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Crises in American Education: WWII, Baby Booms, and COVID-19

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  • Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design
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Abstract

The COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 is the gravest threat to the health of Americans in history. It is also the greatest crisis in the history of American education. The combination of illness, death, and the social distancing measures being implemented to mitigate the spread of the disease are more disruptive to the American educational systems than World War II, the Baby Booms, and 9/11. This is a worldwide crisis, but it is not World War II. There is no roaring economy for our students to enter without diplomas and adequate academic preparation. There are no Levittowns waiting for homebuilders, tradesmen, and teachers to fill vacant jobs. The Baby Boom Echo is a faint whisper, and the United States is entering a cyclical slowdown of the economy weakened by trade-wars and pushed over the edge by an invisible virus. At the same time, America did rebuild after World War II. Americans have survived multi-session schooldays, recessions, and health crises. In this critical moment caused by COVID-19, educational leaders must be morally responsible for their decisions regarding lives, livelihood, and learning.
Crises in American Education: WWII, Baby Booms, and COVID-19
Thomas E. Keefe
Asst. Professor of Humanities
Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design
Lakewood, Colorado
Introduction. The COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 is the gravest threat to the health of
Americans in history. It is also the greatest crisis in the history of American education. During
the Spanish flu outbreak, 500 million people died worldwide and, in the U.S. almost a ⅓ of the
population was infected and 675,000 died. This week, the Imperial College in London estimated
that 2.2 million Americans may die of the coronavirus (Ferguson, 2020; Ramsey, 2020). The
combination of illness, death, and the social distancing measures being implemented to mitigate
the spread of the disease are more disruptive to the American educational systems than World
War II, the Baby Booms, and 9/11.
World War II. On September 16, 1940, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the
Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 into law in anticipation of World War II. American
men, ages 21 and 45 to register for the draft and draftees had to serve on active duty for 12
months. After the war began, Congress amended the legislation to require all men from 18 and
64 years of age to register for the draft and designated all men between the ages of 20 and 44
eligible for military service. By 1945, ten millions American men had been drafted into military
service. The disruption to the economy was stark. Shop owners, tradesmen, factory workers,
1
doctors, and teachers were suddenly gone. The only exceptions were agricultural workers, war
1
https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/draft-and-w
wii
2
production workers, and men who were “Deferred in support of national health, safety, or
interest” (Class II-A, II-B, and II-C).
As male teachers were drafted for military service, class sizes swelled in the United
States and around the world. Simpkins (n.d.) noted, in particular, the effect of the British draft on
education. High school students began dropping out of school and enlisting and by November
12, 1942, the 18 year olds were being conscripted as well. The graduation rate during the war fell
from 51.2% before the war, to 42.3% in 1944. Young men like P.J. Montano, Joe Perricone,
2 3 4
John Benanti, and thousands of other men did not complete their education. At the same time,
5
the post-WWII economy in the United States had jobs for these ungraduated men. The factories
in Europe were destroyed and the Asian Tiger economies were decades away; American
factories and businesses boomed.
Baby Boomers. The booming economy and the birth of the suburbs created more
problems in education. As exemplified by Levittown, Pennsylvania, the population in the new
housing communities put enormous pressure on property taxes, teacher salaries, and class size.
When testifying before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Education, Charles Boehm, County
Superintendent of Bucks County Schools, said “In 1950 we had 2,000 pupils on part sessions; in
September 1952 we had 7,380 pupils on part sessions” (Boehm, 1954, p. 224.). Schools were not
just in double sessions, but triple sessions.
2 https://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/web/98039.asp
3
https://www.ocregister.com/2019/06/07/world-war-ii-veteran-gets-his-high-school-diploma-after-76-years/
4 https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/26/us/2-vets-graduate-high-school-trnd/index.html
5
https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/bergen/garfield/2019/06/22/wwii-veteran-walks-garfield-nj-gradua
tion-74-years-later/1481414001/
3
Baby Boom Echo. Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a “crush of young people
entering our nation’s public and private K-12 schools” became known as the “Baby Boom Echo”
(“The Baby Boom Echo: No end in sight,” 1999). Schools across the United States, from
Broward County, Florida, to Washoe County, Nevada, again went to double sessions. This
6 7
surge in population has put pressure on the quality of education, but it has also created millions
of jobs across America. Not just teachers, staff, bus-drivers, but also second-tier job creation in
the industries that support schools like construction, back-to-school supplies, and athletics
uniforms. We have school districts that have grown so quickly, it is hard to keep up with
employment needs. Jefferson County Public Schools, Colorado, has raised wages for custodians
and bus drivers and still has struggled to fill the positions. In Colorado, the University of
Colorado System employs 37,000 people and is the largest employer in the state. In fact, the
largest employer in 20% of the U.S. states are the state university systems (California, Hawaii,
Iowa, Nebraska, New York, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin) . Education is
8
not just a social responsibility and an avenue for personal success, education is a major part of
the economy.
Covid-19. In March 2020, the United States and the rest of the world was overwhelmed
by COVID-19. First colleges and universities closed campuses and moved courses online (Baker,
Hartocollis, & Weise, 2020); at all, college campuses can be petri dishes (Ella, 2019). After all,
almost every college and university in America has online capabilities. The college students can
take online courses that are already developed, with teachers trained for online teaching, and
6 https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1996-10-20-9610190231-story.html
7
https://www.rgj.com/story/news/education/2016/04/26/8-washoe-schools-near-new-trigger-double-session
s/83563416/
8 https://www.businessinsider.com/largest-employers-each-us-state-2017-6
4
vetted by regional accreditors. Universities and colleges can waive elective credits and ensure
students still graduate on schedule. The coronavirus has already disrupted higher education and
at least one institution may close permanently, but higher education and its students will survive
9
educationally.
Then, K-12 schools began to close. At the time, schools were closed temporarily to
prevent students from not just being exposed, but to prevent children from infecting adult
populations in the home. But K-12 school systems are not as prepared as colleges and
universities; K-12 students are not as prepared, in experience or access to technology, as college
students. Classism and local school autonomy have affected the access to education during the
pandemic: while affluent districts quickly moved classes online; some districts have struggled
with getting devices to students in need. Kalsuak (2004) called the children of unsupported or
inaccessible education systems “pushouts.” Jonathan Kozol called it Savage Inequalities
(1991).
In addition to children pushouts, there are real questions regarding the long-term effect of
the COVID-19 pandemic on the instructional quality and, therefore, the educational
preparedness, for students that do have access to technology and competent online educators.
The two unenviable extremes are “staying back a year” and social promotion. The younger the
student, the more time the child has to “catch-up” through the K-12 system. However, the current
situation has a more drastic impact on high school students, particularly 11th and 12 grade
students.
How will students be prepared for the states’ standardized tests or the P-SAT?
How will juniors and seniors be prepared for the SAT or ACT?
9 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/24/arts/design/san-francisco-art-institute-coronavirus.html
5
The spring Advanced Placement (AP) exams have been made, essentially, into take-home
tests. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program has cancelled the IB Tests. The decisions are
understandable, but there are consequences. The IB scores “will now be based on their Internal
Assessment for that course.” Not only is that changing the rules during the game at the end of a
two-year process, but it affects student achievement. For example, the IB score is usually based
on both the IB test as well as the IAs. Some students are better, of course, better at the IA, and
other students are better at the IB test. Thus, the reason for both to be used in factoring the final
IB score takes both into account. The decision to only use the IA disadvantages students who are
better at the IB test and also rewards students who are not as proficient at the test.
Higher Education. The Baby Boomer Echo swelled not just the K-12 educational
system in America, but the classrooms in higher education as well. While the Baby Boom Echo
peaked in secondary education in approximately 2007 (Snyder, 1997), enrollment continued to
grow in post-secondary education. Dickinson College had had a 100% increase of college
applications between 1998 and 2008 (Roach, 2008). Some schools, like Dickenson, contained
enrollment, but other institutions expanded quickly. The University of Colorado added 13,000
students in the ten years from 2008 to 2018. But even while the last echoes of the student surge
10
were still enrolled, changes in technology made Clayton Christensen, Professor of Business at
Harvard University, and his colleague, Michael Horn, predicted 25% of each tier of colleges and
universities would go out of business within a decade (Christensen & Horn, 2013). In 2018, these
same scholars raised their estimate to 50% (Hess, 2018; Horn, 2018). As Horn (2018) pointed
out, revenue is declining, healthcare costs are rising, and the Baby Boom Echo is gone.
10 https://www.cu.edu/sites/default/files/CU_Student_Headcount.pdf
6
Conclusion. Education is a human right, but it is also a significant sector of the economy.
Consider this: Christensen and Horn predicted 50% of institutions of higher learning were in
danger of going out of business before
the COVID-19 outbreak. The coronavirus is a threat to
live as well as a threat to education. Educational leaders weigh all three issues in their
decision-making during this crisis. The pandemic will subside and, while student enrollment is
subsiding nationwide, higher education has a social and personal responsibility to weather the
storm and preserve its sector of the national economy.
And, for higher education to be successful, it is imperative that K-12 education keeps its
ethical and academic commitment to the ethical and empathetic assessment of learning as well as
a commitment to academic preparation. In charting that continuum, the upper grade levels of
K-12 may need a fat-tail left regarding their ability to be successful on standardized tests,
including the AP and IB scores. At the same time, elementary and middle school students need a
fat-tail right emphasis on preparation.
This is a worldwide crisis, but it is not World War II. There is no roaring economy for
our students to enter without diplomas and adequate academic preparation. There are no
Levittowns waiting for homebuilders, tradesmen, and teachers to fill vacant jobs. Even after
9/11, most New York City schools reopened after just two days (Delisio, 2006). Today, the Baby
Boom Echo is a faint whisper, and the United States was already nearing a cyclical slowdown of
the economy, weakened by trade-wars , and now pushed over the edge by an invisible virus. At
the same time, America did rebuild after World War II. Americans have survived multi-session
schooldays, recessions, and health crises. In this critical moment caused by COVID-19,
7
educational leaders must be morally responsible for their decisions regarding lives, livelihood,
and learning.
8
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First U.S. colleges close classrooms as virus spreads. more could follow
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Harvard Business School professor: Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years
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Will half of all colleges really close in the next decade?" Forbes Magazine
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Horn, M. (2018). Will half of all colleges really close in the next decade?" Forbes Magazine. December 13, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelhorn/2018/12/13/will-half-of-all-colleges-really-clo se-in-the-next-decade/#70e7404c52e5
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