Opinion
Families & the Community Opinion

Three Urgent Questions the Pandemic Raises for Researchers

By Michael McShane — January 15, 2021 4 min read
Family observes a separate class room desk

When I was the assistant coach of a high school baseball team a decade ago in Montgomery, Ala., I heard a wise old coach tell his players, “You either win or you learn.” Great teams learn from their defeats. They fix their weaknesses. They change their strategy. And then, they trot back out onto the diamond in a better place for having lost.

The American education system certainly didn’t win in 2020. The question is, will it learn?

Researchers can play a role in helping us learn from the missteps of 2020—and the missteps taken long before the coronavirus swept across our land that made our system particularly vulnerable to its ravages. These include, but of course are not limited to, linking school assignment to geography, which exacerbates inequality; centralizing control over the education of children in a given area in one institution (the traditional school district), which creates a single failure point that can scupper the education of every child in the area; and bureaucratizing education to such a degree that it is hard to move nimbly to adjust to rapidly changing circumstances.

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I’d like to highlight three questions that researchers should set about trying to answer.

1. What does the spectrum of educational options between home and school look like?

Before the pandemic, most folks had never heard the term “hybrid” schooling. Children either attended school or were home-schooled; there was no in between. When the virus caused schools to rethink their schedules to comply with social-distancing guidelines, part-time “hybrid” schooling became a household term.

Hybrid schooling is not new. There are traditional public, public charter, and private schools across the country that educate children in traditional buildings for part of the week and send them home to learn for the other part. But even outside of schools and school programs that classify themselves as “hybrid,” there are lots of points on the line between home and school. Online schools, home school co-ops, microschools, and pandemic pods all mix elements of home and school in educating children.

We don’t know how many students participate in such schools. We don’t know what successes they are having. We don’t know what challenges they are facing. We don’t know what lessons they are learning. Answers to all these questions could help inform both public policy and the practices of schools looking to better meet the diverse needs of their students.

2. What do parents want out of school?

There is an old saying that if you could ask a fish what the temperature of its water was, it would answer, “What is water?” Most of us take for granted many of the things in our lives that just work without us thinking too much about them. The same is true for schools. Many of the fundamental structures of schools exist because they have slowly accreted over time. We don’t ask too much about them. They are just water.

The coronavirus upturned many of the things that we take for granted. The same is again true for schools. We perhaps underestimated just how much parents value schools as a safe place to park their kids while they go to work. We underestimated the social elements of schooling that enmesh children in webs of support made up of friends and caring adults. But we also underestimated how many children are overwhelmed by school or are bullied—children for whom distance learning was an environment in which they could get their work done in peaceful solitude.
This experience should cause us to look with fresh eyes at what parents want from schools and to recognize the diversity of answers that they might offer. Researchers can get at these questions both by simply asking parents via surveys or polls (which we at EdChoice do in our monthly Public Opinion Tracker), but they also must dig deeper and look at their revealed preferences. Regardless of what they say, where do parents actually send their kids? What are the characteristics of those institutions? What can that tell us about parents’ true preferences?

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3. How do schools use time?

The pandemic opened many parents’ eyes as to just how little their children learn in a given day. They were shocked that with two or three hours of concerted effort, their children were finished with their work. And this isn’t just a remote learning story. Parents found out that is how much academic content their children actually get through in a typical in-person day when all the other school day activities are stripped away. This caused many of them to ask: What the heck do schools do with the rest of the time?

Good question. Researchers would be wise to take a gimlet-eyed look at how schools use the limited time that they have with students. How much time is actually spent on instruction? And not just how much time is scheduled for instruction, but how much actual class time is devoted to it? How much time is lost to needless administrivia or to disruptive students or anything else that halts instruction during its appointed time? In short, can school waste less time?

It remains to be seen how much the coronavirus will alter the fabric of American education. Maybe the dislocations are permanent, and we will not go back to the way we educated students before March 2020. Maybe they aren’t, and a desire to return to normalcy will push school back into familiar patterns. Either way, the pandemic has raised numerous important questions about how we educate our children, questions researchers would be wise to answer.

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as The Urgent Questions the Pandemic Raises for Researchers

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