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Sherman Dorn: Will the Cultural Script of “School” Change?

A colleague asked me over the weekend if there is any guidance from the history of education on what may change permanently in elementary and secondary schools as a result of the pandemic. There is now a little industry devoted to hot-takes about how this is the “end of ____ as we know it,” and there are plenty of entries in education as well as in other areas of life, from Steven Mintz and Bonnie Kristian in higher education to Conor WilliamsDavid Mansouri, and Diane Ravitch for K-12. So I was not surprised by the question. 

A bunch of us (historians of ed) have struggled with the question of what the history of pandemics and school closures may suggest. There are some things we know (about school closures in 1918, the use of “radio schooling” in polio waves in the U.S., radio schooling again in South Korea in the 1950s, etc.), but there isn’t a ready monograph on the history of schooling in pandemics.

There are a few issues that I think come out of that history, and this is primarily to explain how I place the question my colleague raised — and this is focused on elementary and secondary education:1

  • How did these (and other major disruptions – the Revolutionary War and Civil War are big ones) shape children’s lives in a concrete sense? Glen Elder is probably the scholar best known for this type of work with his Children of the Great Depression. But probably the biggest change was the Civil War and the end of slavery – that opened up educational opportunities for formerly enslaved people of all ages.
  • How did these disruptions change Americans’ way of thinking about themselves, and the future? That is intimately tied to how we talk about children and education. The 1918 pandemic was not isolated from the deep unpopularity of WW1, and was quickly followed by a sharp depression in 1919 and the Palmer Raids on alleged anarchist conspiracies (really, an excuse for the federal government to go after a broad range of leftist political organizations) – so, it was a major part of several years of great turmoil. Nicole Hemmer thinks the pandemic is going to dramatically increase our sense of uncertainty (see towards the end of her recent CNN column), and while I think it’s plausible, I’m not so sure what will last. I tend to see more debates coming out of great historical changes than Hegelian-like shifts of uberconsciousness – I wrote about that a little 19 years ago.
  • How did people see the responses to great disruptions – as innovations or as emergency measures? This is the one most clearly tied to the present moment. We know that radio-school programs did not last, and though I have some guesses as to why, I don’t think anyone’s written on that question … yet! For what it’s worth, K-12 schooling was more disrupted by the 1918 pandemic than colleges, because so many colleges had already been disrupted by the war. 

I know that we’ll learn a great deal about emergency responses and related operations – that piece is already clear at Arizona State University, at least from my perspective. How much of that translates into persistent practice, or changed expectations about what education might mean? A few thoughts:

  • I suspect that many parents who have at least some connection with schooling will have one of two impressions, and often both at the same time:
    • Deep sympathy for teachers and other school officials engaging in emergency instruction
    • Deep distrust that K-12 schools can do anything at the moment that is meaningful and educational
  • My impression is that schools have made “modal” choices for how to continue instruction – that is, they choose a mode, and their expectations of teachers, and are just trucking ahead the best they can along the path they chose. What would be a telling sign of district leadership is how they have been fine-tuning their response over the past several weeks – what are they modifying, and how? 
  • The upshot of the items above: it is highly unlikely that the pandemic has upended the cultural scripts of what schools are. Where schools are having any success in continued operations, it is surely tied to maintenance of the most common understandings of “school” as formal academics.
  • Other reasons to suspect that the cultural script for P-12 schooling is going to remain stable, and most of these are about the non-academic roles of schools:
    • Many children have no education at the moment. This is unlike the viciousness of the Prince Edward County School Board, which closed all of its schools from 1959-1964 out of spite at desegregation – but it’s still a huge gap in their academic and other educational experiences, let alone meals, health screening, and related services that piggyback onto formal schooling.
    • Parents who listen to their children are hearing a great deal about the absence in their children’s lives of the non-academic role of schools in their children’s lives – connections with friends, sports and clubs, and even just the opportunity to run around a schoolyard.
    • Parents who are employed are missing child care that schools provide.
    • Parents who have just lost their jobs are desperately fearful now, and likely desperate over the summer. Formal schooling is going to compete in parents’ minds, and their children’s, with nutrition, health care, and shelter. And two of those are partially provided by schools.
    • The recession we are now in is wreaking havoc with state budgets for the next fiscal year. There will be layoffs, and possibly very little wiggle room for rethinking organizational and cultural scripts absent an explicit push from local leaders such as district superintendents or unusual school boards.

School districts may learn (and states may give) more flexibility on some important issues. But millions of parents will be grateful if there can be anything like a normal school year next year. Not that “normal” is what we want it to be.

I do have a suggestion for everyone ready to gear up their chosen bandwagon under the “this absolutely proves that schools must change!” banner: this was the high-pressure approach under the Obama administration in the last recession. That last wave of school reform brought the Common Core State Standards, attacks on teachers and their unions, two giant state testing consortiums, and attempts to tie teacher careers to student tests. How exactly did that prior wave help schools prepare for a pandemic? 

Instead of making that argument, I recommend looking to our current period of emergency education as a basis for asking what if? My colleague Ron Beghetto writes about this in Beautiful Risks (publisherlibrary), and having observed his use of what he calls a possibilities-thinking protocol, I think it’s a useful framework now. A few examples:

  • What if we acknowledged that no educator today has a good handle on how to educate children in a pandemic? 
  • What if we then asked families their suggestions for how to set the right expectations when schools are closed? 
  • What if we applied those ideas beyond the current emergency — to snow days, to summers? 
  • What if schools and families collaborated on the basis of those experiences to look at expectations more broadly?2

People do this type of work in communities, a lot. But because the work is inherently local, it doesn’t attract all the bling that more aggressive efforts take. And there is a place for forceful edicts in terms of civil rights. But we don’t need to delve back to 1918 to see where we were 12 years ago — less disastrous, it turned out, but deeply painful as a recession, and used as a lever for a number of education policy changes. Some stuck, some didn’t, and it all had an argument with the flavor of “schools must change, and now,” what I think of as the Borg fallacy. That was the universal tone, and its use did not predict whether a proposed change in policy and practice lived or died. Time for a different approach.



  1. The classic pieces on cultural expectations of schools are Metz (1989), who uses the term script to refer to those expectations, and Tyack and Cuban (1995), who coined the term grammar of schooling. 
  2. Ann Ishimaru talks about this type of collaboration from a different angle in her new book Just Schools, available from her publisher, independent bookstores, and libraries.


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Sherman Dorn

Sherman Dorn is the Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at the Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and editor...