We all kind of know that school sucks. Not learning, and not the broader umbrella of education, but school, specifically k-12 school, sucks. Ask most any kid, even the nerdy ones, and they’ll tell you. That joke about lunch or recess being some kid’s favorite class is older than the kids telling it. And until recently, adults have rationalized that this was just immaturity—young people not appropriately weighing the delayed benefits of becoming educated with the immediate inconvenience of being schooled. But this e-learning has made one thing crystal clear.
School sucks worse than we thought.
School sucks so bad that lowering the consequences for dropping out only slightly has led to a mass exodus. Schools all over are reporting lower attendance numbers than ever. An informal poll of my friends at schools across the nation also reveals that what counts for attendance these days is often just contact of any sort for literally any duration. A single text message gets kids counted present for the day in many schools. Not to mention many schools making their grade system Pass/Fail, where any work whatsoever is considered enough to pass.
So a kid need only text one adult to be counted present and need only turn in some document with digital chicken scratch on it to receive a passing grade and credit for a course. Do this for a handful of classes and you make a considerable step towards graduation. And graduating supposedly holds some sort of benefit, financial, prestigious, or opening doors to further education. AND STILL! If you take away the relational influence and the negative social pressure to stay and complete your degree, suddenly as much as half (HALF!) of the kids are just saying, “Fuck this.” And the kids who do show up are not doing so because we’re making captivating content. They’re there because of residual obligation or parental pressure.
(And I won’t go into the extent to which schools are less about education and more about daycare and meal programs for taxpayers.)
I am a teacher, through and through. I am a teacher, and I love teachers, and I think it is a noble and meaningful profession that we should take more seriously. But come on, y’all. If we don’t have a police-enforced mandatorily-captive audience in our schools, kids just leave. That can’t all be their immaturity. If we were a TV show, no one would pick up the pilot. A movie? Straight to streaming obscurity. A business? Bankrupt. A concert? What’s the literal opposite of a sold out show because that’s what we would have. We are failing at the most basic, most fundamental task—just keeping the audience’s attention. What sort of respect can we have for our audience if we don’t even offer them an experience worth having?
Schools (yours, mine, all of them) suck. We are finally competing with the internet (a tool of entertainment but also considerable learning) on level terms, and we are getting our asses handed to us. School vs. Snapchat? Schools lose. School vs. Youtube? Schools lose. School vs. baking (the legal or illegal varieties) or yard work or walking around outside? Schools lose. We lose vs. skateboards and art supplies and pets and more. Don’t get me started with boyfriends and girlfriends and friend-friends.
We cannot continue to tell ourselves that losing out in these comparisons is somehow intrinsic to our mission. Kids do not naturally run from difficult things. Looks at video games like Dark Souls or sports (where the challenge is often so arbitrary describing it plainly seems absurd) or make-up tutorials on youtube. Kids are learning and deliberately practicing skills outside of school all the time. If we really have so much to offer, why aren’t they opting in?
School doesn’t have to suck. Lots of places sell education of various types, and people pay for it. Masterclass.com is great example. Lynda.com does excellent courses on technical skills. Rosetta Stone and Berlitz have well respected language programs—not to mention Duolingo and its relentless little bird thing. All of those are better than school. Better content, better production, self-paced and directed, with immediate feedback.
Each of those ideas has a place in traditional education. There are edtech startups like the Summit Learning Platform and Khan Academy trying to bring each of those ideas into our mainstream. And like anything new, there is adoption and backlash simultaneously. Old guard saying innovation for innovation’s sake is a waste of effort and resources (see the charter school debate). Progressives argue that traditional structures keep school from becoming what it could be. Generally, they cancel eachother out. But this moment ought to tip the scales.
We’ve been operating with a flawed understanding of the demand for our product. Actual demand in these new circumstances is quite a bit lower than we knew. Basic economics tells us that you adjust for lower demand by lowering the price of your product—but we’ve been giving it away for free! I guess we have to improve the product. The good news is, there is ample room to improve.