Back to School With Common Sense

A new story every day this week.

Of all the broken things the pandemic has revealed about our country, you can make a good case that the state of American education came out looking more battered than just about anything else.

There’s the stranglehold that the teachers unions have over our public schools. (And the influence those unions seem to have over our public health organizations.) There’s the war over masking our students — and the inability of the adults in charge to have an adult conversation about trade-offs and risks. There’s the revelation, via Zoom, that students might not be learning much of anything. (Besides obsessing over race.)

There’s the decline of the American university, captured with love on Netflix’s new series “The Chair.” Colleges and universities have 1.5 million fewer students today than they did five years ago. Men, according to a story out today in The Wall Street Journal, account for more than 70% of that drop. Soon, university women will outnumber men by two to one. It’s an astonishing gender gap that would perhaps generate more alarm if we weren’t already focused on skyrocketing tuition and student debt. 

When I think of the sorry state of American schooling, though, I think mostly of a boy named Shemar.

He’s a 12-year-old from East Baltimore and the main character of this devastating investigation by the brilliant reporter Alec MacGillis. The story focuses on the students left behind by remote learning and the indefensible gap between those students and the kids who have pods, and private tutors, and reliable wi-fi and helicopter parents who ensure they don’t fall behind. 

When anyone suggests the Delta variant means schools should keep their doors closed, that remote learning can go on forever, I send them MacGillis’s story. When anyone talking about justice and equality suggests that learning loss isn’t something that should be measured right now — last week the head of the L.A. teachers union actually said “It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. . . They know the words insurrection and coup” — I think of Shemar.

This week is back-to-school week here at Common Sense. In lieu of three-ring binders and fresh highlighters — I love school supplies — we have a really excellent line-up of pieces starting tomorrow with a feature about the explosion in American homeschooling. 

There are some five million children in this country being educated in their living rooms. This is double the number from just two years ago. Who are they? Why did these parents — of every race and class and state— yank their children from traditional schools? And what does their choice say about the future of American education and of the country?


When that piece is published tomorrow morning, I will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, which is 5782. 

I have always hated New Year’s Eve (the Gregorian one). In part, because of the inflated expectations. But in part it’s because it never felt like the real beginning of the year. 

Here’s what I wrote about Rosh Hashanah in a column for the Times a few years ago:

December feels like the year’s nadir. Everything about September — the season change, the sweater weather, the new school year — feels like a new beginning, though a wise friend pointed out to me that September is actually the time when everything in nature begins the process of dying. That the Jewish year begins at a time of decay is an audacious assertion of hope, a reminder of the possibility of renewal.

So whether you are Jewish or not, whether you believe in God or not, allow me to wish you a happy new year, a new beginning, a new season, a chance to take stock of your life and to begin again. Or at the very least to buy yourself some new pencils.

A new story every day this week. Stay tuned.