In a recent episode from Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast, both he and Caitlin Flanagan discuss the new environment that families face with distance learning education. They are stunned to find that the amount of work given to these parents for the classes is so little, and the resulting conclusion they draw is, “What are they doing in these classes for ninety minutes?”
Like any answer in education: “It depends.”
Let’s address a fundamental difference between the educational system in the United States versus one of the best in the world, like Finland. Finland has some of the highest scores on the international PISA exam (if you believe a test is any indicator of intelligence), yet they start school at age seven, go to school less, spend less time on homework each day, and have more time during school for recess.
The United States does school in volume, while Finland does school in efficiency.
Finland has worked to create the best classroom conditions in the world. Excellent resources, incredibly knowledgeable and skilled teachers (teaching requires a master’s degree and entrance through a matriculation exam), and a shockingly low student-to-teacher ratio.
Combine this with zero standardized tests until the matriculation exam at the end of their secondary education career, and the time gained is enormous. As a result, they are far more productive.
The United States is not that place. With huge classrooms, assemblies, standardized tests, and on and on, we are more interested in simply keeping students at school for longer.
The reasons for this have typically involved the workday, where children need a place to be kept while adults are out at work.
A more unsettling reason is that some homes are simply not capable of sustaining further education at home, unlike in Finland where reading and writing and playing ensure that education is a constant cycle.
Just internalize what we have learned about coronavirus and free or reduced lunch at school: some districts were too scared to close because they thought that some children would starve.
That is what it has come to in the United States.
Ray Dalio has written on the impoverished state of our children and it is shameful. But the situation is also so unequal that Caitlin Flanagan and Sam Harris have a difficult time understanding the time spent in school versus the amount of work given.
For many of us, that work in the classroom is likely all we are able to provide. In Title I schools, like the one I work in, we are just as much therapists and psychologists as we are teachers, catering to the emotional hardship of being poor in America. Middle and upper class schools have a different client, and as a result have a superior relationship to time in the classroom.
To say that public school has been at rock bottom for a while is not surprising to teachers. All the coronavirus is doing is highlighting just how pathetic our systems have been all this time.