There is a Crisis in U.S. Education- but it is NOT because of Covid-19

These are definitely tough times. The coronavirus pandemic has created a serious public health crisis, a serious economic crisis, and a serious public welfare crisis. However, the education crisis we now perceive was not caused by Covid-19.

Currently, newspapers and online platforms are filled with articles describing how terrible it is that children are missing several months of schooling. The authors of these articles worry about how our children will ever make up the lost school time. Some even alarmingly allege that these few months of lost classroom time will permanently cripple an entire generation of children, setting them back years in learning that they will never be able to recover.

This is nonsense.


Very few of these school-focused folks seem willing, or able to admit that maybe the time kids spend outside of the classroom might actually be EQUALLY – if not MORE – valuable than the time spent in it!

I believe that those who are sounding the panic alarm really are well-intentioned, and actually do believe that a few months of lost classroom time will result in serious damage to kids – but it’s simply not true.

Schools are very good at teaching (and testing) kids about the things that educators think they absolutely must know in order to be successful in school. The problem is that what a child needs to learn to be successful in school often is not what he or she actually needs to know to be successful in life.

There is absolutely no compelling evidence to support the assertion that the math, science, or history an individual learns in school, directly relates to the actual real-life needs and realities of most adults.

Yes, the current system ensures that those who are certified as completing more years of schooling get more opportunities for admission to better-paying jobs, but the actual usefulness of what was taught during those years of schooling? Well, that’s another question.

Reflect for a moment. When was the last time your job required you to use any of the science content you learned in middle school? What about history or even math? It likely was interesting information you learned, no arguing that, but was it directly useful to you then, or now? Probably not.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for everyone learning as much as they can; the more the better. However, my own research, and that of others, has convincingly shown that most people learn most of what they need to know to be successful in life OUTSIDE of school.

The current crisis has created new opportunities for children to develop and improve their communication skills, research skills, organization skills, and critical thinking skills, all within a real-life context, and all within situations in which the “why do I need to know this?” is entirely clear, even if you are only seven years old.

The hours spent in the classroom are responsible for a VERY small portion of childhood learning.

My own research has shown that children learn as much, if not more science beyond the classroom, as they do inside one. Children actually only spend about 20% of their school age years in a classroom. That learning does not cease once the school bell rings for dismissal at 3 pm. Children do not stop learning during the other 80% of their childhood. As a person ages, the relative percentage of classroom time continues to decline, so that by the end of a lifetime of learning, the average person will have spent just a tiny fraction – (about 3%) of their entire life learning within the context of a formal classroom.

But what about summer learning loss? Isn’t it true that children lose much of what they have learned over the summer?

Actually no! This too is a myth.

Recent research using more effective measures and better statistics by researchers such as Paul von Hippel, who importantly also conducted some of the original research on summer reading declines, has found that children, including those living in low income, under-resourced communities actually do NOT suffer a loss in learning over summer vacation. Yes, there are real disparities between the economically advantaged and disadvantaged, but the evidence shows that these glaring gaps in knowledge and skills emerge well before children even enter school, and by and large are not erased as a consequence of schooling. These disparities relate to poverty, the disenfranchisement of parents/caregivers by the system, and awareness and access to resources, as well as profound equity issues. Whether we want to admit it or not, these systemic problems are so intractable that children being out of school an extra couple of months will not dramatically influence current realities one way or another.

What is important for everyone to appreciate is that children love to learn and they will do so whether in school or outside of it. Clearly, what children learn in school is different from what they learn outside of school, but do not let the school-lobby bully you into believing that what is learned in school is more valuable and important. It is not true.

As long as children have stimulation, opportunities to explore new ideas, ask questions and interact with adults and peers, they will continue to intellectually grow and develop. Even if they miss several months of school, they will be fine.

Of course, parents who need to try to continue working while their children are at home may not be quite as fine.

In fact, the current coronavirus pandemic and its stay-at-home mandate have revealed two additional crises, often conflated with education.

The first major issue is childcare, both affordable care, and dare I say, quality care. Parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds are scrambling to manage not only the day-to-day challenges of work (many if fortunate, still working part or full time), health and sustenance, while also supporting the learning of their now at-home children. This has always been an issue, but the coronavirus crisis has made it even more visible.

The second issue alluded to above is how we as a society have dealt with social issues such as poverty, health (both physical and mental), immigrant needs, homelessness, and more.

Schools have long been the place where we feed, nurture and shelter the children (and families) with the greatest needs. The fact that we have decided that schools, often by default, should be the places to solve these issues should not blind us to the reality that these on-going social issues actually have very little to do with education. Arguably, schools are not the only, nor even necessarily the best place, to solve such thorny societal problems. Perhaps their intractability is a sign that the solution to these problems may require a different approach.

Yes, children need to be healthy, fed and nurtured to learn, but as a society, we should not confuse these critical issues with providing children the basic educational tools they need to be productive and fulfilled adults.

It’s a reality that schools do not want you to know.

Schools also don’t want you to know that our antiquated school systems are increasingly not the best settings in which to learn most of what today’s children need to know to be successful adults. Museums, zoos, parks, internships, libraries and books, family gatherings, hobby and special interest groups, summer programs, mealtimes, bedtime, online activities, play, and even video games and television can and do support a range of 21st century learning skills and knowledge. Again, research is showing that the importance and use of these non-school learning environments and platforms are rapidly growing.

For the past 20 years, my colleagues and I have been studying the science learning ecosystem in the Los Angeles area. Our data show that the relative contribution of various non-school learning resources to public science literacy have nearly doubled over this time, while the relative contribution of schooling has significantly declined; in fact, fallen by about half.

This is not an argument for eliminating schooling. But it is an argument for rethinking the current monopoly status of schools when educational policy and funding discussions occur.

The future of learning in the 21st century is free-choice learning, the learning people do to support their own self-motivated needs and interests outside of the classroom.

The coronavirus pandemic has created significant challenges, individually and societally, as all of us struggle to deal with health and safety, housing costs, food scarcity, and supporting the social-emotional well-being of stay-at-home adults and kids. However, these crises will pass in time. What the coronavirus pandemic has not caused, but has definitely helped to reveal, is a crisis in education. This educational crisis will not go away once the virus disappears unless we decide to seriously discuss radical new solutions for supporting the public’s lifelong learning.

The time for more incremental Band-Aid style solutions is over. Now is the time to deeply reflect upon, and proactively respond to the rapidly changing landscape of why, how, and when children and adults need to learn – every day and across an entire lifetime.

The current crisis presents an opportunity to reevaluate and re-envision how we can move beyond an outdated and grossly failing formal education system, towards one purpose-built for the 21st century. Recent events provide a stark reminder of just how disastrous is our current dependence on a single, Industrial Age, one-size-fits-all system of public education. Now is the time to strategically develop a new system, a 21st century public education system that is more distributed and nimble, one involving a much broader, and more diverse range of educational institutions and learning resources.

Now is the time to consider how to support the building of a comprehensive, robust and resilient national educational infrastructure that, by intentional design, encourages and fully supports children’s (and adults) wildly diverse lifelong learning needs. The current pandemic reinforces the necessity of having a public education system that is capable of providing AFFORDABLE access to a diversity of learning tools and resources to ALL learners.

These resources should be made available WHENEVER night or day, WHEREVER, at home, work or in the community, a person needs them, on WHATEVER topic or learning purpose they may have as they navigate the ever-changing challenges of their lives (including during such unexpected and difficult events as a coronavirus pandemic).

John H. Falk, Ph.D., Executive Director, Institute for Learning Innovation

Posted Apr 20, 2020