How to re-open public schools - Granite Grok

How to re-open public schools

About the only thing we can say for sure about the next school year is that it will be very different from previous ones.  How can we make the best use of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the bathwater, while keeping a firm grip on the baby?

So far, efforts to figure out what the ‘new normal’ for schools should be are focused on minimizing opportunities for the virus to spread between students, teachers, and other school personnel — through the use of remote learning, the use of masks and social distancing, the rearrangement of schedules, the elimination of food services (and perhaps even restrooms), and so on.

In keeping with His Excellency’s view that ‘public health trumps everything’, suppose we take as our organizing principle that we should minimize the use of shared spaces.  An obvious way to do that is to limit what happens in school buildings to things that need to happen there.

For example, suppose we categorize learning activities in the following way:

  Necessary to participate
intelligently in the American
political, economic, and social
systems of a free government¹
Not necessary
for participation
Requires the use
of shared physical
spaces for teaching
School building Nowhere
Does not require
shared spaces
Elsewhere Nowhere

Note that the only activities that should be happening in public school buildings (or on public school grounds) are the ones in the upper-left category.  What’s interesting is that the intersection of these two sets (activities that require shared spaces, and activities that are necessary) is empty:

  Necessary to participate
intelligently in the American
political, economic, and social
systems of a free government
Not necessary
for participation
Requires the use
of shared physical
spaces for teaching
Uh, … Music, visual arts,
sports, physical
education,
laboratory sciences,
vocational classes.
Does not require
shared spaces
Reading, writing, rhetoric,
math (through statistics),
logic, scientific reasoning.
Literature, foreign
language, history,
AP courses.

I expect that a lot of people will disagree about whether some of those subjects in the right half of the table are, in fact, necessary.  But ask yourself:  Do you know people who are intelligently participating in society without knowing how to play an instrument, play a sport, perform a chemistry or physics experiment, operate a welder, speak a foreign language, and so on?  If you do, then those things aren’t necessary, are they?

I also expect that some people will want to include ‘special needs’ instruction in the left half of the table.  But a lot special needs instruction only requires shared spaces in the sense that schools are required to find the ‘least restrictive environment’ for each student, which normally means ‘in a classroom with other students’.  But if there aren’t any classrooms, then the least restrictive environment for these students is at home, just as it is for their fellow students.

That is, the special needs student and the special needs instructor may need to share a physical space with each other, but they don’t need to share it with other students.

All of which is to say that re-opening the schools doesn’t require re-opening the school buildings.  Anything that could be done in those buildings can be done elsewhere — and in many cases shouldn’t be done at all at taxpayer expense.

So we are being handed the opportunity to refine the public school curriculum to make it commensurate with its stated purpose, as well as more compatible with our desire for fairness.

This in turn creates a second opportunity, which is to change our focus from keeping students in school for as long as possible, to getting students through school as quickly as possible.

To take advantage of this opportunity, we need to ask:  What are we doing now that interferes with that outcome?  An initial list might look like:

  • Mandatory attendance laws
  • Minimum class time regulations
  • Bloated graduation requirements
  • Cohorts and grade levels
  • Misguided standards

Many of those can be wiped away by the Department of Education, or by the General Court.  Or, if we’re in a hurry, His Excellency can toss them aside with the stroke of a pen.

But perhaps the biggest source of interference is conflating schooling with day care.   We keep trying to use a single institution (schools) to accomplish two misaligned goals (teaching and warehousing), with predictable results.   The good news is, since the Supreme Court hasn’t (yet) discovered a constitutional right to subsidized day care, this offers us a much-needed opportunity to disentangle education from day care.

As I’ve said elsewhere, two things that are desperately missing from our school standards are priority² and independence³.  In the Age of Pandemics, these have become more crucial than ever.  There are a couple of relatively simple things we can do to bring public schools into alignment with the goals of minimizing the use of shared spaces, and minimizing time to graduation:

  1. A student who is not yet proficient in reading and math shouldn’t really be working on anything else, because those are fundamentals for being able to learn independently, and learning independently is the skill most needed by students in the post-COVID world.
  2. Testing out of courses should become the norm, rather than the exception.  This would adopt the central insight of Learn Everywhere, without dragging along its bureaucratic baggage:  If a student has mastered a subject, it really makes no difference at all where or how he learned it, or how long that took.  And he certainly shouldn’t have to wait for the arrival of some arbitrary deadline before being able to move on to other subjects.

I don’t even have to mention how much money we’d save by making these changes, do I?

Possibly the only thing more stupid than blowing up our economy and our society the way we have, would be to just try to put schools back together the way they were —  with 60% of kids failing to achieve proficiency in reading and math, and funding issues placing us on a collision course with state-wide income and sales taxes.

This is our chance.  We may not get another one like it… until His Excellency declares the next emergency.

 


¹ I am relying here on the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s justification for using taxes to fund schools in the first place.

² By ‘priority’ I just mean that some things are more fundamental than others, and must be dealt with first.  If you’re in a course on American history, but your reading skills are below proficiency, then you should be working on reading instead of listening to someone explain the subject to you.  If you’re not rock solid on your arithmetic skills, you certainly shouldn’t be taking algebra… but you also shouldn’t be taking courses in, say, fashion merchandising.

³ By ‘independence’ I just mean that the single most important thing that you should be learning is how to direct your own learning, how to become your own teacher, so that you can learn whatever you want to later on.  Nothing else even approaches this in importance.