In Defense of School

Written by Ray Girn on September 2, 2020

The shutdown of schools this past spring, undertaken to limit the spread of COVID, has had an unintended outcome: the sudden and unexpectedly wide scrutiny of the institution of school itself.

Pedagogy in particular has emerged as an object of reflection. Witnessing their children participate in distantly second-rate virtual learning, millions of parents are thinking fresh about whether there may be more fundamental concerns about the way their children are schooled.

All this has fueled a cultural openness to educational alternatives and a resourcefulness in implementing them — not with everyone, but on a margin that is growing every day. Models that six months ago would have seemed fringe are being considered and even adopted.

As a result, those of us who have spent decades advocating for radical educational reform find ourselves unexpectedly in vogue. After long careers of marginalized practice and lonely advocacy against establishment inertia, for the first time the status quo no longer seems to be taken for granted.

This is true of the organization I founded, Higher Ground Education. To serve the human potential in each child, we believe, educational practice needs to transcend entrenched false alternatives: between student agency and structured knowledge; between the psychological development of early childhood and the conceptual learning of K12; between the artificially prepared environment of school and the unprepared, diverse realities of human life.

The present moment speaks to our aspirations to uproot the Prussian “factory” model that characterizes the institution of school, and especially its salient features: the separation between early education and K12, the segregation of children into single-age bands, the passive view of learning, the centrality of teaching to the test, and more.

So we are making the most of the crisis. As I write, our alternative offerings are seeing unprecedented growth. Families across the country are opting to enroll their child in our virtual school, to implement our tech-enabled nanny shares or learning pods, or to use our platform as a framework for homeschool.

We also continue to serve thousands of families who prefer to have their kids physically at school (especially at the preschool ages). Almost all our brick & mortar locations are open, successfully addressing health and safety issues in comprehensive, evidence-based ways that do not undermine learning. And with so many schools closed, “supply constraints” mean that our programs are approaching capacity despite reduced demand.

Looking to the broader landscape, we feel deep enthusiasm about the emergence of non-school channels of learning and growth, non-traditional partnerships between parents and educators, and the possibility (yet largely unrealized) of technological tools that transform both pedagogy and access. We are hopeful about the cultural awakening happening around us, and the possibilities it represents for real and lasting change.

And yet.

However fiercely one is a critic of the conventional model of schooling, open eyes cannot ignore the reality of the devastation underway: millions of children are being denied access to school, abandoned to a barely functional virtual alternative. After a curtailed spring and a long summer, American families and schools are facing September only marginally better prepared than they were in April.

The harm caused by the shutdown of school is equaled only by the vagueness of its rationale and duration. Nominally being done to protect children, the decision to close schools is rife with paranoia and partisanship. A few minutes of googling reveals how many pundits and decision-makers are playing politics, and how few are thinking seriously about the consequences.

Obviously, the proximate cause is the lingering pandemic, which presents real risks and challenges to students and educators physically gathering today. But the fundamental cause is a failure of insight, a failure of imagination, a failure of will, and underneath all of these, a failure to value education with the clarity and passion and thought that it merits.

At times of crisis, nothing is more needed than thought. In this case, when even a modicum of rational judgment is applied, the pattern that emerges amidst the complexity is that schools, even under conditions of COVID risk, are overwhelmingly worthwhile.

And so, I find myself in a very strange position. A critic of conventional education, one who could only have dreamed of the type of openness to change we are seeing today, one who is benefitting immensely from the widespread shutdowns, I am called to defend the massive value of school as it exists today.

Irrespective of whether the prolonged school closures help in the battle for a new educational order, there is no sense in which they represent a positive. For anyone who genuinely seeks the best for children, there is no silver lining in millions of children being relegated to an extended period of suboptimal developmental conditions.

The same radicalism, the same willingness to go to first principles, that leads forward-thinking people to challenge the conventional model of education, also demands that we must speak now in its favor. The proper response to school closures is an unequivocal, full-throated defense of the immense utility of school, even in its current, deeply imperfect incarnation.

Abstract away from the failures of conventional education for a moment. Going to school is good for children.

School is where children learn to read — and thus makes it possible for them to continue learning for the rest of their lives. To think mathematically. To solve problems. To create things. To encounter great literature that inspires their character development. To build themselves as capable, efficacious beings. To place themselves in history and in society. To spark meaningful friendships and deep personal values that last a lifetime.

It is at school that children leave home not just physically but psychologically, and grow into themselves. School plays an indispensable role in helping meet a child’s basic, fundamental needs (including in some cases meals and shelter, as well as the opportunity to interact with mandated reporters). It is for many children a primary access point to the adult world, and the only hope of mastering circumstances, whatever they may be.

This point can’t be overstated. For most children and families, being forced to stay home from physically attending school is somewhere between a tremendous, extended setback, and a devastating tragedy with long-term impact.

This is not to deny or pretend away the reality of COVID, or an argument against any necessary, acute, short-term measures at containment. What the moment demands is that we take the trade-offs seriously: that we think and rethink independently about data, about defined risk parameters, and about the effectiveness of different health and safety protocols.

Most of all, if we are genuinely committed to transcending paranoia and partisanship, the moment demands that we unequivocally recognize the value of school. Only then can we reflect on the time-sensitive importance of childhood and what it requires, and seriously weigh the costs of health risks against the tremendous opportunity costs of lost time in development. Only then will we push ourselves to properly assess trade-offs between the safety of staying at home and the educational and psychological benefits of going to school.

Schools are not in principle necessary. Homeschoolers, virtual programs, and other alternatives can do an exceptional job meeting the totality of the needs of a developing child. I hope for a future in which human children are educated in a very different way than they are today.

But for the overwhelming majority of students today, the kinds of creative schooling options my and other organizations are offering do not exist. Most virtual learning as currently implemented across the country is terrible. The same goes for learning pods: the logistics, regulatory barriers, and quality issues are solvable in a scalable way, and in certain pockets will work phenomenally well even today, but in the timescales and at the volumes required to impact millions of families, they won’t be solved any time soon.

Unless reasonable voices speak up, the vast majority of students in the US may be about to suffer a year of essentially lapsed schooling, as a function of our priorities and policy choices in pandemic response.

This is insanity.

The insanity is best illustrated by contrast. Human ingenuity and integrity continue to operate elsewhere across the economy. Many businesses are finding ways to open safely. Some never closed, having been considered “essential” even at the height of the pandemic.

There are definitely risks in having children attend school — to the children, to their families, and to the school staff — as there are in all other areas. But as elsewhere, the risks of school attendance are the sort that demand thought, not reflexive aversion and fear. There’s more paranoia around school re-openings than there was around protests, churches, or Disney World.

Emily Oster commented a few weeks ago on the absurdity of Disney World opening while schools remain closed. The point is not that Disney World shouldn’t open, or that the risks and challenges in opening schools are not real. The point is that school is such an immense benefit, that schools are so “essential”, that we should be motivated to work to manage the risks.

The now-established fact is that COVID is relatively benign for the young. “Relatively” doesn’t mean risk-free, and “now-established” doesn’t mean that new data will not emerge. But the evidence points in one direction: the latest data suggest that fewer than 1 in 10,000 infected teenagers will die, and the numbers are even lower for younger children. The numbers go up for adults up to age 40, but not dramatically; even in New York City, the epicenter of America’s COVID crisis, the overall mortality rate stands at less than 1 in 10,000 for this demographic.

These are serious and significant numbers, and, especially given the novelty of the airborne virus and its corresponding capacity to quickly spread across the global population, they need to be taken seriously. A robust response is required. But this is not a license to drop context in assessing facts.

Looking beyond the health of children themselves, there are also many open questions about children and schools as transmission vectors. But here again, so far, the evidence suggests that the risks, while they exist, are manageable. The failure to create feasible health and safety policies is more a failure of will and imagination than it is of considered judgment.

If a climbing gym during the height of the local pandemic can figure out a way to safely open, so can a school. Social distancing, hygiene, scheduling, adding more space, having class partially outdoors, even temporarily hiring a lower risk workforce while finding other ways for higher risk staff to contribute — there’s nothing special about schools that makes such problems particularly intractable.

Any assessment of the totality of data and factors, including the entrenched harm school closures present to particularly the most vulnerable children, leads inexorably to the one conclusion: that schools should be open.

The pandemic-risk-adjusted value of schools is very, very high. Given that we can take meaningful action, that we can work to significantly mitigate the risk of transmission — and given the context that the primary demographic of schools is between one and three orders of magnitude lower-risk than anyone else — there is no legitimate basis for the widespread school closures. A failure to open represents an unprecedented breach of trust by the education system in the United States, one that will affect children and families for years, and will breed a generation of justifiable anger and resentment.

A generation of students is being subjected to intellectual privation, communal isolation, and in many cases mental harm — the impact of which will be felt for decades — on the basis of the guidance of people who are not intellectually serious about assessing the trade-offs. After the dust settles and only the facts remain, the tragic reality is that no one will be held responsible. When the devastation that has been wrought becomes apparent, and when we see that children, and particularly the children that most need us to be our best and most thoughtful, have been sacrificed on the altar of poorly-reasoned caution and partisanship, there will be no acknowledgment, no confessions or apologies, no mea culpas. Those who are now advocating total shutdown of schools irrespective of consequence, will move on to some other cause.

It does not help that many who happen to be arguing for schools to open are at least as thoughtless, if not much more so. If reopening schools is fueled primarily by a COVID-blind, reactionary desire to return to normal, to pretend away the complexities, then our children will suffer not only health consequences, but a lifelong distrust of a society of caretakers who couldn’t be troubled to face reality.

What the moment demands is a principled, unflinching defense of the importance of schooling, and an objective relating of that critical value to the real and important risks of COVID, grounded in deep research and clear thinking, based on the needs of the actual children who rely upon our adult sense of responsibility, our capacity to think and act rationally, and our humanity.

The broader question, here as always, is the meta-level question: why?

Why are we so terrible as a society at thinking about these issues? Why are we so scared to commit to solving them? Why is there such reluctance to even examine the matter with intellectual rigor? What is blocking the will to conduct an honest cost-benefit calculation that, though the details are complicated, has a clear general conclusion? What is preventing the application of well-established practices from present and past pandemic responses, as well scientifically informed policy in other areas, to the current circumstances of schools?

And here we must return to the need for education reform. A good education enables an individual to think independently about the issues of the day. It helps people become intellectually and morally confident adults able to make considered judgments about the things that impact their lives and the shape of their societies. The intellectual training such education provides serves as a bulwark against the perennial impulse to surrender to false idols and dogmas, to the received wisdom of authorities and the moral panic of crowds.

Squarely within this scope is the ability to thoughtfully approach all aspects of life during a crisis — including our current global pandemic. Indeed, it is precisely in situations that demand decisive, urgent action, where emotions are high, risks are difficult to assess, and clarity is hard, that we should be leaning most heavily on our knowledge of history and science, our ability to assess firsthand what our experts tell us (as well as their credibility), and our cultivated habits of thought.

Wherever and whenever in human history educational institutions have failed to help individuals develop the capacity to think independently, the result has been the same: a descent first into consensus and convention and then into alienation and despair. The descent is slow but steady, manifests as a response to particular events and circumstances that arise, and almost always in service to carrying out “good intentions”. From the benign social engineering of the government-sanctioned carb-centric food pyramid, to the monstrous evil of Nazism, we see horror of all kinds tacitly if not overtly supported by a populace lacking the knowledge and capacity for judgment that a good education ought to furnish.

Today, we are seeing the consequence of a failed educational system play out in the cultural response to COVID — and, in what is an extreme irony, in the widespread approach to schooling in light of COVID. The awful response to the pandemic, from all factions and up to and including an inability to solve for ongoing school closures, is at root an indictment of our educational system. Not having ourselves received an education that can serve as a lantern lighting our way, we as a society are unthinkably cavalier about robbing our children of their own education.

None of this is recent. The failure to understand the nature and value of education is perennial, and American schooling has oscillated between superficially competing ways to fail to live up to its promise.

But the widespread, indefinite school closures this fall are a new low. There is a particular acuteness to our inability to commit to having schools open. Our current societal passivity about education has metastasized to the point where the developmental needs of children in toto are subordinated to socio-political machinations and anxieties.

Unless the shape of the debate changes, and I remain hopeful that it can, school closures are likely to be widespread for months, and possibly the full academic year (or more). In the context of what we currently know and understand about how to manage COVID risks, this is a tragedy. Students and families desperately need schools to open, and if they do not, the societal consequences of closures will play out for decades.

Underneath this acute tragedy is a deeper tragedy: that we are suffering the consequences of our approach to schooling itself. To the extent that we as a citizenry are failing to develop and honor our capacity for independent thought, and that we are failing to find in ourselves the capacity to appreciate the value of school in our children’s lives, and to properly weigh that value against the known risks of COVID, it is due to a generation of blind allegiance to the mainstream, conventional pedagogy, and the inertia and intellectual passivity that propels it forward.

Ray Girn

Ray Girn received a BSc with honors from the University of Toronto, with a focus on philosophy and neuropsychology, as well an Association Montessori Internationale teaching diploma from the Montessori Institute of San Diego.

Prior to founding Higher Ground, Girn had a 13-year career with LePort Schools. Working at LePort’s K-8 lab school, he helped lead a team of educators in architecting LePort’s upper school curriculum and program. In 2010, he took over as CEO, expanded the team, and implemented an ambitious growth strategy. In five years, Girn and his team took the company from a small, local family business of three schools to the largest Montessori operator in the United States.

In March 2016, Girn founded Higher Ground Education with the vision of greatly accelerating the growth of Montessori education globally. Higher Ground aims to create a comprehensive international platform to deliver high-quality, high-fidelity Montessori programming everywhere, as well as to conduct the research and development necessary to extend Montessori principles to new, innovative models of secondary education.