Hunger for Stability Quells Appetite for Change

Michael B. Henderson, David M. Houston, Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West
Year of publication: 
August 31, 2021
Education Next

Calamities often disrupt the status quo. After the influenza pandemic that began during World War I and lasted two years, many Europeans turned to socialism, fascism, and Bolshevism. In the United States, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 followed by the Great Depression induced many people to reject laissez-faire capitalism in favor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, with its social safety-net programs, public-works projects, and government regulations.

Yet not all such catastrophic events lead to an appetite for change. After World War I, Americans, unlike Europeans, longed for a return to what President Warren G. Harding termed “normalcy.” The immigration door slammed shut, isolationism raged, and popular fear of Communism led to the Red Scare.

The 15th annual Education Next survey investigates how Americans are responding to the worst pandemic since 1919. In the realm of education, a desire for sweeping reform might well be expected, given the pandemic’s particularly severe toll on K–12 schooling. While few children suffered serious illnesses, the effects of the pandemic on the nation’s youth were nonetheless dramatic. Schools across the country were shuttered for months, some for more than a year. State-mandated testing, a tool for holding schools accountable, was largely abandoned. Remote instruction, implemented under crisis conditions, failed to live up to the claims of virtual-learning enthusiasts. Learning loss was severe, especially among children from low-income families. According to parents, children’s friendships and social ties suffered. Even their physical fitness was put at risk. Obesity, drug abuse, mental health challenges, and teenage suicides appeared to be on the rise. In desperation, some parents shifted their children from district schools to private schools, homeschooling, and other options that provided more in-person learning.

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