Some teachers asserted that remote learning during the pandemic was going swell. You can’t argue the point if that’s what they claim, but was it real or their “truth,” that education was doing what it could to accommodate the pandemic, but it sucked and wasn’t even remotely close to actual education. But then, students are back in school, and the stories told before can’t cover the reality in the classroom.
Each fall, about five students show up to Ms. Layne’s class at Sevilla Elementary School East in Phoenix lagging far behind fourth grade-level reading skills. This year, she was stunned to find nearly half of her 25 students tested at kindergarten to first-grade reading levels.
When the pandemic disrupted schools in spring 2020, educators predicted remote learning would set up many children for failure, especially students of color and those from poor families. Test scores from the first months of remote learning showed students falling months behind in reading and math. This fall, as many students returned to classrooms for the first time after 18 months of disruptions, some teachers have found the learning loss is worse than projected.
Fourth grade students reading at a second grade level or worse is a serious educational problem. And you’ll never guess what races suffer most. So it would only seem natural that the education and political establishment would gird its loins to deal with this looming catastrophe. And they are.
Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York City is eliminating gifted programs so no student can excel beyond the lowest common denominator. Oregon has eliminated the requirement that students be capable of reading or doing math to graduate, while others try to use “woke math” to make it relevant to students by making arithmetic secondary to social justice. Schools have adopted curriculum from the 1619 Project, even though it’s historical nonsense.
And now California Governor Gavin Newsom has made ethnic studies a requirement for graduation.
The state’s ethnic studies framework, approved in March, promotes “a social consciousness” and will address “institutionalized systems of advantage” and forms of bigotry including anti-Blackness, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
It’s not just that schools can offer a course in ethnic studies, but that it’s a requirement to graduate. Competence in core academic subjects are no longer requirements to graduate. Taking an ethnic studies course is. Competence in core academic subjects wasn’t good before, and is far worse after the pandemic. The New York Times’ solution was not to test for such matters, as ascertaining that our students were failing in basic skills would make them feel badly about themselves, and to make a big deal out of the fact that students can’t read would be to stigmatize a generation as being uneducated just because they are uneducated.
But others are pushing back against the concept of “learning loss,” especially on behalf of the Black, Hispanic and low-income children who, research shows, have fallen further behind over the past year. They fear that a focus on what’s been lost could incite a moral panic that paints an entire generation as broken, and say that relatively simple, common-sense solutions can help students get back up to speed.
Solutions like tutoring students to learn to read, to add and subtract, are raised, as if that’s not what they’re supposed to be learning during the school day in school. But the “higher math” solution to a problem is to eliminate ascertaining a problem. If you don’t know it, it doesn’t exist.
Others go further, arguing that regardless of what terminology is used, standardized testing to measure the impact of the pandemic is unnecessary or even actively harmful. Voices as prominent as the former New York City schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest educators’ union, have encouraged parents to opt their children out of state tests during the pandemic. “We do not want to impose additional trauma on students that have already been traumatized,” Mr. Carranza said.
Of course, we’re somewhat post-pandemic now, with schools back in session and students back in classrooms. Even if you’ve opted out of testing, it’s not going to make little Johnny able to read just because you’ve hidden the evidence.
For those of us who lived through earlier iterations of pedagogical fashion trends, new math and Ebonics for example, two lessons were learned. The first is that children shouldn’t be the lab rats in pedagogical experimentation. The lofty rationalizations of untested and radical approaches to fixing something that was broken in some ways and worked spectacularly well in others managed to improve little and damage a lot. These are children. They don’t get a second chance at being educated if their public school education was a hip new idea that just failed miserably.
The second thing is that public school education was meant to teach all children the basic academic skills needed to succeed and thrive. Parents send junior to school to learn to read, write, learn math, science and history. Even then, there wasn’t enough time to do most of this well for the students for whom it didn’t come easily. And it wasn’t going well before the pandemic, and the loss of education, the regression no one wants to talk about because it will further traumatize the kids, exacerbated a problem.
When Newsom announced the ethnic studies requirement, the content of which may not be entirely clear even though its prior iterations suggest that it’s very ideological indoctrination wrapped in a rosy bow, it reflected the trend of other states trying to craft laws to prevent teaching critical race theory, to the extent legislators have a clue what CRT is. Whether you think this is swell and important or social Marxism isn’t the point.
The point is that schools are doing a lousy job of fulfilling their basic duty of teaching public school students core academic subjects, and rather than facing the reality that American school children are doing very poorly, are using compulsory education at public expense to achieve ulterior goals.
Years ago, there was an educational non-profit whose promotion was “reading is FUNdamental,” to get children to want to read more. We’re now at the point where the cute capitalized “FUN” is no longer quite so cute, and “reading really is fundamental” if a child is to succeed in society is more the message. And Johnny can’t read, but he will be required to take ethnic studies,* learn woke math and will receive a diploma even if he can’t spell the word. Better that no one know to prevent Johnny from being stigmatized than Johnny be taught to read.
*As an aside, it’s become increasing clear that young people, even those disinclined to progressive views, fail to see why any of this should be controversial. They perceive requirements for ethnic and cultural studies as being a common and normal part of their education, no less so than geometry, and can’t imagine an education that does not include mandatory cultural awareness. If anything, it’s far more basic to their grasp of an appropriate education than geometry.