COVID Proved Our Schools Weren't Working. Here's What Should Come Next | Opinion

As most corners of America ease their COVID-19 restrictions, children everywhere are returning to something close to normal, attending school full time without masks or social distancing. Not everyone, however, is relieved. With Zoom classes giving parents a glimpse of what goes on in their kids' classrooms, many came to the same stark conclusion: our educational system is irreparably broken.

Just ask Black parents. According to the Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey, whereas only 3 percent of Black households homeschooled their children in April of 2020, by October of the same year the number sprang up to a mind-boggling 16 percent. It doesn't take a doctorate to figure out why; anyone who's had even a brief glimpse into what passes for education these days realizes the most viable solution is to take kids out of school first and worry about alternatives later.

None of that, to be absolutely clear, is meant as an affront to teachers, who just might be America's most overworked and underpaid work force. Having studied the educational system up close for years now, we know very well how many teachers out there have to get second jobs just to continue in the profession, or use their own money to purchase basic supplies their schools fail to provide. The system's utter collapse isn't their fault; it's just that schools haven't kept up with what America needs them to be.

Education has always been tethered to economic needs and realities, and our current model was forged in the days of the Industrial Age. Classrooms, grades, standardized testing—these are all products of a society dedicated to producing men and women who can find their place on a spectrum that starts with the production line and ends in the corner office. Like factories, then, schools modeled hierarchy, conformity and obedience, preparing young workers for their inevitable futures.

Times, hallelujah, have changed. We're now knee-deep in the Information Age, which calls for innovation, disruption, initiative and unorthodox thinking—virtues that are richly rewarded in the marketplace but still frowned upon in your average high school classroom. Parents seem to realize this instinctively, which is why so many are pulling their kids from schools designed to fail them.

NYC classroom
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 02: Students receive candy and red envelopes in a cultural celebration of the Lunar New Year at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on February 02, 2022 in New York City. NYC schools were closed yesterday in observance of what is considered the most important day in the Chinese calendar with the start of the New Year. This event is not only relevant in Asia, but also in other countries where this Chinese tradition is respected and celebrated and is on the table to become the next US Federal Holiday. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

What happens next? Like every meaningful revolution, this one is likely to produce a host of alternatives, some delightfully transformative and others less so. Faced with this variety, three fundamental principles should guide our thinking about the future of American education.

First, stop fretting about socialization. Tell a friend you're thinking of homeschooling your kid or sending her to anything but a conventional school, and soon enough you'll hear some variation on the following: don't do it, because your kids will grow up weird and unable to make friends. We now have reams of research objectively studying this very question, all of which makes it abundantly clear that homeschooled kids do better, not worse, when it comes to collaborating with others, forming meaningful social attachments and rising to leadership positions among their peers. How abundantly clear? So much so that one academic, having compared college students who were homeschooled with their peers who attended traditional high schools on more than 60 indicators of social and academic performance—and recording a clear and decisive advantage to the former in nearly every single indicator—concluded "I don't ever want to hear again that homeschooled children are socially inept."

How, then, do we keep from subjecting children to educational systems that do little to nurture their actual potential? Enter the second principle: live in the real world. Contrary to some of the ruinous theories designed by progressive educators in the last few decades, children aren't fragile, brittle little things who must be coddled or else. They're curious and resilient beings, and they learn best when given tasks that inspire them to make concrete connections between the subject matter and their personal experience. Rather than teach math, for example, using contemporary feel-good methodologies, why not give kids a basic foundation and encourage them to learn more by, say, researching the derivatives market or how investment strategies work? This would not only give them a more complete mastery of the fundamentals, but also a concrete skill they could use in the real world.

But no skill set is worthwhile unless a child is motivated to use it, which brings us to our third and final principle: education cannot be standardized. Every kid is different. Some speed through the curriculum, and others need a few weeks to let ideas sink in. Rather than design a system that frustrates the excellent and short-changes the neediest, we can offer children the chance to become mindful and motivated learners by putting them in charge of their education. As so many studies have shown, when you let students set their own goals and meet them, they're much more likely to develop meaningful attachments to the subject matter and retain the knowledge they acquire for much longer.

Following these principles will not only make for a radically improved educational methodology. It'll also mean tapping into a reservoir of undiscovered geniuses, brilliant girls and boys currently getting lost in the cogwheels of a school system entirely unable to inspire and empower them, especially if they happen to have been born to underprivileged parents. More smart people freer to test out their insights and ideas means more Teslas, Apples or Microsofts—all launched by entrepreneurs who never found their place in the traditional education system.

Let's not, then, take too much pleasure in going back to school. Instead, let's come up with bold new approaches to teaching our children, for their sake and for ours.

Simone and Malcolm Collins are the co-founders of The Collins Institute for the Gifted.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.