COVID-19 and rethinking grade school

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Like most people, my kids are now home from school. At first, I’m sure most kids celebrated, like mine did. Yesterday was a turning point for my youngest daughter though, because when she told me that she was going back to school in another week, I told her that wouldn’t happen.

My prediction is that we don’t go back to anything normal until at least April. While I don’t believe the gloom and doom, 12-18 month recession, Fallout-style post-apocalypse robbing your neighbor for toilet paper worldview that seems to get pushed around, I also don’t think this will quickly resolve itself. We are going to hunker down for a lot longer than anyone imagined. This is not like a hurricane, where the storm passes and normalcy is restored in around 1-2 weeks. It’s going to take a while.

In the aftermath, it’s going to change grade school education. Right now my kid’s schools are struggling with how to fairly teach classes. I say “fairly” because there are still kids that don’t have internet at home, so simply saying “Move your class online” isn’t always going to work. Worse still is that we have lots of parents that just don’t care about their kids education and viewed school as the babysitting service so they could go to work. Normally teachers could cover up this problem, but COVID-19 is tearing that scab off.

There will be a bunch of kids that will benefit from learning at home. People will be surprised to find that in terms of hours of education per day, schools are fairly inefficient at teaching high-performing children. That’s a combination of large class size and the 90/10 rule of poor performing children, where you spend 90% of your time teaching the bottom 10% of your class. At home, in the right setup, a high performing kid can blow through lessons quickly when there is no bullying, food fights, and other distractions.

When these kids go back to school, schools will want to hold them back. We’ll hear about “social development” problems of skipping a grade. But that’s not really an issue. The problem is we view grade level and age as linked, even though we know that some people mature and learn faster than others. In the past, these kids were one-offs because there just wasn’t a lot of them. It’s going to become much more obvious when thousands of kids nation-wide test high enough to merit skipping a grade.

The reverse is true too. Plenty of kids won’t test high enough to merit passing their grade. In many cases it won’t be there fault. Many kids benefit from the structure, discipline and food that comes with school, and too many have parents who can’t or won’t provide a decent home to learn in. We cannot abandoned these kids. As a nation, we should be planning to hold summer schools to catch these kids up.

Perhaps COVID-19 can change how view grade school education in general. Instead of linking age to grade level, we focus more on testing and placing kids according to their performance, giving kids that are high performing more challenges early on. This means they graduate sooner and have more chances at a younger age for higher education. For kids that struggle, why are we not regularly providing summer school? We know the kids that aren’t doing well. Making them come to summer school, both to finish their current grade and to get a jump on the next grade, might be the ticket to better performance. It also gives us an excuse to pay teachers more and give them full-year compensation.

COVID-19 sucks, but it might be what we need to change our old views on grade school education.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

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