The School Year Really Ended in March

School-age children across America are struggling to learn under challenging conditions. Some, no doubt, have made real progress.

But it’s time to admit that, for the vast majority of students, online learning and work sheets are no substitute for trained teachers in classrooms.

Educators, parents, students and schools are doing what they can in a harrowing situation. But for most students it isn’t nearly enough, and the United States will need to marshal enormous resources to get education back on track.

That’s a lot of money, roughly equivalent to the cost, in today’s dollars, of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after the devastation of World War II. But the disruption to American society created by this pandemic has no parallel in modern history.

It has exposed and intensified enormous gaps in schools’ and families’ capacity to support children’s learning. Many families, especially in rural areas, lack access to broadband internet service. Parents and multiple siblings may share a single computer, if they have one at all. A quiet place to study may not exist in a small, crowded apartment.

Parents who must leave home to work have limited time to supervise children’s schooling. The same is true for parents who must work from home, who have infants or who are caring for the sick. As Cleveland’s schools prepared to close in late March, teachers set out to speak with every student’s family about remote learning. They were initially able to reach 60 percent of parents. After trying for a few more days, they were still unable to connect with the family of one out of 10 students.

This is what the United States will confront as schools reopen. Fourth grade can’t start in September with the usual curriculum if students missed half of third grade. They will need to compensate with more time spent on learning.

One option is summer school, in places where it is safe to reopen by summer. Another is extended school days and weeks, with the extra hours devoted to bringing children up to speed.

Even after schools restart, there are likely to be rolling closures while the pandemic unfolds. Online instruction will still be needed and should be as effective as possible. Some schools and teachers have made the online transition successfully, but most need technical and pedagogical support.

States can’t possibly foot the bill for an effort on this scale. State tax revenue is plunging, and the states are generally barred from running deficits. Nor is this a project for a nonprofit, a foundation or a private outfit like Kickstarter. The federal government needs to step in.

The return on this investment would be substantial. First, paying for all this would stimulate the economy because teachers and young people would quickly spend what they earned. And then, the economic payoff would keep coming for decades in the form of a better-educated, more productive society.

I home-schooled my kids for a few years, and it wasn’t easy. A lot of luck made it possible: a flexible work schedule, a well-paying job, a supportive spouse, a comfortable home, healthy children, and my own good health and education. Few families have the resources to pull off home schooling. Yet it is now being expected of all parents — including those who hold multiple jobs, are raising children alone, earn the minimum wage and may not have finished high school.

Unless the United States takes action to restore the education that so many children have lost, it will suffer as a society. There is likely to be rising inequality in our schools, with widening gaps in achievement and spiking dropout rates. This surging inequality will then spill into the work force, with the well educated commanding higher salaries because of their scarcity and the poorly educated earning even less because their numbers have grown.

The future I fear is one in which a privileged minority of children are well educated, using private resources like tutors, private schools and home schooling, while the vast majority that depend on the public schools are left even further behind.

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