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.

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Pandemic lessons 2: Phenomena

Well over a million Americans dead. Formal schooling disrupted for months, and in many cases several years. Mental health challenges and the emergence of a virulent culture war aimed at multiple levels of education. This has been the pandemic experience for millions of children, college students, and their families. Future historians will have a longer-term perspective on the visceral experience of generations touched by the pandemic. But we also do not need to wait to have a little bit of perspective, both on the experiences of millions of Americans and also education systems. This blog post is the second in a series on pandemic education, and focuses on those systems.

At a broad level, American education has experienced at least three large patterns since the start of 2020: institutional erosion in terms of both enrollment and institutional stability, the quick evolution of a default reportoire of institutional responses during the pandemic, and the evolution of a pandemic dramaturgy (or a significant part of the pandemic dramaturgy that became associated with schooling). These patterns should not obscure the existence of many individual or local efforts excluded from this description. But when I ask, how will historians look at education in the COVID-19 pandemic, they will see idiosyncratic responses and also these very large-scale patterns.

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Pandemic lessons 1: Explanandum

For three years, from January 2020 to December 2022, the United States fed its most vulnerable school-age children better than it educated them. This isn’t hard to see: after the pandemic began closing schools in early 2022, schools gained permission and figured out how to shift from in-school feeding to grab-and-go meals. In contrast, there have been large questions about both the extent of promised and required special education services that schools failed to provide, and the ways that students with disabilities have been more vulnerable to the damages of the pandemic than nondisabled peers.

But this set of stories is not just about this comparison, between a successful pandemic pivot and substantial failures. This set of stories raises a larger question about what happened with education since the arrival of SARS-CoV-2. For me, as an historian, I have wrestled with what is that larger question, what needs to be explained.

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What we can learn from a half-century of federal special education reform (part 3)

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, I described the five factors that shaped the past half-century of education reform focused on the rights and needs of individuals with disabilities: politics, deliberately designed policies and practices, history, emergent patterns of practices, and policy feedback. These factors can help explain some puzzles about this area of education reform – and education history more broadly. In some cases, the explicit and deliberative efforts have strongly shaped education – and here, the existence of political conflict does not take away from the fact that political dynamics are explicit and often deliberative. In other cases, outcomes follow the factors largely out of the control of delineated and deliberate effort: history, emergent practices, and policy feedback.

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What we can learn from a half-century of federal special education reform (part 2)

In part 1, I looked back at 50 years of education reform focused on students with disabilities and explained two of the five factors that shaped the last half-century of this history: political efforts to secure the educational rights of individuals with disabilities; and efforts to plan or design either education policy or educational techniques that could be used to help individuals, classes, or systems. These two factors lean heavily towards deliberative action, and I hinted that intentional action was not all that shaped the history of education for individuals with disabilities. Now it’s time to explore that other side.

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