Nine months of pandemic learning have made clear what some of us already knew, and what many are afraid to admit: Schools are not about education.
Caring about your child’s store of skills and facts in December 2020 is a position of privilege. As soon as schools shut down in March, we learned what schools were for.
School allows parents to work. When students went home, teachers were no longer able to perform their primary job of classroom management. Since then, a whole new industry of ways to keep remote learning students “on task” has cropped up. We need somewhere for kids to go, and someone to keep them busy.
School fills the gaps in the social safety net. For many, it is the social safety net. In March we started saying it out loud: Schools need to be open so kids can eat. Schools need to be open for disabled kids, and for kids who have no one else looking out for whether they are being neglected or abused.
We rarely talk about what kids actually learn at school. Academics are all about “achievement”—how well our kids are doing compared to other kids. Our society has decided that credentials are one of the few ways out of poverty. But even that is a trap. If every poor Black or brown girl in Chicago earned a four-year degree, the rules would rapidly change. Master’s degrees would become more important, or Black college graduates would be steered into lower-paid fields. Rich families will always be able to give their kids an advantage. Schools can’t level that playing field—only fundamental changes in our society can.
If we simply wanted everyone to learn to read and do math, most kids could learn that in a few months. If we wanted them to learn critical thinking, they could learn that in many ways, very few of which involve studying Algebra II and "The Scarlet Letter." I know this because I’ve seen it for 10 years at my school, a self-directed school where students receive direct instruction only when they ask for it. They learn through conversation, the Internet, books—and, sometimes, teaching. This is how all people learned until a few generations ago, and how many kids in the world, especially in the global South, still learn. Almost any kid can learn like this, given some basic resources and a community to engage with.
Right now, we are doing remote school over Zoom. We do our best. Our students show up regularly, and receive more synchronous school time than most students in Illinois.
But as the pandemic continues, our parents are increasingly reluctant to pay for remote learning, even though the survival of our tiny, democratically run school is at stake. I can’t say they’re wrong. Before March, they paid for community, child care, somewhere for their kids to go where they were treated well and could make friends. That is the value that schools actually provide, when they’re working well. How many kids say their favorite class is “lunch” or “recess”? It’s not because they hate learning. It’s because that’s where the real learning is.
We have an opportunity to be honest about what schools are actually for, and what education actually is. These two things aren’t the same. Maybe we could create a society that feeds kids, that offers childcare to working parents, in some other way. Maybe we could admit that homework and standardized tests are a waste of time—and let our kids have a childhood full of real learning, regardless of where and how that takes place.
Elizabeth Lund is the principal of Tallgrass Sudbury School, a self-directed private school in Riverside, IL.
Elizabeth has been involved with Tallgrass since 2010, first as a volunteer and now as a full-time staff member. She is a writer of young adult books and a professional editor. She grew up as an army brat and has lived in five states and ...