Pandemic lessons 3: History

In the prior entry of this series, I described three large patterns in pandemic-era education in the U.S. since early 2020: institutional erosion, the quick development of a default repertoire of system-level responses, and the wrapping of education politics inside a COVID dramaturgy. What in the history of American education can provide context for these patterns? Institutional erosion and the educational dimension of pandemic dramaturgy are clearly about connections between schools and the rest of society, and one could argue that there has been a growing intertwining of schooling and the rest of American life, which has left schools at all levels more connected to families and society but still weak institutionally in several ways — connected, but not coordinated in ways that would have made pandemic education different.

How schools have not been apart from some separate thing called “society”

I used to teach a course called Schools and Society, but a better title would be Schools in Society. As formal institutions, schools at different levels have accumulated structures, habits, policies, and a set of connections with other social institutions. Many of the ways we talk about schools assume a separation that does not exist and could not exist. On March 16, the Tampa Bay Times published an op-ed by Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona arguing against the pro-censorship policies of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. I agree with Cardona’s argument wholeheartedly — DeSantis and other politicians have attacked teachers and other educators as a substitute for proposing serious, substantive ideas about education. But two sentences struck me as partly unrealistic: “Parents don’t want politicians dictating what their children can learn, think and believe. That’s not how public education is supposed to work in a free country.” I think most parents would agree that politicians should not dictate “what their children can … think and believe.” But politicians have persistently debated what children should learn for a simple reason: for more than two centuries, politicians and our education debates have connected schooling with citizenship, at first arguing that schools prepare students for citizenship, and somewhat later that schooling is a right of citizenship. How can one have education tied to citizenship without there being a politics of education that debates what children should learn? I absolutely disagree with DeSantis’s publicly-stated views on curriculum, but I am not surprised at all that debates over curriculum persist.

More generally, the history of education politics is tied closely to the question of who is an American in the broader sense: who gets to go to which schools, have access to the full curriculum, have funding sufficient to meet their education needs. This is education politics in the deepest sense.

Two other persistent connections across several centuries are particularly relevant to pandemic education: how long-term demographic patterns have shaped formal school systems, and how economic changes have intertwined with schools. I think of these as institutional environments rather than a mechanistic idea that something outside schools happens and that external force pushes schooling in certain directions. Nothing in history is that deterministic. But both K-12 schools and higher education have developed in the context of these environments, including the immigrant wave in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Baby Boom between 1943 and 1964, the simultaneous end of the Baby Boom in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of modern, global immigration, the Baby Boom echo many call millennials, and declining birth rates in recent decades.

Economic environments have similarly affected schooling, and again that is not deterministic. The decline of child labor in the first half of the 20th century happened for a variety of reasons, including child labor laws, industrial corporations’ preference for immigrant labor, the mechanization of agriculture, and (eventually) the enforcement of truancy laws. Before 1950, declining child labor led to higher attendance in high schools, and graduation from them. This shift was not inevitable. In both world wars, teenage employment rose during labor shortages, and high school graduation dropped. And in the past half-century, part-time work for youth has sometimes complemented and sometimes competed with academics.

Or, to pick another tie between economic issues and schooling, historical job discrimination dramatically shaped who became teachers: for most of the past two centuries, teaching was one of the best professional opportunities for college-educated Black and Hispanic adults, and for women of all backgrounds. In recent decades, while far from perfect, better labor-market opportunities for all women and historically minoritized gorups has meant that schools compete with other opportunities, for all college-educated Americans.

The great intertwining since 1970

Since World War II, and especially 1970, several important connections within that institutional environment have strengthened, what one might call a great intertwining. Four examples illustrate the issues:

Increased labor-force participation of women. As many American historians know, women’s entering industrial jobs in the second world war was a rehearsal for what happened between the mid-50s and the mid-90s. The issues that arose in the war — workplace harassment, child care — have persisted.

Women's labor force participation (in percentages) in the U.S. rose from 32% in 1948 to 60% in 1997, with a decline to the mid-50s after the Great Recession and another drop in 2020.

Human capital ideas, higher education, and student loans. The belief in educational and educational credentials as a tool for building economic mobility is not a postwar phenomenon in the U.S. — as David Labaree observed in his book on Philadelphia’s Central High School, these were part of the politics of late 19th and early 20th century urban high schools. But the national discourse has put so much of the burden on college education to solve economic problems, with the burden on individuals and their families, with highly inconsistent public funding of higher education. One result before the pandemic was the pairing of consistently higher enrollment in college for high school graduation cohorts, on the one hand, with growing student and parent loan financing, on the other. As Tressie McMillan Cottom points out in Lower Ed, human capital rhetoric and student and parental loans are in effect the privatization of economic pain.

Increased formal law enforcement presence in schools. There is a record of growing bureaucratization of school discipline starting in the immediate post-1945 period, which Judith Kafka has documented in detail for the Los Angeles Unified School District. In the postwar era, civil disruptions both outside and inside schools have been occasions for school districts or municipal authorities to add greater police presence inside schools — in her book on Chicago education history, Elizabeth Todd-Breland notes the increased police access to the city’s schools beginning in 1969 (which greatly concerned Black educators). I do not know of any scholarly history of formal school resource officer programs, but from various editions of the federal indicators of school crime and safety report, my impression is that school policies with that term began in the 1990s, a few years after isolated school district discipline policies began using the term “zero tolerance, according to a 2011 ERIC clearinghouse review, and also before the No Child Left Behind Act mandated that school districts have discipline policies with something like zero tolerance.

Technology and mass media. The history of education and technology has two dimensions that other historians have documented well: the attempts at using technology within formal schooling, on the one hand, and the social and cultural concerns over the uses of new technologies and media, on the other, especially moral panics over youth and new media (whatever the new media is at the time). For the in-school part of the history, Larry Cuban and Victoria Cain have written great, accessible books on technology within schools, on the persistent utopian rhetoric over decades that the latest technology will make textbooks or teachers obsolete, and the persistent failure of many technology initiatives. Both are careful to point out that there are many examples of smaller-scale successes, separate from the utopian initiatives, and that a good part of the use of technologies and media within schools is a natural consequence of their growing use outside schools.

More intertwined, but how aligned?

The growth of more intense connections between schools and other social institutions did not necessarily lead to coordination. A much higher proportion of women are working today than 80 years ago, and we also have a significant after-school gap that schools are not addressing (nor are other institutions). According to political rhetoric of the past 40 years, schools are responsible for the future of our economy, but that rhetoric is not matched by long-term patterns of public investment in education research or in direct education since 1983.1

When schools have taken on additional roles since World War II, it has often done so through accretion inside school systems. In the 1980s, Arthur Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David Cohen called this the Shopping Mall High School phenomenon: schools added a set of classes for driver’s ed, health ed, and so forth. There are occasional federal policies for serious coordination, such as the federal Department of Defense school liaison program to assist military families with school relationships when they move for assignments, or the federal Education for Homeless Children and Youth program.2 And wise school system leaders at all levels connect with and try to work with community organizations and other social institutions. But there is a certain friction involved in such work, and as a whole, schools are weak coordinators, as organizations.

The consequences of connection without coordination

There were obvious immediate consequences in 2020 of the relationship between schools at all levels and families: when schools closed down in-person instruction, families could no longer rely on them as part of the coordination of daily and annual rhythms. For younger children, that created an immediate child-care crisis that disrupted work–thus the short-term but dramatic drop in women’s labor-force participation, in the chart above. Schools and child-care centers and colleges immediately stopped being a place for children and youth to meet peers; while that disrupted bullying dynamics in some cases, it also disrupted friendships and pulled out a significant support for the healthy development of children and youth.3 And it also disrupted relationships between children and youth, on the one hand, and significant adults outside their families, on the other–teachers and faculty, advisors and counselors, and the coterie of adults who often are important role models.

And schools often remained closed to in-person operations much longer than retail businesses. In 2020, there was a sort of meme circulating about the perverse dynamic: schools stayed closed so that bars could reopen. There’s a serious lesson from this acerbic joke: schools are never the tail that wags the dog. What if schools could have forced bars to stay closed instead? That world does not exist in any conceivable multiverse. Schools at all levels have no coordinating power over the vast majority of other social institutions, and that reality has showed up consistently since early 2020. Elementary and secondary schools could not initiate coordination of public-health concerns, or of opportunities for families outside in-person classes. Colleges and universities could mandate conditions in classrooms and academic buildings in general, but not off-campus housing and retail operations (bars!), and even regarding dorms, the University of North Carolina closed down in-person classes in fall 2020 and sent students off campus after COVID spread in on-campus housing.

Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, I think this fact is salient for how we understand schools, and education beyond formal schooling. But I will return focus first to the pandemic, and where we can now see critical absences of coordination that happened because education is education.


  1. The proportion of GDP spent on education in the U.S. rose from 6% in 1970 to around 7% in 2009-2015… but that’s a small increase compared with 1950-1970, when the GDP proportion spent on education doubled from 3%. []
  2. Notably, the liaisons are DOD employees. []
  3. On the School Pulse Panel survey in March 2022, roughly equivalent percentages of K-12 public schools reported hearing parent concerns about social, emotional, and mental well-being of students as about academics, and many also heard from students about their concerns with their well-being, youth activities, and peer relationships. []