Back To School?

Barring yet another confusing reversal of Covid-19 guidelines from the CDC, it seems that students will be back in the classrooms of our nation’s schools and colleges this fall. We will, of course, suffer through endless iterations of America’s new Prince Hamlet question—“To mask or not to mask. That is the question!”—but the doors should open and the students should eventually stream back in. However, the new reality is that education will be very different than it was only a couple of years ago, and the seat time instruction model that provides the paychecks for teachers, administrators, and support staff across the country might find itself in the most profound peril.

Just as tens of millions of America’s office workers have discovered over past 18 months that they can work perfectly well outside of an office building, so did tens of millions of students and their parents discovered that schooling is perfectly possible without an actual brick and mortar school.

Was this always either preferable or effective as a method of instruction? No, it was not. Students with special needs, those without the technology for remote schooling, and frustrated parents who were simultaneously learning to work from home while educating their children were all stupendously unhappy when public health officials abruptly slammed America’s schools and colleges shut last March. However, as the problems were slowly and sometimes painfully worked out over time, better instructional systems were put into place, and more parents and students got a crash course on home schooling. Necessity dictated new understandings of what was possible and desirable.

Classroom instruction has many intrinsic advantages, but there are obvious drawbacks to the traditional factory model of education—particularly for younger students. Students who are capable of learning faster are forced to slow down; students who struggle with learning are often left behind. Teachers who cannot effectively manage their classrooms are worse than useless. Students might be subjected to bullying or harassment, and the lack of rigor in much classroom instruction has been a well-documented disaster for decades.

Now added to these problems are new concerns about efforts to introduce highly questionable instructional materials concerning race, gender, human sexuality, and politics to young and impressionable children without the consent—and often against the clearly expressed wishes—of their parents.

It seems entirely likely that the culture wars now raging across our nation are going to drive more and more parents to pull their children from America’s public schools in favor of a rapidly expanding network of private school, online instructional, and individual home schooling alternatives. Teacher unions and their allies in the Democratic Party will use every tool at their disposal to dissuade—or obstruct—those parents who are fed up with the poor quality and politicized agenda of today’s public schools from exercising their right to find better educational alternatives for their children, but I suspect this will be a more and more futile effort.

Colleges and universities also will find fewer parents and students who are willing to write enormous checks for higher education that suffers from its own problems with crushing political correctness and slackening academic standards. Moreover, the past year of online learning has left a bad taste in the mouths of many who suddenly realized that the lofty Latinate phrases carved into the granite of the campuses might better translate into “give us your money and shut the hell up.” Having seen first hand that the post-secondary business is, in fact, a business, it would be not be a surprise if more students now decided to take their business elsewhere. Schools of Engineering will continue to do just fine, but a lot of leafy and extortionate liberal arts colleges are probably going to be shutting their doors in the years ahead.

What all of this adds up to is simple enough: an ugly, divisive, and Darwinian battle for the students every college will need in order to make their payroll in the years ahead. Everyone’s survival will depend on their abilities to both poach students from their competitors and retain those they already have in hand. The 3 R’s will increasingly be discarded in favor of the new 2 R’s—Recruitment and Retention. Expect a lot of pleas for higher education bailouts in the years to come.

Prioritizing keeping the seats occupied above all else will result in an academically undemanding “the customer is always right” ethos that will translate into yet more grade inflation, even less focus on learning standards, and additional non-educational add-ons all the way from kindergarten to college. The dumbing down of America, which has been trotting blithely along for many decades, will become a mad gallop toward depressing mediocrity.

It is hard to be optimistic in the face of oversupply crashing into drastically shrinking demand, and we can be certain that all levels of the education industry will be desperately micro-targeting populations and subjects of study that they perceive as growth opportunities. As is typically the case, the private sector will be far more agile and inventive, which will send lobbyists scurrying to help erect as many regulatory barriers as possible to a competitive and open marketplace in which parents and students can make their best choices. One can only hope there are limits to the favor that campaign contributions can purchase; it would be shameful to sacrifice the futures of yet another generation of students in order to provide jobs for marginally competent educators and overpaid administrators.

The changes will—as changes often are—be both tumultuous and profoundly disturbing to those who benefit from today’s dysfunctional status quo. However, if we can learn to ignore the supposed experts and enable the necessary revolution, which has been forestalled for over 50 years by teacher union payola and the politicians it has bought, we might finally be able to provide the innovative and exciting educational opportunities that our nation’s children have long deserved.