The kids are all right, or at least they will be

by Hugh Gilmore
Posted 10/22/20

As long as Covid 19 beats the drum, our schools will keep struggling to walk the tightrope between personal and remote learning. Most American schools are offering both formats, in some fashion, now …

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The kids are all right, or at least they will be


As long as Covid 19 beats the drum, our schools will keep struggling to walk the tightrope between personal and remote learning. Most American schools are offering both formats, in some fashion, now that we're eight weeks into the new school year and eight months into the coronavirus shutdowns.

The constant question for today's generation of young parents is: How will this ad hoc mixture affect my child's learning? The most common answer echoing back from professional educators is that our children are being harmed. And the damage may be permanent.

I'd like to argue with that.

Let's be clear about what a professional educator is: we are not talking here about people who work in an actual school building teaching children. No, those people are heroes – dedicated, loving, professional, caring and always hopeful. Nor are we talking about the administrators who support these teachers in their daily rounds. What we are talking about are the professional theoreticians, professors, consultants, advisers, structuralists, hobnobbers and economists who put the lime in the educational coconut and mix it all up.    

When a newspaper columnist needs to anchor down his wind-driven sheets of copy he calls for an expert opinion. For local, in-the-field samples they'll ask a farmer to let some topsoil blow from his hand to visualize a drought, or perhaps talk to a fellow nailing plywood against a boardwalk window ahead of the coming storm. That's okay for talk-from-the-trenches interviews, but if a newsperson's editor tells them to get the big picture, then a professional big-thinker on that subject gets speed dialed.

When the subject is education, that call goes to a college dean, a department chair, or a specialist professor. (Perhaps it's not the case anymore, but there was a time when folks affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania School of Education privately joked that the department only hired professors and deans who'd never set foot in a public school.) In these kinds of interviews, opinions are free, just so the subject's name gets spelled right.

Advice is different though; advice will cost money. And before you get that advice, you have to have an analysis. That'll cost money too. And guess what that analysis will tell you – it'll say you need advice. If a consulting company told you anything else, they'd go right down the drain. Or have to hire an outside consulting company to help them survive. Life on the consulting and marketing trail is one big ouroboros if you like to eat.

For example, McKinsey and Company. Founded in 1926 by James O. McKinsey, a University of Chicago Accounting professor who believed that the principles of accounting could be used as management tools. Nearly a century later the firm is worldwide and has had many important clients. For example: Enron, Valeant (a Canadian pharmaceutical company accused of predatory pricing), Oxycontin, ICE, Saudi Arabia (how to clamp down protestors), China (same), Turkey (same), and so on.  

And now, their expertise has been brought to bear on the Covid 19 education crisis. From's website, dated June 1, 2020 comes this headline: "Covid-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime."  After some mind-numbing read-outs of GDP rates for various ethnic and income groups, they get down to the pitch: "We created statistical models to estimate the potential impact of school closures on learning." They compare remote learning to classroom learning for three different kinds of students in three different epidemiological settings.

Perhaps we could save some chalk money if we predicted what's going to be in those report envelopes. Let's guess: 1. Some students will do well; 2. Some will just do okay; 3. Some will do poorly. You're right. You may now go on to the next level. That's where they bring out the math to dazzle you. They say, "By 2040 most of the K-12 cohort will be in the workforce. We estimate a GDP loss of $173 billion a year ––a 0.8 to 1.3 percent hit."  Which will be worse, of course, if other countries (those who hire McKinsey, perhaps?) handle the educational crisis sooner or better (not the same thing).

We need to turn aside from the sizzling stats and get to some enduring human truths that such headlines smudge. First, this is a national emergency and it's better to be alive than dead. Second, this talk about children's educations being "hurt" is misleading. Educators and consultants are using the word to mean something like "not on pace with what we're used to." So what? Nothing. Children are flexible. Children hunger to learn. Children's minds and brains are flexible and they will recover when the lids get lifted.

America is overly consumed with the idea that every child in the world is supposed to arrive at the same growth point at the same time in the same way. That's nonsense. It always was, and it's a notion that has done little good and much harm. When the fog lifts, we'll roll our sleeves and get back to work and our children will be just fine. Beware of phrases such as "harmful to their learning," "hurt their education," "impede their progress." Our teachers are doing the best they can and a multi-million-dollar educational consulting contract isn't going to make the coronavirus go away.