By James Pethokoukis and Frederick M. Hess
America’s schoolchildren have been among the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with disruptions continuing in some districts throughout this spring semester. And even where classroom practices have returned to normal, learning loss presents a real challenge to the nation’s teachers. So how dire is the situation? And what educational reforms might help our kids as we move ahead? To answer those questions, I interviewed AEI’s Rick Hess.
Rick is my colleague
at the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a senior fellow and director
of Education Policy Studies. Among Rick’s recent work on K–12 and higher
education issues is “Education After the Pandemic,” written for the winter 2022
issue of National Affairs.
Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation. You can read our full discussion here. You can also subscribe to my podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, or download the podcast on Ricochet.
Pethokoukis: How severe have the negative effects of this
pandemic been on K–12 education?
Hess: The effects are
devastating. We’ve seen kids lose probably (it depends on how you tally this
up) somewhere between a half to a full year of academic learning. We’ve seen
massive health and psychological effects. We know that attempted suicide is
through the roof; reports of loneliness and isolation. Nobody’s been keeping an
eye on kids in abusive situations. So it’s not only massively negative academic
effects but also social and emotional. No one is surprised the effects are
amplified for the most vulnerable kids. If you are in a high-poverty community,
if you are in a run-down apartment rather than a home with space to spread out
your computer and play in the yard, it’s no great surprise that those kids
suffered more, both academically and socially.
What are we doing to catch these kids up? Or is that
really ever going to happen?
No, it’s not going to
happen. We have no idea how to catch these kids up. I mean, we’ve been trying
really hard to reform American education arguably for at least a half century. The
reality is, we don’t have any good solutions to help kids catch up. In fact,
the solutions we have that are the most promising are the ones that are right
now under attack from the education establishment. We have seen charter schools
launched which used really crazy strategies. They set high expectations. They
expect kids to work hard. They extended the school day. They were very diligent
about who they hired, and those same schools are now rapidly retreating from
the things that made them successful.
So, what are we doing? Well, we put more than $200 billion through COVID emergency funds into K–12 education. As our colleague Nat Malkus has reported, most of that money has not yet been spent. What are school districts doing with it? Well, they’re using it to give teachers bonuses. They’re at the collective bargaining table, and they’re giving unions larger raises than they would’ve. They are adding more bodies across the board, although they don’t know what they’re going to do with those bodies when these funds run out.
Could you talk about what we should be doing
differently in terms of who becomes a teacher and what teachers spend their
With teaching, an easy
way to think about this is if you go to your local elementary (and frankly, it
can be a charter, a district school, or a private school) and you say to the
principal, “Hey, can we visit your best fourth grade reading
teacher?” you’ll go and watch them, and they’ll teach reading for 90
minutes, math for 90 minutes, and she’ll spend 60 minutes loading and unloading
kids on buses, and 40 minutes watching kids eat lunch. You say, “Let’s go
look at your worst reading teacher.” It’s the same thing.
Go to your local
hospital. Look for some kind of cardiovascular surgeon who’s about to cut a kid
open, about to operate on somebody, and she starts peeling off her gloves at 90
minutes. You say, “Doc, what’s up?” She says, “Hey, it’s my time
to push the Jell-O cart, but don’t worry. The worst cardiovascular surgeon in
the state’s going to take it from here.” That’s an insane way to use
scarce talent. And nothing in the way we organize the work, assign teachers to
kids, compensate teachers, is reflective in any way of which stuff we think is
important or of which teachers are good at the stuff that’s important.
Can we recruit more teachers from better schools, as well
as make it easier for mid-career professionals to become teachers?
Yeah. Again, part of
the problem here is that we’ve got a model that used to make sense. It just
doesn’t make sense. Trying to recruit somebody in the 1950s and saying,
“Hey, I’ve got a job you can do for the next 30 years,” was appealing.
Today, nobody who comes out of college wants to do the same job for another 20
or 50. We talk endlessly about this shortage of teachers. There’s a shortage of
people who want to do the job the way we’ve configured the job.
Today, lots of people
who have had successful first careers could make fabulous teachers, but not
only do we make them jump through hoops and Mickey Mouse coursework to get
certified to teach, but then we start them at the bottom of the pay scale. We
need to absolutely reimagine what it means to come into education as a
mid-career adult in the 21st century.
How would you advise schools to spend money on
The ways that
technology can change the game is it can change who kids learn from, how kids
can learn and have relationship with teachers. The best model I’ve seen of this
is a really good high school football program. You go in, and you see suddenly
coaches have preloaded all the plays on the iPad, so that instead of spending
five minutes hand-drawing 22 Xs and Os, and then erasing and then do it again,
they can kind of walk kids through it, and the arrows and Xs are moving. If the
cornerback is having trouble with foot placement, an assistant coach pulls out
an iPhone, takes a quick video, and then they’re looking at it in real time.
I would tell them first to figure out what it is teachers do with their time all day. Figure out which of these things are really making a difference in children’s lives, and which of these things are routine. Of the routine things, figure out which we can offload to tech. Of the things that are valuable, figure out where tech can augment how they’re explaining it, or showing it, or giving kids feedback. And then make sure you’re investing in helping teachers get easy-to-use, non-glitchy stuff that lets them do that.