Closure? And What Are Schools For Anyway? Chicago Still Matters…More Edumusic

As I mentioned in December I don’t have a big take on the whole “should schools stay open?” debate. That’s because it seems situational to me and there are a whole bunch of secondary questions like what’s the local context with regard to Covid and other things, for whom should they be open, how, etc…* And we’ve had well more than a year to make sure there are effective options for families and have still failed to do that at any scale.

So all else equal schools should be open, of course, and adults should be creative and aggressive in making that happen, Still, all else is not equal everywhere because we’re in a pandemic that remains quite serious no matter how much we might wish it were over.

This Freddie deBoer essay makes some good points on the tradeoffs and complexity around closing schools and also about how generally inane the debate is. But this graf points up a larger issue,

Here’s a basic point I’ve been making for at least a dozen years, including in my book, and will now do again: the educational function of public schools, while certainly of prime importance, is the secondary function of public schools. The first function is giving children warm, safe places where they can be stimulated and looked after, and where they can access cheap or free meals if they need them. The humanitarian good of this function dwarfs that of the education function.

Though I get why deBoer does given his worldview, I’m not sure why we have to force rank these two priorities? Both seem really important? And neither will succeed without the other.

In the education “debate” it seems like there are a few camps on this question. There is the camp deBoer is in. And I respect that he’s explicit about it. There are a lot of folks who talk a good game about opportunity or academics but actually agree with him and the Cult of Smart thesis and for various reasons don’t want to say so.

The second camp would be the “why choose?” camp. We should have a robust system that does both and for three quarters of a trillion dollars annually, the GDP of a top 25 country globally, we can have that. This camp would point to things like the Harlem Children’s Zone sibling study as evidence that focusing on both makes sense.

Then the third camp would be the more libertarian or right-leaning camp that doesn’t minimize the importance of these broader issues but thinks it’s the job of civil society, the non-profit and/or faith-based sectors, and other non-governmental players to bring it into being. The second camp, which as you can probably tell is more or less where I land, is not averse to some of these same solutions but sees a stronger role for the public sector.

And there is of course a fourth camp, thankfully smaller, of people just indifferent to all this.

So what I really have are two questions:

First, the whole “Bigger Bolder” versus accountability debate sort of fizzled out, and why not? ESSA was the white flag on accountability and the Covid chaos has served as a smokescreen to obscure that. But it’s interesting to compare the “Bigger Bolder” positions on the broad things around schools with the “well if the teachers union say schools should be closed close them” position we see today. Or maybe it’s not. OK that’s less of a question than an observation but it’s a meta question of why the rhetoric and politics of this sector run in not just divergent but often opposite directions?

Second, in 2012 it was Chicago that really saved the teachers’ unions and took what was left of the fight out of the Obama Administration. It’s where and when the teachers unions’ decided, or rather the late Karen Lewis showed, that they could fight off change and maintain power. But perhaps history does rhyme or something because it’s an open question right now if they’re overplaying their hand in Chicago now around closures. Or maybe it’s just that if you’re going to do Karen Lewis smashmouth politics you need someone with the savvy of Karen Lewis?

Finally, the other day we had a music playlist from Empirical Education, here’s one from research firm MDRC.

*I don’t know if this really needs a disclosure but just in case I’ve advised and Bellwether has consulted for districts, charter schools, and states around these questions and weve done analysis work for a Covid pool testing company with education applications and a hospital system. As always all clients and funders since day one are here.