COVID-19 Took Away Public Education. Will We Miss It?

Frederick M. Hess:

A week after COVID-19 prompted the closure of Virginia’s schools, my five-year-old’s Montessori teacher started doing 30 minutes of Zoom with the class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. The content is nothing to write home about. The teacher reads a story, talks a bit about daffodils or frogs, and might celebrate a kid’s birthday.

But, you know what? The first morning, Grayson was utterly transfixed. He shyly extended his hand to touch his teacher’s face on the iPad. He giggled when she said good morning to him. He bounced as he pointed out each classmate in his or her little Zoom box. Watching this, I found myself choking back tears. 

Humans are social creatures. A primary task for schools is to help ensure that socialization takes a productive, healthy direction. That’s been widely recognized at least since Plato first sketched his fascist fantasy of schooling in The Republic. Even before the coronavirus, schools have been taking on more and more of this burden as civil society has atrophied, with schools asked to play the role once more widely shouldered by churches, Boy Scout troops, and 4-H clubs. 

But socialization is hardly the only purpose of schooling: Schools are also, of course, the places where we expect youth to learn the knowledge, skills, and habits needed to be responsible, autonomous citizens. Lots of adults in a community — from cousins to coaches — may be able to mentor a kid or provide a shoulder to cry on. Few, outside of educators, are prepared to coherently teach algebra, biology, or Spanish. 

Madison’s taxpayer supported K-12 school district, despite spending far more than most, has long tolerated disastrous reading results.

In addition, Madison recently expanded its least diverse schools.