods through which they will demonstrate mastery of their chosen knowledge and skills. They work out the means by which they will develop the knowledge and skills.

Increasing academic standards is about compliance, not learning

This, not increased academic standards, truly raises the bar and sets high expectations for children. Increasing academic standards is about compliance, not learning.

Adults set the bar higher and tell students what they must do. If the promised reward or threatened punishment is sufficient, students will reach the bar — if they are developmentally ready (which many are not).

Putting children in charge of their learning raises expectations meaningfully. If children sense the community truly cares about them, trusts them, and is ready to support them, they will push themselves academically beyond any bars we could set for them. They will take risks and fail forward.

The model must account for an essentially infinite range of children’s developmental timelines. It cannot include age or “ability” cohorts but rather must acknowledge every child will be ready for different aspects of learning at different times.

This reduces stress and feeds enthusiasm for learning; it leverages innate curiosity and need to learn.

It also allows incredible flexibility in designing the education model to account for geography, facilities, transportation, and other physical elements — as well as being adaptable if facilities must close due to a fire, flood, tornado, or pandemic.

The model must include a method for students to connect and develop self-supporting teams. These teams can’t be created by adults, but must develop organically as much as possible.

Students will then learn how to collaborate and become champions for each other. This also means there won’t be a menu of classes and a set schedule. Classes and schedules will emerge based on student identified needs while a great deal of learning will occur through other means.

The children must be part of the process of developing the model. They must have real power in the process leading to buy-in and commitment. They will bring innovation and energy.

Students should have significant power over the ongoing operation and improvement of the model.

The model must not include curriculum delivery requirements. Community values and priorities can inform student goals for required learning and skill development, but even these should be flexible to accommodate children’s diversity and developmental readiness.

Any state curriculum requirements can be translated into learning goals.

Most important of all, the model and those involved with it must have integrity.

Our society has a huge absence of trust right now including in our schools. It’s not always overwhelming or even obvious. Rather, it is a pervasive subtle knowledge that nothing is quite as it seems and nearly everyone is ready to compromise their values.

Our elected leaders, businesses, and individuals readily use the ends to justify the means. Any of us could be the next means that are sacrificed, so we lose trust.

Similarly, organizations (including schools) don’t walk the talk. They say they want to develop independent, critically thinking, innovative students, then they implement reams of rules, policies, codes of conduct, and procedures showing the exact opposite.

Children see right through this and have learned to protect themselves by not putting full trust in schools and their leaders.

If we want children to become thoughtful, independent, innovative, caring, committed citizens in our communities, we have to trust them to demonstrate those attributes without coercion.

That must be at the heart of our efforts to design new education models for a community.

All this is not just for struggling students or those with challenges. Honor students, valedictorians, salutatorians, and the like are being cheated as much as anyone else.

They may excel in the current school model, but they are not approaching their potential. Like every other student, they are capable of so much more than the current model allows them to achieve.

Our world is on fire and one primary reason is an out-of-date education model stunting the potential of entire generations of children. Change the conversation. Let’s reinvent education and unleash the potential of every child and all future generations.

The hope for our future and the future of the world is not in the White House or Congress; it’s in our children. Isn’t that worth talking about?

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Created by

Kevin Miller

A Boomer who joined the Army during the Cold War and continues to serve. Kevin spent 30-plus years working in K-12 education as a teacher, administrator, and consultant. His book, Know Power, Know Responsibility, provides the imperatives for a complete redesign of schools and the way to get there.


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