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Column: Our uncontrolled experiment in learning

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 3/27/2020 10:10:21 PM
Modified: 3/27/2020 10:10:10 PM

We are about to embark on a massive national experiment, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, and if the U.S. had a functional Department of Education, it would be working feverishly to devise a way of measuring the impact. As of this writing, four states and several major metropolitan areas have cancelled classes, and scores of colleges — including some of the “brand-name” universities — have cancelled their spring semesters. As a result, all these institutions, from Harvard to rural schools in Michigan, are offering online instruction in lieu of the traditional on-campus model. The billion-dollar question is: Will this make any difference in what students learn? The answer, given our crude means of measuring “what students learn,” is we will probably never know.

Because our primary metric for measuring learning is the standardized test, and since online instruction can be targeted to the kinds of content that is measured on those tests, it is likely that students learning on screens at home will do at least as well on these tests as students who were taught in schools or on campuses.

Should that be the result, I can imagine advocates of virtual learning will use it as evidence that online learning is as good as traditional learning. Once that conclusion is drawn, advocates of efficiency (and the low taxes that result) will see this outcome as evidence that we are spending needlessly for brick-and-mortar schools and fancy college campuses.

But online learning has one major drawback: The high-speed internet it requires is not universally available or affordable.

I live a mere 5 miles away from Dartmouth College by car, but I cannot get fiber-optic internet at home. My cellphone gets one bar indoors and two bars in my driveway. I do have a slower DSL connection, and pay a premium for it. That price might not be affordable if I were making even the $15 an hour advocated by some politicians. Online learning that consists of more than electronic spreadsheets, then, is not available for all students in same way as traditional instruction.

There is another side to this experiment that cannot be overlooked: Public schools do far more than teach children to do well on standardized tests.

As several media outlets have noted, one result of the closing of public schools is that millions of students will no longer have access to nutritious meals — lunch and often breakfast. Absent clear protocols from the federal government, states and local school districts are left to fend for themselves to develop a way to feed the 11 million children who come from food-insecure homes and will otherwise go hungry. These challenges are daunting, especially in rural areas.

And schools do more than teach and feed students. They provide medical assistance, counseling and psychological support to address students’ unique needs, and they allow students to engage in activities like athletics, music and theater that bring out their unique talents. None of this can be offered virtually.

Another practical issue: How will millions of working parents find child care? Many scramble to get short-term care for their children, or take personal time off, if schools close due to weather. If schools are closed for an extended period of time because of the COVID-19 crisis, how will working parents cope? And if parents are working from home on their computers while children are learning online, will there be enough bandwidth?

Finally, schools employ thousands of people beyond teachers. If schools close for an extended period, will the support staff be necessary? What will happen to the bus drivers? The cafeteria workers? The custodial and maintenance staff? Will their fate be determined on a district-by-district basis, or will state or federal guidelines be developed? And who will cover the cost of unemployment benefits?

We are embarking on a massive experiment in the way we educate children, and we are flying blind. But we may learn some valuable lessons. We may recognize that standardized tests fail to measure what is important. We may begin to understand the expanded mission of public schools. We may appreciate the social benefits children get from interacting with their peers. And we may acknowledge the key role public education plays in the local and national economy.

Ultimately, we may appreciate that we are all in this together, and we need to look out for each other.

Wayne Gersen, of Etna, is the former superintendent of the Dresden School District.

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