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Time to Wine About Education

Covid-19 has rocked the education system of America. Within weeks of the virus diagnosis as a super contagion, schools closed and teachers were forced to take a crash course to facilitate distance learning. Some have questioned the quality of education, but learning opportunities have been provided. Some governors are pointing to a lack of learning in this environment. As the school year winds to a close, there is a call to begin the 2020-21 school year as early as July. It would be a mistake.

California Governor Gavin Newsome claims, “There’s been a learning loss, and you can either just roll over and accept that or you can do something about it.” Newsome is considering a July start to the school year. He is not alone. Governor J.B Pritzker of Illinois is considering mandatory summer school to make-up for learning lost during these school closures. Politicians are not the only ones calling for an early start and extended school year. Karin Klein, Education Writer for the Los Angeles Times, sees this as an opportunity to test the waters for extending the required 180-day school year permanently. Besides, opening schools early would provide needed childcare should the California economy open.

These well-intended ideas are based on assumptions and perceptions that are wrong. Governor Newsome’s assumptions are based upon the arbitrary timelines of content-based learning that have been disproven. The governor of Illinois is assuming learning is not happening because the online environment is inadequate, and Klein is working under the assumption that a longer school year means more learning. They are all using the measure of PISA scores as a baseline for lost learning and the need for more of it to occur.

They are wrong and are subscribing to the “factory model” of education.

The factory model has endured for decades and needs an overhaul or complete revision. It views knowledge acquisition as a product created in a timely manner and learners as commodities to be mass-produced. Students enter the system at age five, then undergo rigorous stages of treatment and modification based on standards and pedagogy. They come out the other end in grade 12 as  finished products and  then commence being productive members of society. Unfortunately, schools are not factories, learning is not an end, and students are hardly empty vessels to be uniformly filled while traveling the grade level production line.

Age-appropriate skills need timely development. Extensive research indicates the acquisition of early reading skills is necessary for future academic success. Up until the third-grade, students are learning to read; after the third grade, they are reading to learn. Read by Three is a researched-based program designed to have students attain grade reading skills by the end of the third grade.  Professionally researched and critical programs are not the primary reason for this premature call to return to school. It is the factory attitude and perception that is driving the effort. Active learning is occurring during this pandemic, but it does not fit the standardized learning timelines established by school districts. Perhaps it is time for Americans to avail themselves of this “COVID step back” and rethink the American education system.

 The reality of any education system is that, like a wine, we do not know how good the product is until four or five years after having exited it. Instead of looking at schools as factories of learning, it might be time to look at schools through an agrarian lens.

If a seed or vine is to grow, it must be nurtured.  The environment where it is planted must be cultivated and maintained. There must be proper sunlight as well as shade to encourage proper growth and development. The plants let us know when it is time for harvesting, and this time can vary. Even then, we do not know the quality of wine for years after the ingredients are harvested, crushed, blended, and barreled. Some years are better than others and some years are classic, but without nurturing in the process, nothing will be produced. In a factory, products are produced in a standardized and sterile manner, and, as Covic-19 has proven, the world is anything but sterile.

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the world at every level. Almost overnight, everything changed, and change stresses every living thing. More changes will come, and no one knows exactly what these changes are for the American education system. Taking severely stressed teaching professionals and learners out of one stressful environment they are adapting to, and then dropping them into another new environment of the unknown is a recipe for disaster. Before the stakeholders of education take another step into the dark, now would be a great time to reflect on where they have been and where they are headed.

Margaret Wheatly, Ed.D. has stated, “Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” Instead of looking at this pandemic as a detriment, it should be viewed as an opportunity to rethink a system that has outlived its time. The students and teachers of today are not the same ones who experienced The Great Depression, World War II, and the ensuing industrialization of the country.

It is a new century! Let us reflect and make the best of this moment by not compounding the stress created by it. A few months to rethink, plan, and make the next big moves in education are not a luxury; they are a necessity. The late Louise Haye may have the best advice for all concerned when she says, “Your soul needs time for solitude and self-reflection. In order to love, lead, heal, and create, you must nourish yourself first.” Rushing into the unknown is folly. Let us take the time to create real and meaningful change in American schools. Sometimes, after the soil has been stressed excessively, it is best for the field to lay fallow and recover. This is one of those times.


John Tierney has been a classroom teacher of civics and history for over three decades. He began his teaching career in the Bay Area of California working with “at risk” students in a variety of schools throughout the East Bay.  Although he loved the work, he sought a more rural setting and moved to Elko, Nevada after six years. Since moving to Elko, he has taught at the middle school, earned a masters degree, gone to work for PBS TeacherLine as a facilitator, and was named Nevada’s 2016 State Teacher of the Year as well as the NEA Teacher of Excellence and Global Fellow for China in 2017. Currently he is working with several state education committees, he is the president of Nevada State Teachers of the Year, and he is also chair of  the Institutional Advisory Council at Great Basin College. When not working in education, he is a husband, musician, fly fisher, dad, and grandpa to twin girls.





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