If you’re like me, you may recall Chicken Little from stories told to you in your childhood. Some of you may know it as Henny Penny, but the basic idea is the same. Chicken Little was out for a walk when struck on the head with an acorn that dropped from a tree. Panicked, Chicken Little began to tell anyone he could, “The sky is falling!” This gloom-and-doom forecast was of course not true, but Chicken Little managed to instill panic into Henny Penny and Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey and a host of others before the story was done.
I am reminded of Chicken Little this week, because I teach in the public schools, and we are coming to the end of our first semester. And we need to talk about how badly it’s going. We need to discuss the fact that the very fabric of life as we know it is falling apart, and that a disaster of epic—and perhaps even Biblical—proportions is coming toward us at full speed. Maybe you’re already aware, but perhaps I am the first to warn you:
Our Students Are Falling Behind!
As background to this disaster: Last March, a number of schools in the nation shut down as part of an effort to shelter in place to combat the spread of coronavirus. For my school district, that happened on Friday, March 13 (cue ominous music). Teachers in my district were given five days to overhaul our curriculum into an online format so that we might begin online instruction on Wednesday, March 18, with the goal of coming back to school in person during the first week of April. Strike that; during mid-April. Strike that; by May 1. Not that, either. As it turned out, we were not going to come back to school in person for the remainder of the school year, so what began as a two-week stopgap measure became “virtual school.”
Then came fall. Here, results vary, but most districts chose one of three options:
Our Students Are Falling Behind!
This is bad, if you didn’t know. For students, it means they are missing out on vital lessons that will prepare them for life in the 21st century. For teachers, it means the evaluations they receive for efficacy will show they are less effective; that can get them disciplined, and even fired. For parents, it means their children lag behind their global competition, so it’s possible someone from Finland or China or Mexico might be coming for their child’s future jobs. And for administrators, too many failing students means one could be labeled a failing school, and that can lead to disciplinary actions, firings, or—worst of all—reduction in funding.
And kids are failing. We have more failing grades than ever before. We have statistical evidence and we have anecdotal evidence. We have spreadsheets. We have charts. Put it all together, and we have the single most powerful force in education today: we have “Data.” You can’t beat Data. Data has let many a district go full “Moneyball” on their young people.
(If you’re unfamiliar with how that works, think of public education as baseball. Data shows us who is going to hit the most home runs, and who strikes out the most. Once a district has identified the lowest quartile of batting averages, it can give directives to raise those batting averages. It rarely provides the actual means to raise those batting averages—for example, hiring more teachers which makes for smaller class sizes and more personalized approaches to “batting practice”—providing the directive is enough. With a directive but without the means, the teacher is left to fend for her/himself, and if it goes poorly, a child’s low batting average is therefore the teacher’s fault; the district can conclude that batting averages didn’t rise because the district had the wrong coach. The end result is that far more districts care less about the Home Run Champions and far more about how many batters get on base, even if they get there with a walk, or—God forbid—are hit by a pitch.)
But I digress. The main point is that this data is crystal clear. It says:
Our Students Are Falling Behind!
Some students, it turns out, don’t learn well in the virtual model. Some don’t learn well in the hybrid model. It turns out that part of student learning might be very closely tied to being in school, but in a COVID paradox, coming to school strongly increases the chances of being sent home and into quarantine as students contract the coronavirus. That, in turn, means those students will end up having to learn virtually for a good portion of the year.
On top of that, a lot of the students are stressed. Maybe they don’t learn as well in the new format but their parents want them to get the same grades anyway. Maybe they have to come back to school full-time because it’s open, but they’re terrified while they are there.
Some of this fear is a little morbid. Every time the phone rings in my classroom, the students start a betting pool as to who is going to have to be sent home next. A certain gallows humor emerges whenever the principal or assistant principal knocks on the classroom door, looks through the window, and gives a teacher the “come here, please” sign.
But some of this fear is just plain fear. Some kids are scared of getting sick. Some are scared of getting others sick. Some are scared because their best friend is quarantined for two weeks and now they don’t have anyone to eat lunch with. Some are scared because their parent’s restaurant is losing money because fewer people are going to eat, or their parents are fighting more, or their grandmother seems to be coughing a lot.
And of course, some aren’t scared at all. Some think the virus is a hoax, that masks are a violation of their personal freedoms, and they will work to take their off or let it fall below their nose—or below their chin—whenever they please. Which only scares other kids more, because they view the non-mask-wearers as ignorant petri dishes just waiting to infect the entire classroom with a virus, or with ignorance, or both.
What I mean to say is that Our Students Are Falling Behind! because that’s normal. Some students haven’t been inside of a classroom in 10 months. Some have gone from five days of instruction to two or three. Some have tried to be there all five days, but have been unable to do so because of quarantines. But whichever model is in play, students are doing their best in the midst of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Americans, as of this writing, and there are far more important things going on than their grades.
In spite of all of that, last week I assigned them Friedrich the Great’s “Essay on the Forms of Government,” and we talked for almost an hour about what government is supposed to do, and be. We talked about reasons for taxation and why punishment needs to fit the crime, and what can be done with the poor, and reasons to maintain a military, and I’m here to tell you: These kids aced it. (And rest easy, data people; everyone passed, and not because I wanted them all to get on base, but because everyone deserved it.)
And today, when I had a class of three students because a quarter of our school population was quarantined, and then a class of two students for the same reason, we just talked. We could have talked about the Reign of Terror and its effect on France, but instead we talked about why I became a teacher. We talked about the importance of creating a mixed tape when trying to pick up girls in the late 80’s and early 90’s. We talked about my favorite class in high school and about their favorite class in high school, and why grades were or weren’t important, and what they hoped to do in future years, and how much we all really, really wanted to get vaccinated.
The moral of this story is both simple and true: The sky isn’t falling, and the kids are all right. If they’re behind, so what? Teachers meet students where they are. We teach the ones who are behind, and we teach the ones who are ahead, and we do that in person, or virtually, or sometimes through the mail. Just get out of the way and let us teach, and the students will learn. That’s the whole reason we show up in the morning.
The kids are all right. No one from Finland is going to show up to steal their babysitting gig or their after-school job at Culver’s, because their bosses at those jobs value flexibility, and the ability to think on their feet, and the ability to keep working even when faced with really hard challenges. And all of those things are things students have learned by trying to go to school in a pandemic.
And you know what? The schools are all right, too. They’re doing what they always do, but now they’re doing it in three different schedules with routine absences among the student body and the threat of illness lurking everywhere. On top of that, they’re organizing food pantries and sending meals home for families and providing free laptops, and they’re doing all those things for the masked and unmasked alike. So let’s give schools a break. They’re not failing; the social safety net is.
I don’t know when this virus will go away, and neither do you. But it will go away, and if on that day students’ test scores are a little lower, on average, maybe we can give the young people credit for everything they’ve endured instead of listing the ways they came up short. Maybe we can remember that these are human beings we’re talking about, and not batting averages, and treat them as such.
So ease up, Chicken Little. The sky isn’t falling. The sky’s the limit. I work with young people every day, and they’re amazing; if you let them, they’ll amaze you, too.