People believed that education failed to teach basic skills to students before COVID-19. People after lock down believe that public school distance education is a sham. Neither matters. The failure of factory education is real, but it is not about learning or quality. Learning and quality are distractions from the issue of schooling. The public belief in a systemic failure of schools began with the abysmal assessment by Rudolph Flesch in 1955, Why Johnny Can’t Read – And What You Can Do About It . The idea that schools fail students stuck and remains fresh. National Review published “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read” by Baker A. Mitchell Jr. on October 10, 2020. The article focused again on quality of education. The topic is evergreen, but still not relevant. Public education is doing very well in the United States. You just need to measure the right thing.
Educators like reform because reform implies that the current education system can be improved tactically. Educators intentionally conflate learning with education. People learn. For example, about 80% of students learn to read well using any educational method, as shown by Russ Walsh1 so long as they are exposed to reading. Given opportunity and motivation, people can learn almost anything. Education is different. Education begins with ideas, with curriculum, and intends to insert these ideas and facts into students. Learning basic skills is often incidental.
According to a 2017 Gallup Poll, public perception has been stable for many decades. Stable, but not good. The 2017 result of 36% public confidence in educational quality could not elect a dogcatcher. It does not have to elect anyone. The survey results would kill most commercial products. Stores can’t sell milk at 36% consumer confidence. Nobody buys a car with 36% confidence in its quality.
The education industry works on what is important: to increase budgets, to implement changes, to redesign the testing process, and make revisions to curriculum. Education and reform progresses decade after decade, budget after budget, regardless of the public opinion of quality.
The education establishment knows that children are the product. No matter how people feel about schooling, the vast majority of residents send their children to one public school or another private school for as long as the children will attend. Parents in every social stratum expose children to educational institutions. They did before 1955. They do today.
Public opinion of the educational system is declining, according to the media, but not according to polls of the public. Media coverage of education is skeptical on the editorial page, but it lists school closings prominently during bad weather.
Educators and politicians find the idea of a broken education system useful to squeeze the public bankroll. Public demand for better quality gets teachers hired, gets higher pay, and gets public support for increased funding of the industry. This industry employs “3.2 million full-time-equivalent teachers, according to federal projections for the fall of 2020,” and “90,850 public school principals in the U.S., according to 2017-18 numbers from NCES .” And it gives jobs to school bus drivers, mechanics, and millions of other workers, some in school bus factories.
The system puts 27,000 yellow buses on the roads twice a day, five days a week in every nook and cranny of America. That is not evidence of a broken system. Millions of families participate. Millions. These people are not confronted with a failed system. Ask anyone to ride a bus in Los Angeles. Millions don’t. That’s a failed system.
Educators support the current system because it works for them. People come out of the educational factory and staff jobs. Other people come out and populate jails. Everything works. Prisons need illiterate criminals as much as Microsoft needs social media analysts. Bodies through the system are the only product.
The President of the United States made opening schools a priority issue in 2021 despite the reality that teachers generally felt safer working from home during the pandemic. The quality of teaching changed little. Distance programs provided the students with remote classrooms. Lessons proceeded. Teachers appeared. Teachers taught. Seniors graduated in the spring. Social services continued as before. For most anyway. Why the urgency for a return to brick and mortar schooling? Education was broken in 2020. The factory closed. No product moved down the assembly line. The “butts in seats” education requires school bus drivers getting up before dawn. It requires factory attendance. The virtual education factory is no factory, so the people who benefit most from the brick-and-mortar education system will resist change. Educators today are like small shop owners looking at a Walmart opening across the street.
School does not need to be a factory in 2021. If the focus on making the virtual school better became fashionable, it could align with all the other changes in the Internet Age. This shutdown could be the opportunity to upgrade broadband, give access to poor neighborhoods and rural areas, provide resources to families, and improve learning quality. All that modernization of public infrastructure would bring additional benefits to all parts of the country, the way the Interstate Highway System improved commerce and vacations.
What would America be like without the familiar school on the corner? Maybe factory education follows big newspapers, typesetter unions, stenographers and the corner grocery into Internet Heaven. Maybe it will follow the yellow school bus into history.
1 By Russ Walsh | Original article on Russ on Reading | Russ Walsh is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for My Child | Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble | Twitter: @ruswalsh