Loss Upon Loss

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Is Learning “Lost” When Kids Are Out of School? (alfiekohn.org)

One of the most infuriating aspects of American big business is its seemingly deliberate ignorance of how much better well-rested employees work. Case study after case study in Europe shows how employees who aren’t forced to work as long as Americans in a given week, and who get much more vacation time than what is typical here, not only get a lot more done per hour on the job, but even a lot more done per year. So many American businesses take the neanderthalic “employees can’t work if they aren’t working” approach to their scheduling, working their employees as many hours as possible (legally or otherwise), that we’ve normalized the overworked employee to a dangerous degree in this country. Many of the words that have become a part of our common American vernacular over the past decade — “staycation” and “5-to-9” to name just two — show the extent to which we’ve become tolerant of working a rapidly-growing number of Americans far beyond any sense of reason, regardless of whether or not the extra time spent working results in more work actually getting done.

(To be clear, this also applies to companies who may limit their employees’ hours, but don’t pay them enough to live more than a threadbare existence — if even that — effectively forcing those employees to get additional jobs just to keep roofs over their heads and food on their plates. This definitely includes all the restaurants whose kvetching about employees not wanting to risk their lives for minimum-wage work has been plastered all over social media in recent weeks, as if people not wanting to work for them any longer is somehow anything other than their problem. Sadly, this includes what had formerly been one of my favourite pizzerias in Toledo, so I’ll have one less place to visit when I go back there because they’re not getting my money ever again.)

This doesn’t even take into account America’s lack of concern, if not outright disdain, about whether or not people are happy. There is too much historical baggage about how this came about to unpack in a short blog like this, from this country’s puritanical roots to modern conceptions of who “deserves” anything more than a miserable existence, but as these past few months have shown us, even after the last election, the masses behind the whole “the cruelty is the point” ethos have not only gone away, but are continuing to gain legitimacy in the more mainstream circles they touch. Minorities of all kinds are also bearing the brunt of additional attacks on their ability to merely go from day to day without dealing with crippling harassment, or worse.

No one deserves that kind of treatment, which makes it all the more devastating that children are so often the victims of this kind of thinking. Beyond the moral imperatives of allowing children to be children while they still can, high levels of childhood stress are strongly correlated to shorter life expectancy, and yet both the major political parties in America continue to push education “reform” that subjects our youngest to the kind of authoritarian regimes that we used to scorn other countries for, stripping away not just the joy of actual education, but all sense of fun and actual learning, all in the pursuit of a handful of standardized test score numbers that have next to no meaning for anyone who doesn’t stand to make money off of them. Good and great schools still exist for the richest American families, but more and more of the less-advantaged — even those who might be considered “middle class” in this era — are being forced to deal with schools where teachers aren’t allowed to really teach, young people aren’t allowed to really be young people, and the only real goal is to help the powerful people who have taken control of these schools consolidate and grow their power.

Just as American adults have rapidly had their free time swallowed up by the creeping cultural calamities of an all-work-all-the-time mindset — staycations and side hustles, unpaid overtime and letting your bosses text you at all hours of the day — so too have our children had their own time to be children impinged upon. As the corporate education “reform” regime grabbed more and more power over the past decades, an increasing number of school systems have reduced recess periods, or even eliminated them altogether, to give more time for drilling students in those all-important standardized tests. More schools have also insisted that children log onto their computers on snow days to have classes online, instead of being allowed the simple joy of an unscheduled day off from the rigors of the school day, and I fear that the increase in online learning that was forced on us by the COVID-19 pandemic will tempt more schools to join in this barbaric practice.

It’s not like there weren’t already some sadists out there calling for an end to summer break and insisting that young children get no time off from school at any point — with the prerequisite cries of “efficiency” of school buildings and “teachers get summers off” and all that — but just as some parts of America finally seem to be turning a corner with the pandemic, more people are insisting that because this past school year presented challenges that most of us never dreamed of having to deal with, and not everyone was able to rise to those challenges, that now we need to cram children into school buildings over their summer break to “make up” for whatever was allegedly lost from the complications of the past year, denying them a much-needed respite from the rigors of school so we can, once again, make sure those all-important standardized test scores don’t go down.

It would be bad enough that these people are just flat-out wrong about the whole notion of “learning loss” as it’s so often called these days; just like many Europeans get more accomplished at work over the course of a year despite working fewer hours, children learn more when they’re give time to not just enjoy their childhoods through unstructured time to play and explore, but allow the book-learning they’ve done to sink in, and show itself in real-world situations that not only display the usefulness of what they learn in school, but also spark curiosities that make children actually want to learn more. The idea that children can’t learn important things if they’re not sitting quietly in classrooms is not only patently false, but when so many of those classrooms are already horrible places (whether due to chronic underfunding, or poorly-prepared first-year “teachers” from the usual places, or prison-like authority structures), forcing children to spend more time in them kills curiosity, kills actual learning, and can even kill authentic childhoods.

Cancelling summer break for children would be abhorrent at any time, but even for those children who are too young to grasp the specific horrors of the pandemic, they can still tell that very bad things have been happening around them for a very long time. For those children who either aren’t naturally introverted or haven’t been bullied into wanting to avoid people as much as possible from a very young age, they haven’t been able to hang out with their friends in well over a year now. It looks like at least some parts of this country may finally be reaching a point where pandemic restrictions can be significantly relaxed, and what children need most right now isn’t to be cooped up in classrooms on sunny summer days, but to play and catch up on the parts of their childhood that they were forced to put on pause over a year ago. Forcing kids into summer school at a time like this is nothing short of cruel, and after having to sacrifice so much of their childhood to the pandemic, they deserve a lot better than to be treated like numbers on a corporate spreadsheet that CEOs think can be raised just by making everyone else work harder.

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