Did you like school?  I didn’t.  As a matter of fact, I don’t think I would want to relive my childhood if I had to go through school again.  Ah, but you say, “this is only anecdotal.  Your feelings.  Kids like school and they need to be in school.”  But these aren’t just my feelings.  There is research that we can turn to, and it paints a pretty bleak portrait of schools and schooling.

First, let’s be clear.  If kids need to be in school because they are not getting enough food at home or they have health issues that need addressing or their parents need childcare, we are not talking about schooling.  We are talking about a massive failure of our public institutions to address, for example, childhood poverty.  Schools were not intended to be all around social service agencies.  That they have had to pitch in to help cover these needs is a damn shame.  It’s not right.  (Here’s a novel idea: let’s have the government provide resources, money, directly to families that can’t afford food, healthcare, and childcare, and take schools out of the business of helping to address these needs.)

Second, we should separate what parents think their children need, which is often filtered through their own needs (e.g., childcare), what society says is desirable (kids should be in school!!), and what our children actually need and experience.  And what they experience is bad news.  Here is Erika Christakis writing in The Atlantic, “School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID, Either.”

One large study from this year found that students reported feeling less happy while at school than in any other location.  Another found that emergency psychiatric visits between 2009 and 2012 more than doubled when school was in session compared with during the summer and vacations.  While the adult suicide rate has historically peaked in summer, the recent increase in youth suicides has shown the opposite pattern, with suicides dropping off in the summer and climbing when kids are back in school.  Researchers have found that elementary-school students’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol become elevated during the school year.  Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College who studies these issues, says that if school were a drug, it would not receive FDA approval.

It is not only suicides but suicidal ideation that increases during school.  Here’s a passage from an article by Peter Gray, “Children’s & Teens’ Suicides Related to the School Calendar.”

The researchers also found a continuous increase in the rate of psychiatric emergencies during school weeks, but not during vacation weeks, over the 4-year period of the study.  This result is consistent with the hypothesis that the increase in suicidal ideation and attempts over time is the result of the increased stressfulness of school over this time period rather than some factor independent of schooling.  In another, more recent study, Gregory Plemmons and his colleagues (2018), found that the rate of hospitalization of school-aged children for suicidal ideation and attempts increased dramatically—by nearly 300%—over the seven years of their study, from 2008 to 2015, and each year the rate of such hospitalizations was significantly higher in the school months than in the summer.

Okay, school boosters may say, sounds bad, but we are probably talking about outliers, kids who already have emotional problems.  But this doesn’t work as a counterclaim, because it’s clear that school itself is problematic for a large proportion of school age children, and not only outliers.  The excerpt below is from “School is a prison — and damaging our kids.”

Most students — whether A students, C students, or failing ones — have lost their zest for learning by the time they reach middle school or high school.  In a recent research study, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyl and Jeremy Hunter fitted more than 800 sixth- through 12th-graders, from 33 different schools across the country, with special wristwatches that provided a signal at random times of day.  Whenever the signal appeared, they were to fill out a questionnaire indicating where they were, what they were doing, and how happy or unhappy they were at the moment.  The lowest levels of happiness, by far, occurred when they were in school and the highest levels occurred when they were out of school playing or talking with friends.  In school, they were often bored, anxious or both.  Other researchers have shown that, with each successive grade, students develop increasingly negative attitudes toward the subjects taught, especially math and science.  (Emphasis added).

The author of this passage, Peter Gray, makes the following points about the tedium and mindlessness of school in its current incarnation in another article, “What If Medicine’s First Principle Were Also Education’s?”

To this (psychological issues—MA) add the sheer amount of children’s and teenagers’ time that is wasted by the school system.  If you don’t believe it ask the principal of your local school for permission to “shadow” a student for a day—that is, spend the whole school day doing just what the student is required to do.  All the adults I know who have done that—including a number of teachers—were shocked at the tedium, the time wasted, during which they were not free to occupy themselves with anything of their own choosing.  None of them wanted to do it for a second day.  Believe me, children and teens have no more tolerance for tedium than do adults; they just have no choice in the matter.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that kids can’t wait to be in school, when what we really mean is that we (the parents) can’t wait for them to be back in school, and we (the employers) also can’t wait, because our employees need childcare in order to return to work.

“But OMG our kids are going to fall behind if they lose any more in-person schooling!”  To which I ask, fall behind whom or what?  Who or what are they racing against?  (Russian kids, the Chinese, Swedes, kids down the block, standardized norms maintained by the testing industry?)  But perhaps before we attempt to answer this question, we should ask whether students have actually fallen behind during the COVID crisis, judged by the system’s own criteria.  And lo and behold, reading development appears to be holding steady, while there has been some slippage in math.  Here’s part of the summary of a recent Brookings study.

In almost all grades, the majority of students made some learning gains in both reading and math since the COVID-19 pandemic started, though gains were smaller in math in 2020 relative to the gains students in the same grades made in the winter 2019-fall 2019 period. . . .

In some ways, our findings show an optimistic picture: In reading, on average, the achievement percentiles of students in fall 2020 were similar to those of same-grade students in fall 2019, and in almost all grades, most students made some learning gains since the COVID-19 pandemic started.  In math, however, the results tell a less rosy story: Student achievement was lower than the pre-COVID-19 performance by same-grade students in fall 2019, and students showed lower growth in math across grades 3 to 8 relative to peers in the previous, more typical year.

This certainly doesn’t sound like the end of the world, or a national emergency, although we have to consider that months away from traditional learning may be affecting students in some communities more than others, and that there is a degree of sampling bias in the study.*  Nevertheless, it seems like most kids did relatively well, and this was during the challenges of a pandemic!  We have to remind ourselves that there are a lot of reasons for children to be under stress right now (families struggling financially, for example), and these reasons have nothing to with schooling or a lack of it.  It’s convenient, however, to believe that the stress is due to children being out of school, and that getting them back into the classroom is the answer.  However, for many children this is out of the frying pan and into the fire.

But what would the repercussions be if students “fell behind?”  Let’s take math, for example, a subject in which students in the aggregate appear to be showing less progress than in a typical year.  What would it mean for students to be a few months or even a year behind in math?  Seriously, the vast majority of students will not need more than basic math—a solid background in arithmetic with a dash of geometry—to get through life, and maybe the rudiments of algebra and geometry for college, unless they are in a field that depends on math such as chemistry, physics, engineering, etc.  So, what if students end up taking only Algebra II and not trigonometry, or trig and not calculus, or never have Algebra II?  Those who are pursuing careers in fields that require math in all likelihood enjoy math (or at least don’t find it traumatizing) and have an aptitude for it.  Others may just enjoy the subject, even if they aren’t planning a career that requires it.  There is a very good chance that these math students haven’t “fallen behind,” and if they have, based on current testing criteria, they will catch up.

Why are we pressuring so many students to study material that they have little interest in and will never use?  Horrified by the thought they will “fall behind” in math, we keep testing children to make sure that they are up to speed, which is only bound to make those who don’t excel less likely to want to study the subject.  We should be asking ourselves if the “falling behind” business is more about the pathological competitiveness and prestige-mongering promoted in our culture than it is about the education of children.  After all, there is a finite amount of time in the day, and if kids have to spend a lot of time on math (so as not to “fall behind”), especially those who struggle, they will have less time for art, music, sports, or the playground, and subjects like civics or government that all citizens should study.**  (There are, of course, alternatives to the way that we run our schools, but this is the topic for another day.***)

There are many reasons that children don’t like school, and some serious ones that haven’t been addressed in this article, for example, bullying.  There’s no getting around it.  Schools are stressful environments, overwhelmingly so for many kids.  It’s time to stop pretending that sending children to school doesn’t come with a high cost for many if not most children.  Parents should fret less about their children “falling behind” academically, and more about the emotional scars and damage that children suffer while in school, including being driven away from the pleasure and satisfaction of learning that isn’t tied to a standardized test.


UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this piece a colleague mentioned an article from Chalkbeat, “Polls show most — though not all — parents are getting the type of instruction they want for their kids,” which has some interesting data.  A recent poll covered in the piece found that 36% of parents prefer in-person learning, and another 21% prefer part-time in-person instruction for their children, and 42% remote learning.  This is, of course, a snapshot during a pandemic, subject to change.  From the article: “It’s really important to note the timing of this data,” said Anna Saavedra, a research scientist who helped design the education questions in the USC poll. “There’s likely to be a lot of changes in these preferences.”

I worry that once the pandemic is under control, most parents will assume that returning to fully in-person schooling (as we have known it) is the right thing to do.


* “To make sure the students who took the tests before and after COVID-19 school closures were demographically similar, all analyses were limited to a sample of 8,000 schools that tested students in both fall 2019 and fall 2020.  Compared to all public schools in the nation, schools in the sample had slightly larger total enrollment, a lower percentage of low-income students, and a higher percentage of white students.  Since our sample includes both in-person and remote testers in fall 2020, we conducted an initial comparability study of remote and in-person testing in fall 2020.  We found consistent psychometric characteristics and trends in test scores for remote and in-person tests for students in grades 3-8, but caution that remote testing conditions may be qualitatively different for K-2 students. For more details on the sample and methodology, please see the technical report accompanying this study.”

** I am not opposed to required areas of study, but there needs to be sound reasons for a requirement.  This raises issues about the curriculum in general and who decides it, specifically, who decided that math should be emphasized in this fashion?  Well, here’s a thought.  The SAT makes it seem as if math and reading are equally important, and test scores can affect college admission.  Kids have had to do well in math to get into the “best” schools.  (Why the makers of the exam would view math in this fashion would make for an interesting study.)  How crazy is this?  We have a subject that is not really needed for most fields in life, or needed in a limited fashion, that dramatically affects admission to college.  You need math to do well on a test to get into a good college that requires the test.  And then most students hardly study math in college, often only taking a required basic (gut) math course.  Quite a system.  Strange when you start to think about it.  (Perhaps it has a gatekeeper function.  Wealthier districts can afford more resources to teach math, and parents can even hire private tutors, which helps set up wealthier students for admission to more prestigious colleges.)

Now that more colleges are dropping the SAT, both before and after the COVID crisis, it will be interesting to see if parents think their kids are “falling behind” if they don’t have as much math.  (There is a reason that many parents can’t help their kids with high school or even middle school math.  They haven’t used it themselves and forgotten what they were forced to learn.)   Side story.  We had a college algebra requirement in the university where I began teaching full-time.  We had many returning students, older folks who decided to go back to school.  I recall the story of one student, a woman in her forties, talking to a younger student.  “They will tell you that you will need algebra. Don’t believe it.  I’ve never had to use it and look how old I am.”

I’m with Plato here: No forced learning stays in the soul.

*** “Anyone who looks honestly at the experiences of students at Sudbury model democratic schools and of unschoolers—where freedom, play, and self-directed exploration prevail—knows that there is another way.  We don’t need to drive kids crazy to educate them.  Given freedom and opportunity, without coercion, young people educate themselves.  They do so joyfully, and in the process develop intrinsic values, personal self-control, and emotional wellbeing.  That’s the overriding message of the whole series of essays in this blog.  It’s time for society to take an honest look.” “The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders”


2 thoughts

  1. Schools, like any complex social situation, embody many comforting aspects and many stressful aspects. The same can be said of a family. Most people learn to deal with both aspects and eventually grow from them. A key distinction of schools is they carry a stated public mission to impart – for lack of a better term – “book learning”. Schools carry out that public mission set in a complex social situation. Remote learning during the pandemic is an attempt to impart book learning outside the normal social context. A foundational change some can cope with, others not. It turns out that the public holds schools responsible for that stated mission but also to provide, as an unacknowledged mission, daycare for their children. Any social situation exposes/identifies those who can cope and those few who cannot cope. This pandemic year has brought much of this into much sharper focus in the public spotlight.


    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Thank you so much for saying what many of us have been thinking. No doubt (and I would love to see the research on this) the origin of the math-reading curricular duality stems from the cold war need to cultivate engineers and (actual) rocket scientists. In commerce (now) and the entertainment industry (now), and formerly in the education industry, I must insist that reading literacy and writing capability are by far (guessing by about 10-1) more important than math. I have lamented the pool of employees who are deficient in basic arithmetic. But most of them are also essentially incapable of formulating a coherent sentence that expresses a coherent thought.

    While I am admittedly biased toward the discipline, if I were to become the King or Queen or Tween of Education, I would scrap math beyond basic arithmetic, algebra, and geometry and substitute progressively complex critical thinking and coherent expression. Our most dangerous societal deficit right now should remind us of Plato’s “shtick” overall: distinguishing truth from falsehood. This has reached emergency levels of deficit. So when my partner’s daughter gets a 63 on a paper about a classic midcentury play that I helped polish because of technical errors in following MLA format in citations, I actually have a visceral response toward rage. In the age of post-narcissistic presidential abuse of truth, why are we worried about how the sources are cited?

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