COVID-19 exposes America’s misplaced education values, and is Algebra really necessary?

Amidst the continued crisis that COVID-19 has created, the impact on all levels of education is, like much else in society, in flux.

Amidst the continued crisis that COVID-19 has created, the impact on all levels of education is, like much else in society, in flux.

Colleges that have closed their physical campuses are starting to declare financial exigency—higher education’s version of bankruptcy—and some (see here and here that were already struggling are sending signals that they may have to shutter for the long term.

Will students return to live on campus in the fall? We just don’t know, and according to at least a couple of surveys, students are starting to take stock of this new reality. Some are rethinking their college plans. Many are considering a gap year—a central recommendation we made in Choosing College.

Jeff Selingo and I joined Debbie Schwartz of Road2College and Betsy Jewell of the High School Hamster Wheel Podcast on a Facebook Live event to offer advice and tips to students and parents as they navigate these incredibly uncertain times. Hopefully you pick up some helpful messages from our thoughts here. One key message: this isn’t just an uncertain and unsettling time for students and parents, but also for the schools themselves.

That’s why it’s so important that the Department of Education, the federal government more broadly, state departments of higher education, and accreditors take more aggressive action in the days and weeks ahead to allow colleges to respond for all of their current students, as well as prospective ones. Paul Freedman, the founder of the Entangled Group, and I took to Inside Higher Ed to suggest what measures regulators must take going forward. Read here what we recommend.

Of course, the question exists if will it even matter. The damage to colleges may already be done. As UC-Irvine’s education school dean Richard Arum and Stanford professor Mitchell Stevens wrote for the New York Times, “By quickly moving classes to the internet and telling students that online delivery would be credited and billed exactly as face-to-face delivery, elite schools raised big questions about their core business model.”

If a policy of physical distancing continues longer than we all hope or intermittent physical distancing is instituted and students don’t return to campus in the fall, it’s not hard to imagine students opting for new arrangements. Students might choose to take courses online from a provider that actually specializes in online learning (you can get a sense for why this might be after reading this article in Bloomberg Businessweek)—and offers the courses far more affordably—while finding other ways to engage in online clubs, fellowships, internships, and more in an unbundled experience not too dissimilar from what we wrote about in Chapter 10 of Choosing College. After all, as Bob Moesta and I argued in this opinion piece for Education Week written before the policy of physical distancing, based on the conclusions from our book, not every student should go to college, and that’s OK.

There could be a range of longer-term impacts at the intersection of our K–12, higher education, and workforce learning systems as well, as I wrote about in this piece for EdSurge. In it, experts who are partners and advisors to Entangled Solutions offered a range of predictions of the impact of COVID-19 and a recession on these interdependent sectors that are often treated like silos. After you read the piece, please tweet at me with other predictions you have @michaelbhorn.

America’s misplaced educational values

Closer to home, in this piece for Forbes I wrote about the story of a mom trying to make a difficult decision.

With a compromised immune system, she had concluded that it was safest if her child stayed home from school, so she kept her son home the first two days of the week. There was just one problem.

Because the school district had not closed its doors yet and her child was healthy, the absences were considered unexcused.

Her dilemma—and the suboptimal tradeoffs she made—showcase how education policy in America is focused far too much on compliance around the time spent on learning at the expense of the bigger picture: the “whys” behind the policies.

Ultimately, we want to know are all students—each and every one—learning what they need to thrive as adults? Are we preparing them to participate in a vibrant democracy as informed citizens? Are they healthy? Are they receiving the social and emotional support and external relationships they need?

The good news—amidst a sea of bad news with the COVID-19 pandemic—is that there may now exist an opportunity to begin to reset our nation’s focus on inputs over individual student outcomes. Read more here in which I challenge states and school districts to take the bold step rethinking our education system to focus on what we ultimately want for our students.

Is algebra really necessary?

Not every conversation around the future of education right now has to revolve around COVID-19.

Here’s what I hope is a welcome break: a piece in which I ask is all of algebra (and algebra II) really necessary? Does it need to be a requirement for all? Or is it time to rethink our sequence of math courses for the modern age?

If the piece in EdSurge leaves you clamoring for more, you can check out a video Bob Moesta and I recorded in which we delve deeper into what parts of algebra still may be vital—and which parts of the course might be less so. Certainly Latin still has value—but it doesn’t mean most people take a whole set of courses in it anymore.

Until next time, be safe and stay strong,