Public School Panic: We’re Going Back to the ’90’s!


Quick! Push the PANIC BUTTON! We are in the midst of an educational crisis! Our valuable children are falling behind, jeopardizing their futures and the future of our nation! Something must be done! Our children will not be prepared for the 21st-century marketplace and will find themselves living in a box under an overpass…probably in a Democratic city!

In 2020 the United States responded to a global pandemic in a reasonable way. We shut down our schools until we could discern the risks to our children. After all, the first responsibility of any society is to protect the children first. Here was a disease that we knew little about. It would have been irresponsible to keep schools open.

Teachers scrambled to, in essence, reinvent education. We developed online curricula and assessments and worked hard to offer some level of continuity to our students. Every teacher knew going in that there was no sound substitute for in-class, face-to-face instruction. Educators understand that teaching is more than just delivering the content. It’s about relationships. It’s about inspiring students, pushing them to learn. That’s something that cannot be accomplished over Zoom, staring at a blank screen if not a student’s forehead, or the ceiling fan in their bedroom. But we did our best. Again, some school systems were better equipped, had more available resources, to support these innovative approaches than others.

Eventually, the crisis became manageable even as it continued to threaten our communities. We all received an education in PPEs, air circulation, barrier methods, and other strategies for mitigating the risks of viral transmission. As we learned about the virus’s transmissibility and developed strategies to manage the risks we re-opened schools. We learned to identify our students by looking at their eyes, the rest of their faces covered in masks. Our classrooms smelled of disinfectant. It turns out that the very public schools that we all take for granted are actually keystone institutions in our society. If kids can’t go to school, a great deal of work cannot be done, and a great deal of economic productivity stagnates. Teachers are among the most “essential” of our essential workforce.

Who knew?

Again, some schools and school systems were better equipped to deal with the crisis than others. Underfunded districts with old, poorly ventilated buildings and overcrowded classrooms were at a disadvantage. And it wasn’t just students who needed to be protected. All teachers wanted to return to their classrooms, but many found the risks of returning to work too high. Some had health issues, children with immune disorders, or elderly family members in the home. Some especially vocal parents, understandably desperate to get their children back to in-person learning, were outraged that teachers were actually looking out for themselves and hesitant to return to overcrowded, poorly ventilated classrooms. Those selfish teachers, not putting other people’s needs before their own!

The loss of in-person class time and the disparities between districts on opening schools offered an opportunity for a widespread national experiment in the value of public schools. Well, the numbers are coming in. Right on schedule, the response from the media is to draw exactly the wrong conclusion.

And panic ensues!

The main discourse has to do with some mystical “loss of progress” and “evaporation of decades worth of gains” that we experienced as a result of school closures. Edweek opens its piece on the subject by claiming, “The pandemic has smacked American students back to the last century in math and reading achievement.” Wow! Back to the last century! The New York Times reports that “The Pandemic Erased Two Decades of Progress in Math and Reading” lamenting that “9-year-olds lost ground in math, and scores in reading fell by the largest margin in more than 30 years.” Wait! Nine-year-olds lost two decades of progress? That’s unbelievable! Fortune Magazine quotes the Director of the National Center for Educational Progress, Peggy Carr, “This is a serious wakeup call for us all.”

To be sure, there are plenty of things we need to wake up to (does that mean we’ll be “WOKE”? Is waking up illegal in Florida?) with regard to education. Losing “decades of progress” is probably not one of them.

Why do I say this? Well, let’s actually take a look at the data that is being referenced. (Click the arrows to advance the slides)

There. Doesn’t look quite so scary when you actually look at it, does it?

So, what does this data tell us?

Let’s take the 8th Grade Average Scale Reading Scores (slide 8…sorry, the slides that do not specify are 8th grade). What this graph tells us is that of the cohort who took the NAEP 8th Grade Reading Exam, the average scale score was about the same as it was for the same-age cohort that took the exam in 1994. Members of this 1994 cohort are now about forty-two or forty-three years old. If you were born in 1980 or 81, like Beyoncé or Lin-Manuel Miranda, that is your cohort. The media sphere is in a panic because students today are scoring only as high as you did. How does that make you feel Lin-Manuel?

Of course, there is also concern for the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged and racially marginalized groups. Though all groups experienced a drop in performance on the NAEP, disadvantaged groups experienced even greater declines. The data, however, seems to indicate that this is a continuity in historical education gaps rather than a reversal of significant progress.

Should we be worried? According to the director of the Annenberg Institute, quoted in the New York Times, “Student test scores, even starting in first, second and third grade, are really quite predictive of their success later in school, and their educational trajectories overall,” Well…not really. Test scores may be predictive of success later in school, but that’s about the beginning and the end of the correlation. As for later success, GPA is a much better predictor of future success than are test scores. Furthermore, this may not be a causal relationship as a higher GPA opens more opportunities for students than lower GPAs. If a student is willing and able to work hard, they are going to be all right in the end.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing to be concerned about or that lost learning opportunities were not meaningful. They were. Tom Kane at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard and Sean Reardon at Stanford’s Educational Opportunity Project have put together and analyzed an Education Recovery Scorecard that offers a more granular understanding of lost educational progress among American students. This research confirms that students did, in fact, lose academic ground as a result of the pandemic. Ground that they are unlikely to regain by the end of secondary schooling. According to their article in the New York Times, “By the spring of 2022…the average student was half a year behind in math and a third of a year behind in reading.” Predictably, students in poor and marginalized communities were hit even harder by the pandemic. Furthermore, relatively wealthy students attending schools in poor districts were no better off for their higher status. School and district-level factors mattered in how much learning was lost.

That being said, the research indicates that school-level factors were not the only variables involved. According to the New York Times article, “…the educational impacts of the pandemic were not driven solely by what was happening (or not happening) in schools. The disruption in children’s lives outside of school also mattered…” The length of time that schools were closed was predictive of learning loss, but so were community factors like the Covid death rate, disruption to adult lives and mental health, or “…where daily routines of children and families were most significantly restricted…” were also leading indicators of lost learning. Even areas demonstrating a lack of “institutional trust” such as low voting rates and census participation, were harder hit.

As typical, the author’s prescriptions to resolve this learning deficit is inadequate if not entirely the opposite of what is needed. In essence, Kane and Reardon advocate for more instructional time. Tutoring, summer school, trackable online learning, extending the instructional day, year-round school. The authors, however, note that even with these interventions, it could take years to overcome the learning loss…years that our secondary students do not have.

There’s nothing wrong with these suggestions…if and only if they were completely voluntary and teachers were adequately compensated for the increased time and workload. However, these solutions completely miss the point revealed by the research.

For the last twenty-five to thirty years, public schools have been treated as career and training centers. Academic achievement and progress have been the proxy measure for American competitiveness in the global market. We’ve incorporated business models of accountability, objective measures, and efficiency into the curriculum. What do we have to show for it? Take a look at the NAEP scores above. Do they look impressive? Aside from some early progress in mathematics in the 90s market-based educational reforms have mostly flatlined.

As someone on the frontlines of education, I can attest that the benefits of this thirty-year-old reform model are far and away outweighed by the costs. Our most successful students are bundles of stress and anxiety, tested and retested. Our least successful students are like the storied rats in the cage, punished for moving they simply give up and resign themselves to their fate, unconsciously going through the motions or very consciously resisting school norms and getting suspended. For all of these students, their natural desire to learn, their innate curiosity, their intrinsic creativity and innovation, the fire of the mind that has driven humanity since the genesis of our species, are effectively snuffed out. The last thing in the world our students need at this point is more time in the toxic environment that is contemporary American schools.

The pandemic, if nothing else, offered us an opportunity to reimagine schools. We know that public schools are essential to a functioning society. But why? What makes them so important and how can we build on this knowledge to create a truly revolutionary educational system that will take us beyond the industrial age academic conveyor belt to the truly innovative, creative, and liberating institution necessary for the next great era of human history.

The pandemic has taught us that schools, at their best, are sanctuaries from the “real world.” They are places where people can escape the pressures of our culture, our social obligations, and especially our political-economy, and engage themselves in advancing their precious human potential. Every attempt to transform schools into repositories of practical knowledge and skills has only managed to dull the edge of human knowledge.

The reason I’m not particularly concerned about the “lost learning” indicated in the research above is because I know that learning does not begin or end at the classroom door. This is literally the motto of my class! My goal is never to just bring my kids into my classroom and teach them stuff. My goal is to inspire them to go out and learn stuff on their own and to provide them with the tools they need to do so effectively. If all schools were designed around this central idea, and all resourced to do so evenly, without regard to socioeconomic status, there would be little concern for “lost learning.”

I teach in Southwest Florida. In the last three years, my students have experienced two great disruptions to their learning. The pandemic in 2020 shut down schools for three months and disrupted normal education for at least a year after that, and Hurricane Ian shut down schools in my district for as long as two months for many in my community.

In my lifetime I’ve seen countless disruptions to education. Drug epidemics. Gang wars. Terrorist attacks. Recessions. Hurricanes. Active shooters. These are community-level disruptions that we all share. Any given family may be undergoing innumerable personal disasters that can disrupt the learning time of children. Divorce. Abuse. Poverty. Racism. Unemployment. Sickness. Fires. I was talking to a young woman just yesterday who had been kicked out of her house and needed some extra help to get “caught up” on her work.

The pandemic, because it necessitated shutting down schools and then restructuring how schools functioned for everyone without regard to social standing made “lost learning” disruptions relevant to everyone at the same time. This is the value of the pandemic as a learning tool. We all had the same experiences. We all learned just how “essential” public schools are to all of our lives. But at any given time there are unlimited disruptions to learning of which we are less aware. And learning time is valuable.

That’s why defining schools and classrooms as a place to learn is the least effective philosophy for organizing schools. That’s why objective measures of learning and Value Added measures to hold teachers accountable are the least effective reforms that can be implemented.

Schools need to be reimagined as sanctuaries where people (and not necessarily children1) can go to learn how to learn and to be inspired to do so.

All of those students who have fallen behind as a result of the pandemic will be okay if we as teachers, as parents, as community members, inculcate in them their natural desire to learn on their own. This does not require increased instructional time, lost summers, more homework, more rigor. This requires more empathy, more passion, more freedom, more inquiry in the classroom that can be translated into the “real world” where there is more potential access to learning than at any other time in human history.

All schools should be constructed as such sanctuaries from the ever-present disruptions of everyday life. Schools need to be more than adequately resourced. School buildings must be healthy places to be at all times…not just during pandemics. Teachers and students must know that they will be respected as they navigate life between the sanctuary of the school and the discontents of the real world. It’s not just about being prepared for the next pandemic. It’s about being prepared for the next stage of human history that is coming sooner rather than later.

This is the real lesson of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, no student ever learns exactly the lesson that the teacher is trying to teach. I fear that the lessons that will be learned by our bass-ackward policymakers will be exactly the opposite of what we need.

Sources Not Linked in the Post


  1. Every year, during open house, when I meet parents and family members and explain to them what I will be teaching, I hear the same thing over and over. “I wish I could take your class!” I always say to myself, “well…why can’t you?” What if schools were a place everyone could go and learn. How would that revolutionary change in approach completely alter how we conduct class.

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