How the COVID Crisis Has Revealed the
Historical Failures of our Educational System

Over a year into this pandemic, now is a good time to reflect on its impact on education.  American students have received significantly less instruction over the last year, and the impact of that loss is clear.  Results of a recent study concluded that students made less gains during the fall of 2020 as compared to the fall of 2019, particularly in the area of math with students dropping five to ten points on a standard math assessment compared to last year. At first thought, the cause for these declines seems obvious.  Less instruction equals less learning, right?  Unfortunately, the answer isn’t quite as simple as it seems.  

Blind spots exist when we think we know the reason for something because we have a tendency to focus on the obvious, convenient explanations.  We also tend to search for reasons that match what we already think.  In reality, we often don’t know what we don’t know about the underlying causes of a phenomenon.  These kinds of blind spots lead us to stop asking questions and, even more troubling, lead us to invent explanations based on our beliefs rather than on scientific evidence. 

Blind spots have led to the systemic failure of our educational system.  Since the turn of the 20th century, a majority of American school children have been below proficiency in all academic subjects.  Educational reform efforts have been a recurring theme in this country, yet no such effort has led to a majority of American students being educated effectively.  The current pandemic may have drawn increased attention to our educational crisis, but this crisis has been an ongoing one.   

Rather than just assuming that less instruction will naturally lead to less learning, we should be asking some other questions.  Why are American students so fragile?  Why does an absence from instruction mean that students immediately lose skills?  Why does virtual instruction translate to ineffective instruction?  Why are kids so resistant to academic work?  Why can’t students be more resilient, take more initiative and continue to teach themselves outside of the classroom? 

These are the kinds of questions that we should really be asking about our educational system.  Imagine if we had a majority of students who could thrive academically under any conditions.  Imagine a majority of students with skills that were so highly mastered that instructional lags didn’t have a negative impact at all.  Imagine a majority of students who initiated learning new things independently, actually enjoyed academic work and were more inclined to pick up a book than a video game controller.  Seems like a fantasy, right? 

Actually, those scenarios I just asked you to imagine are actually quite possible when instruction is guided by behavioral science rather than by blind spots.  Behavioral science is the science of learning, which is a massive blind spot for the educational establishment.  Our educational system isn’t designed based on the science behind the learning process.  It’s designed based on traditions and beliefs.  These traditions and beliefs have never effectively educated a majority of students, and as a result, dangerous myths have been invented to explain this recurring failure.      

Overwhelming evidence from behavioral science indicates that when academic skills are mastered to fluency – a criteria that combines accuracy with speed – those skills become neurologically permanent (i.e., remembered).  Evidence also indicates that when learners achieve fluency in fundamental skills, they can learn more complex skills with very little instruction required.  Fluency also produces confidence and the desire to perform fluent skills.  When kids become fluent in academic skills, they actually want to engage in those skills and tend to self-initiate the learning of more complex skills.  

But fluency requires effective instruction and lots of repeated, reinforced practice.   Sadly, our educational system is not designed to produce fluency in fundamental skills.  In fact, the opposite is true.  American schools are designed based on the belief that kids learn through exposure to academic content, so schools just need to provide kids with that exposure.  As a result, teachers are required to present lots of curriculum content in a very short amount of time, which results in teachers doing most of the talking while students sit and stare.  Teachers must also follow arbitrary timelines set by the school district, regardless of whether their students can successfully follow those timelines.  As a result, a majority of American students do not master fundamental skills but are moved ahead to higher level skills and grade levels anyway. 

What is the result of this practice?  Fragile, unmotivated students with extensive skills deficits who cannot easily learn more complex things, thrive during instructional gaps, or initiate learning outside of the school environment.  The way our schools are designed guaranteed the tragic impact COVID has had on American students.  It was guaranteed because American students were already being tragically failed before the pandemic hit us.  The pandemic just made this tragic failure more obvious. 

 We have to be aware of our blind spots.  We have to resist the urge to accept the convenient explanations.  We have to resist saying to ourselves, “Once kids go back to school, everything will be fine.”  I promise you everything won’t be fine – especially for children of color and those living in poverty, more than 80% of whom were below proficiency before the pandemic.  When the pandemic ends, we will still have an educational system that isn’t designed according to the science of learning.  We will still have a school system that fails to produce fluency in essential skills but pushes kids ahead anyway.  We will still have generations of school children who can’t effectively read, write, think or do math.  These kids will just be even farther behind than they were before. 

A silver lining to this pandemic could be the complete overhauling of our educational system such that it is finally based on behavioral science.  I always say that a breakthrough first requires a breakdown.  Maybe this pandemic will prove to be the breakdown that finally leads to effective educational reform efforts aimed at changing the teaching practices themselves.  If it were guided by behavioral science, our school system could be producing resilient students ready to not only persevere through the next crisis but thrive in the face of it.  

Think about the remarkable scientific advances being made in other aspects of human life.  Microscopic robots are being injected into the body to deliver cancer treatment and a remote-controlled rover is currently exploring Mars. Yet, our educational system consistently fails to effectively teach our kids to read, write, think and do math.  Why?  Because scientists are in charge of cancer treatment and space exploration, but they are not in charge of education.  Can we learn from this pandemic?  Can we ready our kids for the next one?  I think we can but doing so requires us to be aware of our blind spots.  We must ask the tough questions, reject the convenient explanations and, most importantly, demand that behavioral scientists take charge of our schools.