Previously: The Case Against Education

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

In a belated triumph of sanity, schools around the world are closing their doors in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak.

The debates about schools closing make it clear how schools provide value.

Here in New York City, and in many other places, we are refusing to close to schools until (two weeks after the) last minute because schools provide free meals to poor children.

The other stated reason is because if children are not in school, their parents would be unable to work, and some of their parents are healthcare workers or cannot afford any missed paychecks.

(In the case of universities, we also have places like Harvard that took away students’ housing and thus left them with no place to live.)

These are good, real concerns. We need solutions to these problems.

But we also now know what real problems are being solved.

We have school because our society believes that one cannot leave children unsupervised or terrible things would happen, for very broad values of children. We also have school because we don’t have another way to ensure that children get to eat. And in some narrow cases, we have a very partial fix for a housing crisis.

Clearly, regardless of what the best solutions are, one could goal factor for these problems much better than ‘mandatory schooling.’

The concern that I have heard literally zero people mention is that closing the schools will prevent children from learning.

I do realize that no one is grappling with how long this is likely to last, and that in the long term they would raise this concern.

But still, I find all of  this enlightening. And refreshing.


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Of course, this may be because they think online schooling or homework will be an adequate substitute for in-person schooling, and assume that by default those will be assigned to make up for lost in-class time.

[I think school is highly suboptimal and quite possibly net negative compared to not having mandatory or subsidized schooling, but I think the inference Zvi is trying to draw here is shaky.]

this may be because they think online schooling or homework will be an adequate substitute for in-person schooling

Then we have another curious fact: that we needed the corona virus to notice that schools can be replaced by a much cheaper alternative.

(I mean, previously people have tried to start new online schools, but as far as I know, they didn't try to replace the existing schools with online schools. But now we see it as a realistic option.)

Online schools have been around for a while, but I think are generally less popular, and the main users are people who live too far from a regular school to think it's worth the trip, or who got bullied too much by other students, or so on.

More broadly, tho, I think the thing schools are selling is a package, and the 'book learning' part of it is something like a third (or less) of the value of that package for the typical student (and parent), but is the main bit that can also be duplicated by online schooling.

I suspect if online schooling continues for more than a couple of months there will be a lot of complaints (likely justified, in my estimation) that it is not an adequate substitute for in-person education. In particular, I think maintaining student motivation would be an issue--more in some age groups than others, but even among college students I believe this is an existing problem with online courses.

The concern that I have heard literally zero people mention is that closing the schools will prevent children from learning.

I don't know if a counterexample from Finland will count as one for your purposes, but for what it's worth, a notable Finnish politician wrote yesterday:

Jos näillä tiedoilla joutuisin päättämään, en sulkisi kouluja, koska lyhytaikainen sulkeminen ei hyödytä mitään ja pitkäaikainen vaarantaa lasten oppimisen. Puoli vuotta lyhempi peruskoulu? Ihan oikeasti?

Which roughly translates as:

If I had to make the decision given what we currently know, I wouldn't close the schools. A short-term closure wouldn't bring any benefit, and a long-term closure would endanger the children's learning. Making elementary school half a year shorter? Are you kidding me?

We see the same type of issue with downsizing military or even government. What is the military? Where do the jobs go, especially for all the 15 years in service but never really advanced? What about the training? What about all the communities served by the bases? Little of that has anything to do with the primary role of a military for society.

There are some questions to be asked but many actually I think shine a light on many of the unintended consequences of things.

I suspect the lack of learning is primarily due to the expectations set in the school closures. Here in Seattle they announced schools would only be closed until April 24. So that is a few weeks before and after the already schedule Spring Break. Not a closure for the rest of the school year, which is the more likely reality.

I wonder what happens to all the High School seniors this year. Will the governors just give them a bye and graduate them? How about the universities if the lock downs don’t end by late August? How many freshman would show up for online orientation, paying tens of thousands of dollars for an accredited MOOC vs. deferring freshman year to January or Fall 2021?

Teaching online is way harder than most people think. I taught a hybrid Executive MBA for years and the 1 hour weekly online sessions were way harder to make useful and to teach than the six hour long in-person days once per month. My wife teaches 100% online, fully asynchronous classes at a local college and it took her many years to prep and tune her classes to make them work for all of the various learning styles.

Given that, expect a lot more talk about whether the move to online classes is effective in a month, once most teachers fail at making the transition and with that, the high achieving students complaining.