The Wall Street Journal has published a story on student test performance in the wake of Covid inspired school shutdowns. According to the story, “American children started school this fall significantly behind expectations in math, and modestly behind in some grades in reading, according to one of the first reports on widely used tests since the coronavirus pandemic shut schools in March.”
It isn’t like student test scores were humming along just fine pre-pandemic. As the Journal reports “On an American test known as the Nation’s Report Card, only 34% of eighth-graders were proficient in math last year, meaning they showed competence in challenging subject matter, and 34% were proficient in reading.”
On the other hand, students in Catholic and other private schools had smaller average declines in math and exceeded expectations in reading. It is worth noting that many Catholic and otherwise private schools have remained open during the pandemic, and with minimal infection rates.
At the same time Black, Hispanic and low-income household students fell further behind the averages, although the change was not statistically significant given the already wide gap between those groups and the averages.
These fall-offs in performance are likely to be devastating, especially in minority and low-income areas that depend on public school systems. Consider: The education process is cumulative. Students are presented with increasingly challenging material, based on previous learning, as they progress through the grades. Which means that failing to learn 3rd grade material makes it increasingly difficult to learn 4th grade material and so on. To say nothing of social development.
Let’s confront the fact that only one-third of 8th grade students are proficient in reading or math to begin with. Add to that the knock-on effects of school closings (and distance learning) and it becomes obvious that in later years, the impact on students, especially minorities, is likely to be catastrophic.
So why is it that progressives have been especially adamant about closing down the schools and resorting to distance learning? Let’s think about (1) what the incentive structure of the public school system actually is versus (2) what it should be.
The fact is that the nation’s public primary and secondary schools are run for the benefit of their adult employees. Not surprisingly, all the incentives point in that direction. The incentives ought to be structured to benefit the students. But students are the last concern of the public schools. The evidence for this is straightforward. If the schools were concerned with providing students with a decent education, two-thirds of 8th graders would not be less than proficient in reading and math. And it would be possible to fire incompetent teachers. But it isn’t.
The root of the problem is that the school system is funded by third party payers. That payer is government, mostly local, and those governments are heavily influenced by (the mostly progressive) Teachers Unions. Their mission is to protect the interests of their members. The interests of the students are very far down the list of priorities.
The public schools system is a monopoly, and like any monopoly it acts ruthlessly to defend its monopoly position. That helps to explain why the Unions have been so intent on closing the schools, with the pandemic being a convenient excuse. This despite virtually no evidence that the pandemic presents more than a vanishingly small risk to either students or teachers.
Note that the Unions have attempted to get governors to decree that all schools in their respective states close, not just public schools. Since public schools and their teachers are being funded anyway, an order to close all schools would financially squeeze private schools that depend on tuition for survival. That is the point of the exercise—to put competitors out of business. Mercifully, after some initial successes, universal closure orders have been batted down.
Some, but not all, Catholic and private schools have opened for in-person instruction. Those schools have had minimal levels of Covid infections. Charlie Baker, Governor of Massachusetts pointed out in late October that open parochial schools in the state with 28,000 students and 4,000 employees have been operating safely in-person since mid August. They have had “only a handful of cases”.
You would think that the education establishment would be shamed by all this, but you would be wrong. They continue to press on, spouting all kinds of cant about Social Justice, while crushing opportunity for kids, especially the most vulnerable. And now to make matters worse, among those up for consideration for Education Secretary is none other than Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers.
The iron-fisted Weingarten, who has been a relentless advocate for the union monopoly she oversees, is a friend of the bureaucratic command-and-control model of governance that has served teachers so well and students so poorly. Then again, it is the model that President elect Biden has always been comfortable with. And like Biden, Weingarten has been caught plagiarizing material, so they also share that in common.
Progressives routinely pat themselves on the back, claiming to represent the interest of minorities. One of the most important ways that the interests of minorities can be advanced is through educational opportunity—real, not faux educational opportunity. Don’t bet on it though, the command-and-control model looks to be firmly back in the saddle.