With the combination of virtual school, face-to-face school, a return to virtual school, little supervision over virtual school, an inability to follow normal curriculum, and stress, stress, stress, we worry our kids are falling behind academically. Our kindergarteners might not read. Our third-graders might not know their times tables. Our fifth graders might not locate theme in a text. Our high schoolers might not have enough chemistry. Newsflash: your kids are not falling behind.
We are in the middle of a global pandemic. No one is falling behind.
My husband teaches high school, and even he will admit that we’ve constructed our schooling standards to graduate children when they stand ready to enter the workforce or the military. In other words, we stop warehousing kids in school when they can become productive working citizens. Standards, therefore, are driven by a system of capitalism that prioritizes not knowledge, but an ability to work productively.
What Counts As “Falling Behind”?
Let’s examine the phenomenon children “falling behind” or “not falling behind.” What, exactly, is the target? A school superintendent would puff up his chest and say, in a deep, booming voice, “Standards!” Well, what standards? “State standards! National standards!” But as Rita Kohli points out in an essay in Teacher Education Quarterly, those standards are those of the dominant culture: upper-middle class white culture. Most standards are inherently race-based; they’re also often class-based, according to an article by Jennifer L. Hochschild, published by Journal of Social Issues.
So when we talk about children “falling behind,” we’ve internalized the inherently racist and classist standards schools use to judge them. We ourselves are judging our kids in racist, classist ways. How’s that make you feel? Do you want to look at your children through a racist lens? Through a classist lens? No? Then stop saying they’re falling behind.
Children aren’t magically ready to read at age five. I tried to teach my son to read three times: starting when he turned five, starting when he was around six, and starting when he was six-and-a-half. At age five, he could identify any amphibian in the yard, including differentiating nearly identical species of toad. He could not, however, differentiate between “b” and “d.”
Kids learn differently. Live with it. Your kid isn’t falling behind anything because of the pandemic. And if they are, the standards they’re falling behind are so arbitrary as to be meaningless.
Standards Are Made to Turn Out Good Little Workers
Standards are predicated on an important idea: your child, regardless of their racial checkbox or your tax bracket, will leave school at age eighteen. We have decided, as a society, that a person becomes an adult at age eighteen. At that magic age, in most states, you can buy cigarettes, join the military, get married, or obtain an abortion. Once children, these adults are now expected to go to college, work, or join the military — i.e., to become working cogs in the capitalist machine.
Therefore, when children turn eighteen, we have no need to warehouse them any longer. They don’t need childcare — and if the pandemic has proven anything, it’s that school serves as childcare for a significant portion of Americans. So standards have been planned to coincide with an eighteen-year expiration date. For that to work, certain things have to happen by certain times.
Kids need to come to school knowing their letters, for example, so they can learn how to read simple words in kindergarten, so they can learn better reading skills in first grade. These are part of the “standards” we’ve set up, and we’ve used programs like Head Start to bolster them. Even Democrats have pushed universal preschool to level the playing field. No one has questioned the standards themselves.
So when we say kids are “falling behind” these standards, we mean that our kids might not be ready for the workforce when they turn eighteen. Woe and catastrophe! Disaster! By “falling behind,” your child has failed an entire system of capitalism, and we shame them accordingly.
“Falling Behind” Doesn’t Count If You’re Rich
Think on this: it’s okay for Prince William to take a gap year. But suggest your kid take an extra year of high school and watch the looks on your friends’ faces. First, there’s an expectation that a “gap year” involves some type of “finding yourself,” despite most taking it because they aren’t yet mature enough for college. Second, a gap year typically does not involve extra schoolwork, or if it does, it doesn’t include schoolwork necessary for admission to higher education. So the rich aren’t “falling behind” when they fail to mature at the same rate as poor kids. They’re taking some time off!
They Aren’t Actually Falling Behind On What Counts
Your kids are living through something unprecedented. They will never forget COVID-19, not even the kindergarteners, and they will never forget the lessons they learned during it. Your kids are learning desperately important lessons every single day. Look around, and you’ll see them.
They are learning that it’s uncomfortable as hell to wear a mask everywhere. But they are learning to make that sacrifice so other people stay healthy — especially the old and the immunocompromised. My kids make that sacrifice. We mostly self-isolate too, and we explain the two sacrifices this way: this is hard. But it’s our job to protect the sick and the old. Their lives are more important than our inconvenience. We should be proud that we are keeping them safe. They are not falling behind on compassion.
Our kids are learning to get along with each other. Oh, it’s so damn hard. I’m lucky enough to have three boys, so self-isolation is much easier for us than many people. But three kids, no friends, no contact? Wow, it gets hairy. My kids are learning to get along, to work together, and to solve problems. They are learning the misery of anger. They are learning to amuse themselves in small spaces. They are learning that they can do this. They are not falling behind on maturity.
Yeah, they’re falling behind on long division. And Social Studies. Probably grammar.
They are falling behind on the arbitrary standards that someone else has set for them. According to my standards, and their father’s standards, in the middle of global pandemic, they are exceeding all expectations with a grace and fortitude I did not know they possessed.