Age-grading is a bad idea. It was imported from Prussia in 1848. It was first implemented in Boston, in the Quincy Grammar School. It was a cost-cutting device. It was also imposed to let teachers reduce discipline problems.
The rural “little red schoolhouse” did not adopt this model. There, students of all ages were in one room. A teacher taught them. The older students who understood the material helped teach the younger ones who were having trouble. (This is the RPC model: student tutorial forums.)
This performance-based model of education did not give administrators the tight control that the pioneers of “progressive education” wanted. So, they adopted age-grading. They placed children in a classroom based on age. They isolated students from older and younger students. The #1 goal was teacher control: control over the children by the teacher, and control over the teacher by the administration. Part of this plan was teacher specialization. A teacher was grade-specific. It was easier for a new, inexperienced teacher — an inexpensive teacher — to be able to teach. It was easier for her to prepare lesson plans.
The system rested on grade-specific textbooks. The textbooks had to provide continuity up the grades. The teachers could no longer do this. They did not know what was taught to students above or below their age-specific grades. This removed the teacher from the overall educational program. The teacher became an isolated cog in a bureaucratic machine. It placed administrators in charge. They designed the curriculum. They chose the textbooks. They ran the experiments. They adopted the fads, which came and went.
John Taylor Gatto is America’s most eloquent defender of homeschooling. He was Teacher of the Year three times in New York City. He was Teacher of the Year in New York State. Then he quit. He gave up public school teaching.
The socialization of children in age-graded groups monitored by State agents is essential to learn to get along with others in a pluralistic society. The actual truth is that the rigid compartmentalizations of schooling teach a crippling form of social relation: wait passively until you are told what to do, never judge your own work or confer with associates, have contempt for those younger than yourself and fear of those older. Behave according to the meaning assigned to your class label. These are the rules of a nuthouse.
Gatto refers to William Torrey Harris, the U.S Commissioner of Education, 1889-1906. He says that Harris was a “leading scholar of German philosophy in the Western hemisphere, editor and publisher of The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, which trained a generation of American intellectuals in the ideas of the Prussian thinkers Kant and Hegel, the man who gave America scientifically age-graded classrooms to replace successful mixed-age school practice.” Then he cited a passage from Harris’s 1906 book, The Philosophy of Education.
Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.
At Mastery Learning Academy, we do not agree with Harris because we acknowledge that each child is gifted with a unique personality and skill set. If your child is racing ahead in a course, great. We will never hold a child back. We will also never leave a child behind. Our mastery learning platform meets children where they learn and we support them through the rough patches. Being in charge of their learning helps students build confidence and life-long skills that they will carry with them into adulthood.
You know that practice makes perfect – so what happens when you don’t practice for an extended period of time? Many students view summer vacation as a time to completely separate from academic pursuits. While taking a break is important to avoid burnout, doing so may cause your child to fall victim to summer slide.
What is Summer Slide?
Summer slide (or summer learning loss) is a term used to describe the effects of summer vacation on student learning, specifically the decline of a student’s academic skills and difficulty transitioning back into the classroom environment. Every year, parents find themselves in a struggle between how to combat the summer slide while still giving their children the break they need to return to school feeling refreshed and ready to learn.
A 1996 review of 39 different studies serves as the foundational research on summer slide. The review found that students lose about one month’s worth of education during the summer, as determined by Fall vs. Spring test scores. In addition, the review found that the effects of summer learning loss were more significant on math than reading, and the negative effects of summer break proved more detrimental with increase in student grade level.
More recent analysis points out that summer activities of that research period (the 1970’s and 80’s) were largely different than they are today. This is important because the review found that the impact of summer learning loss was affected by the opportunities students had to practice their academic skills during the summer. Advances in technology mean that students have greater access to information, practice materials, etc. – which is good news for you and your child!
Summer Learning Programs:
A structured summer learning program led by academic professionals is one surefire way to make sure your child doesn’t succumb to summer slide. Mastery Learning Academy is offering affordable Summer Learning Camp! There are three 3-week summer sessions for K-6th graders beginning June 7th. Students will have daily math and language arts practice as well as STEM activities and art projects. Each 3-week session is $350. Parents may also choose a weekly drop-in for $150/week (according to availability).
Here is the session schedule:
Session One: June 7 – June 24th (off June 28 – July 1st)
Session Two: July 5th – July 22nd (off July 26 – 29th)
Session Three: August 2nd – 26th (off August 30th – September 3rd)
For two weeks in third grade, I preached the gospel of the wild boar. My teacher, the sprightly Mrs. DeWilde, assigned my class an open-ended research project: Create a five-minute presentation about any exotic animal. I devoted my free time before bedtime to capturing the wonders of the Sus scrofa in a 20-minute sermon. I filled a poster as big as my 9-year-old self with photographs, facts, and charts, complete with a fold-out diagram of the snout. During my presentation, I shared my five-stanza rhyming poem about the swine’s life cycle, painted the species’ desert and taiga habitats in florid detail, and made uncanny snorting impressions. I attacked each new project that year — a sketch of the water cycle, a history of the Powhatan — with the same evangelism.
Flash forward to the fall of my senior year in high school, and my near-daily lunchtime routine: hunched over at a booth in Wendy’s, chocolate Frosty in my right hand, copying calculus worksheets from Jimmy and Spanish homework from Chris with my left while they copied my notes on Medea or Jane Eyre. Come class, I spent more time playing Snake on my graphing calculator than reviewing integrals, more time daydreaming than conjugating verbs.
What happened in those nine years? Many things. But mainly, like the majority of my fellow Americans, I fell victim to the epidemic of classroom boredom.
A 2013 Gallup poll of 500,000 students in grades five through 12 found that nearly eight in 10 elementary students were “engaged” with school, that is, attentive, inquisitive, and generally optimistic. By high school, the number dropped to four in 10. A 2015 follow-up study found that less than a third of 11th-graders felt engaged. When Gallup asked teens in 2004 to select the top three words that describe how they feel in school from a list of 14 adjectives, “bored” was chosen most often, by half the students. “Tired” was second, at 42 percent. Only 2 percent said they were never bored. The evidence suggests that, on a daily basis, the vast majority of teenagers seriously contemplate banging their heads against their desks.
Some of boredom’s progression seems obvious, such as:
An escalating emphasis on standardized tests. Fifth-grade teacher Jill Goldberg, Ed.M.’93, told me, “My freedom as a teacher continues to be curtailed with every passing year. I am not able to teach for the sake of teaching.” With lack of teacher freedom comes lack of student freedom, and disengagement and tuning out.
The novelty of school itself fades with each grade. Here I am for another year in the same blue plastic chair, same graffitied fake wooden desk, surrounded by the same faces. Repetition begets boredom (e.g., I haven’t had a Frosty in a decade).
Lack of motivation. Associate Professor Jal Mehta says, “There’s no big external motivating force in American education except for the small fraction of kids who want to go to the most selective colleges.”
The transition from the tactile and creative to the cerebral and regimented. Mehta calls it the switch from “child-centered learning to subject-centered learning.” In third grade I cut with scissors, smeared glue sticks, and doodled with scented magic markers. By 12th grade I was plugging in formulas on a TI-83 and writing the answers on fill-in-the-blank worksheets. And research papers stimulate and beget rewards at a thousandth the speed of Snapchat and Instagram.
But who cares? Isn’t boredom just a natural side effect of daily life’s tedium? Until very recently, that’s how educators, academics, and neuroscientists alike have treated it. In fact, in the preface to Boredom: A Lively History, Peter Toohey presents the possibility that boredom might not even exist. What we call “boredom” might be just a “grab bag of a term” that covers “frustration, surfeit, depression, disgust, indifference, apathy.” Todd Rose, Ed.M.’01, Ed.D.’07, a lecturer at the Ed School and director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program, says the American education system treats boredom as a “character flaw. We say, ‘If you’re bored in school, there’s something wrong with you.’”
But new research has begun to reveal boredom’s dismal effects in school and on the psyche. A 2014 study that followed 424 students at the University of Munich over the course of an academic year found a cycle in which boredom bore lower test results, which bore higher levels of boredom, which bore still lower test results. Boredom accounts for nearly a third of variation in student achievement. A 2010 German study found that boredom “instigates a desire to escape from the situation” that causes boredom. It’s not surprising, then, that half of high school dropouts cite boredom as their primary motivator for leaving. A 2003 Columbia University survey found that U.S. teenagers who said they were often bored were more than 50 percent more likely than not-bored teens to smoke, drink, and use illegal drugs. Proneness to boredom is also associated with anxiety, impulsiveness, hopelessness, loneliness, gambling, and depression. Educators and academics, Ed School faculty and alumni among them, have begun to engage with boredom, investigating its systemic causes and potential solutions. Mehta, who’s been studying engagement since 2010, says, “We have to stop seeing boredom as a frilly side effect. It is a central issue. Engagement is a precondition for learning,” he adds. “No learning happens until students agree to become engaged with the material.” “Yo, Mr. P., I just wanted to let you know on Day One that I’m not a science person.”
“Mr. P., I’m not very good at science.”
“Science is not my favorite subject, Mr. P.”
Every year for 14 years, Victor Pereira Jr. (pictured, right), heard this from a handful of his students during the first week of his ninth- and 10th-grade science classes. After falling behind in specific subjects throughout elementary and middle school, students “were full of preconceived notions” of their capabilities, says Pereira, who taught at South Boston’s Excel High School before becoming a lecturer at the Ed School and master teacher in the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program. Engaging the students who are already discouraged was an uphill battle.
For comparison, Pereira remembers observing a second-grade science teacher’s lesson and leaving the class deflated. “Those kids were curious, they listened intently, and they were excited to take chances.” In second grade, he says, “you can use your common language and experiences from your everyday life to explain what’s happening and engage in the science lesson.” However, as students advance in science, learning its progressively technical terminology “requires almost learning another language.” Technicality can breed boredom and frustration, which breeds more boredom.
As Rose puts it, “The friction is cumulative.” For example, the best predictor for how students will fare in algebra is how they fared in prealgebra. A downward spiral emerges: “You’re not doing well, and you’re going to keep not doing well,” Rose says. “And then that becomes a part of how you see yourself as a learner.”
Rose has a master’s and doctorate from the Ed School, but he also had a 0.9 GPA in high school before he dropped out, primarily from boredom. He says he grew weary of the “poor design of the learning environment that creat-ed so many barriers to me being able to learn.” For one, because of his “pretty poor working memory,” he often forgot to bring home his homework or forgot to bring the homework he completed back to school. He says he was never taught skills like planning and organizing, and failed because the grading rubric neglected his style of learning. Eventually, “I couldn’t see why I should be there. They didn’t know why I should be there. We both agreed.”
Sam Semrow, Ed.M.’16, can relate. She attended a public high with a 10/10 rating on greatschools.com in a wealthy suburb of Chicago, but what she calls the “lack of individualized understanding of who we were as students” discouraged her. She read novels through math class, skipped days, contemplated dropping out, and barely graduated with a 1.8 GPA.
Rose has proposed a solution. In his book The End of Average, he illustrates that classrooms are falsely designed to cater to the “average learner.” Fourth-graders take tests and read texts written at a “fourth-grade reading level” that assume an “average” fourth-grader’s knowledge of rock formations and the Civil War and the “average” fourth-grader’s cognitive development. In reality, Rose says, “that average fourth-grader doesn’t exist.” Each student is much more “jagged” in his or her skill-set — advanced in memory, underdeveloped in organization, say, or vice versa. By designing for the average of everyone, the classroom is ideal to no one. And in this design, boredom runs rampant, and there’s no room for a cure.
“If you see human potential as a bell curve and there are only some kids who are going to be great and most kids are mediocre, then engagement really wouldn’t matter,” Rose says. “But if you really believe that all kids are capable, then you would build environments that really worked hard to sustain engagement and nurture potential.”
Rose suggests adding much more choice to the classroom. Allow exams to be written or taken orally. Assign students more hands-on projects, in which they become in control of their own learning. New research bolsters his theory. Since 2011 Mehta and current doctoral student Sarah Fine, Ed.M.’13, have been studying “deeper learning” (learning that is both challenging and engaging; see sidebar) at more than 30 American high schools, and they have found that schools with the most project-based curricula tend to foster the fewest bored students.
Of course, no teacher can assign and grade 30 individual projects and create 30 individual lesson plans every day. Rose suggests schools more often exploit digital, scalable technologies that can deliver readings and assignments tailored to specific types of learners. With boredom, Rose says, “the focus is on the curriculum first. I think we can talk to teachers about it second. Let’s do something for them instead of asking more of them. Still, teachers can staunch boredom. Mehta and Fine (read sidebar) discovered that even in underperforming schools where boredom was near universal, “there were individual teachers who were creating classrooms where students were really engaged and motivated.” These teachers trusted students to sometime control the class. They tried to learn from their students as much as they taught. They weren’t afraid to go off script.
In some ways it’s no surprise Spanish and calculus were my worst subjects senior year: They had the most monotonous curricula and the dullest teachers. In Spanish we spent weeks watching the “educational” and horrendously acted soap opera La Catrina and more weeks slogging through call-and-response lessons recorded 20 years earlier, on cassette. I had by then ruled out a career in math, and my teacher did little to explain the pertinence of limits and derivatives in my life beyond that I may fail another test. My English and U.S. history teachers, however, inspired me to thrive. Mr. Howell had us imagine how Huckleberry Finn’s Jim and Pap would interact if they were guests on Da Ali G Show and helped us identify fallacies by having us debate the war in Iraq. And Mr. Rice culminated each chapter of American history with a class-wide debate in which we each assumed the role of a different figure from that period, bonus points for showing up in costume.
Of course, there’s value in teaching students to suck it up and work. As Mehta (pictured, left) notes, learning any discipline or gaining any skill requires a certain amount of “necessary boredom. … If you want to be a great violinist, you’ve got to practice your scales. You want to play basket-ball? You’ve got to shoot your free throws.” An overemphasis on engagement, Emory professor Mark Bauerlein writes in “The Paradox of Classroom Boredom” in Education Week, may inadvertently “stunt students in preparation” for college, where pushing through tedious work — like memorizing equations for organic chemistry — is required to advance. “In telling [students], ‘You think the material is pointless and musty, but we’ll find ways to stimulate you,’ high school educators fail to teach them the essential skill of exerting oneself even when bored.”
“The problem,” Mehta says, “is that we haven’t created trajectories where students see the meaning and purpose that would make the necessary boredom endurable.” The problem is relevance.
Every teacher and academic I talked to kept coming back to relevance. Semrow says she grew bored because for most subjects, “I didn’t see what it meant for my life.” Few teachers contextualized their lessons. “Especially for 17- and 18-year-olds, we’re dealing with a lot of issues about what’s next for us.” The curriculum rarely addressed how trigonometry and human anatomy fit into her future. But Semrow says she graduated by the grace of the few teachers who did stress relevance.
Pereira says that the examples of how biology fit into his students’ lives — for example, explaining the water cycle through the Flint, Michigan, water crisis — often “weren’t good enough. They’re not in teenage language.” To counter that, he often let students “give better examples that translate to the larger group.” And when the class seemed particularly bored, he made room for in-class adjustments to reignite the lesson. For example, when he started a photosynthesis lesson one day, students sighed, “We already know this.” But one student brought up a news article about scientists who were experimenting with growing plants in space. Pereira then decided the students would design their own photosynthesis experiment testing various wavelengths and light intensities, and then present their data in a form of a letter of recommendation to NASA.
Rose adds that high schools rarely take advantage of an adolescent’s cognitive development. Teenagers “take on identities; they’re more socially oriented. This is the first time when abstract ideas can be motivating. They become more politically engaged and think about things like justice. Yet we’re still keeping them in the kind of education system… that wants nothing from them in terms of their own ideas. School has already decided what matters and [what it] expects from you. It’s like an airplane: Sit down, strap in, don’t talk, look forward. Why would it be meaningful?”
The beauty of relevance, Rose says, “is that it’s free. If you’re an educator or curriculum developer, and you saw your responsibility to ensure every kid knew why they were doing what they were doing, you can do that tomorrow.”
Of course, impassioned teachers who communicate the relevance of their lessons often aren’t enough. Jill Goldberg, Ed.M.’93, who teaches fifth grade at a public school in Newtonville, New York, has been shaping her lessons to be more interesting and relevant for the past 24 years. Still, her students fiddle with pencils, scribble notes to friends, and “practically have drool coming out of their mouths.” She tells them, “I wish there was a full-wall mirror behind me … so you could see what your faces and body language convey to me.”
Goldberg lays some blame on parents. When she asks her students why they’re in school, “they tell me it is because their parents work and so this is where they need to be during the day. Some say it’s like their ‘job’ to go to school. … No child ever [says] that learning and being educated is important. No one ever says that they love to learn new things no matter what the subject. No parents or students seem to believe that pure learning for the sake of learning is the goal.
“Why do my students’ parents work?” Goldberg adds. “They most likely tell their children that they work in order to make money in order to live the life they want to live. But do they love their work? Why have they chosen the field in which they work? Are these adults who are inspired to make the world a better place?”
Rose (pictured, right), however, cautions against casting too much blame on parents. “Even though it feels right, it will excuse [society] from the responsibility of how we rethink our own environments in the classroom.”
For example, poor scheduling also cultivates boredom. Seven a.m. start times for high school often mean rising at dawn to catch the bus, which means much less sleep than the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended eight to 10 hours a night, which means severely diminished alertness. In most high schools, regardless of the subject, the day’s first classes have the worst average grade. Schools that have bumped start times an hour later have seen the number of Ds and Fs cut in half.
Mehta adds that “having students take six or seven classes of 45 or 50 minutes at a time basically gives them enough time to just start to do something before the period ends.” Often, much of that time is spent reviewing homework and menial tasks, exacerbating boredom. Semrow notes that “being in school longer would have given teachers more free time to reach out to me” to get to know her strengths and weaknesses as a learner.
Educators and scientists have yet to agree on a definition of boredom, let alone unearth its exact causes and cures in the classroom. The most exhaustive book on the subject to date, Boredom in the Classroom: Addressing Student Motivation, Self-Regulation, and Engagement in Learning, is 72 pages long. As Dean James Ryan recently wrote in Education Week, “Boredom ought to be considered much more seriously when thinking about ways to improve student outcomes. … I would think it is in all of our interests at least to confront this stubborn fact of school rather than simply to accept boredom as inextricably linked to learning.”
“But the biggest shift we need,” Rose believes, is much more elemental. “We need to get away from thinking that the opposite of ‘bored’ is ‘entertained.’ It’s ‘engaged.’” It’s not about pumping cartoons and virtual reality games into the classroom, it’s about finding ways to make curriculum more resonant, personalized, and meaningful for every student. “Engagement is very meaningful at a neurological level, at a learning level, and a behavioral level. When kids are engaged, life is so much easier.”
Zachary Jason is a Boston-based writer who writes for Boston Magazine, the Boston Globe Magazine, and The Guardian.
Mastery learning is THE transformational education innovation of our time. At its core, mastery learning enables students to move forward at their own pace as they master knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Effective implementation at scale will completely change how students learn, how teachers teach, and how schools work. It will revolutionize state testing, education research, and the labor market. It will transform how curricula are developed, how learning is measured, and how teachers are trained.
Yes, it is THAT big.
That is why it is so critical, and also why it is so difficult.
Recently an education colleague said to me, “I don’t understand why you talk about mastery learning as if it is so new. You act like you suddenly discovered fire—but fire has been around for a long time. So has mastery learning.” She’s right. Mastery learning as a concept and even as an instructional practice is not new, it has been around since at least the 1960s. If we think about licensure more broadly, the requirement of demonstrating mastery has existed where it mattered for centuries, from medieval guilds to modern driver’s licenses.
Over the last several years, a growing number of teachers, schools, and systems across the country have gradually started to move in this direction, with increasing awareness of mastery learning and its potential benefits for students and teachers. But it is challenging work. Most schools still use letter grades and manage the education process based on seat time requirements and pacing guides where teachers teach groups of students the same content at the same time. The entire system, including college admissions, scholarships, financial aid, and athletic eligibility, expects traditional grade point averages and often translates them into a four-point score. The current system is driven by teaching rather than learning, and all of its complex and deeply-rooted systems and practices are based on this paradigm. Educators have heard of mastery learning and some have even tried it, but America’s education system is not mastery-based.
Why a Mastery Learning Approach is the Future of Student Instruction
Over the past several years, educators have heard about and increasingly been exposed to terms like personalized learning and blended learning. These are closely related to mastery learning and often include concepts like differentiated instruction and the effective use of real-time data. Competency-based education and proficiency-based education are often used as synonyms for mastery learning in different regions and by various groups. But the essential and truly transformational element in all of these is the same: enabling students to move forward at their own pace as they master content.
Today, through technology, tools, and expertise, we have the ability to scale this model at a national level. We have reached a point where for the first time we could implement mastery learning across the entire American education system. We have defined the required elements and all the pieces exist.
The question is: will we choose to do it?
It will require innovation—in software tools, classroom practices, and policies. And innovation is challenging, especially in education.
Enabling Mastery Learning Strategies with Technology
Over the past several years we have made tremendous progress as a country in implementing the enablers necessary for mastery learning. More schools than ever before have sufficient internet connectivity to enable online systems to be an essential component of classroom learning. Laptops and tablets are widely available, and students (and increasingly teachers) are very comfortable using them. Teacher practices like rotation models and data-driven instruction have been defined, and many coaching organizations exist to help educators implement these practices effectively. Many software and online learning platforms have been developed and widely adopted as part of daily classroom learning.
The pieces are in place; the ecosystem is ready. It is now time to take the next step in the journey of innovation. System-wide implementation will, of course, require action at state, district, and school levels to address thorny topics like mastery-based high school transcripts, transitions from traditional grades to mastery-based measures of progress, alignment with parents and school boards about expectations, and numerous other critical issues. But an important catalyst to support this essential work is clarity about what exactly happens in the classroom. How do the student, the teacher, the learning resources, and the data actually interact on a daily basis to nurture the kind of mastery learning we are seeking? As the sector gets more experience the answers are getting clearer. It is time to transform America’s education system and implement mastery learning at scale.
What is required for this to happen?
5 Key Elements of Mastery Learning at Scale
In addition to continued implementation of the enablers described above, five key elements need to be present for mastery learning to occur at scale:
1. Specific, clear, demonstrable learning objectives. We must be clear what we want students to know and be able to do when learning has successfully occurred. Traditional high-level standards do not enable mastery learning; greater precision is essential.
2. Clear mastery thresholds for each learning objective. Students and educators need to know exactly what mastery means and how we know when the student is ready to move on to the next learning objective. Historically we have been mushy in our thinking about this topic; we must be clear. This applies to all learning objectives–the simple objectives that require computation and memorization as well as the very advanced objectives that require complex collaborative synthesis and application. All objectives must have clear mastery thresholds!
3. Clear processes for students to demonstrate mastery. The processes must be fully scalable: for every student and every learning objective. This also works to ensure equitable access for all learners.
4. Clear processes for teachers to assess mastery. These processes must also be fully scalable so it is feasible for teachers to assess mastery for every student and every learning objective (remembering that some students may need multiple attempts to demonstrate mastery depending on their level of readiness and the potential variety of assessment options available).
5. A system to effectively organize and display the data about mastery-based student learning progress. The data must be immediately and easily available to students, teachers, principals, and parents.
Once these elements are in place, mastery learning can occur. And once mastery learning systems are in place, they will improve over time. As teachers become accustomed to teaching in a mastery-based system, they will get better at using effective classroom practices and continue to hone their craft. Curricula will re-align to specific learning objectives and mastery thresholds, and they will support mastery-based teaching and learning more effectively. As schools generate and then review data about mastery-based student learning progress, they will be able to identify promising practices to adopt and scale. These parts of the system do not need to be in place at the beginning, but rather will develop over time. But without the five key elements described above, mastery learning simply cannot occur at scale.
None of these elements are particularly revolutionary or complex at first glance. However, very few of them actually exist today at scale or in ways that are scalable.
But innovation is starting. The enablers are in place.
The time has come. Scott Ellis is the Founder and CEO of MasteryTrack. You can find him on Twitter: @MasteryTrack.
Government policies meant to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in unintended consequences that threaten lives—including, tragically, the lives of young people who are generally spared from the worst effects of COVID-19.
School closures, stay-at-home orders, and shutdowns of businesses deemed “non-essential” are contributing to surging rates of depression and suicide among young people, as well as rising incidences of drug overdoses and related deaths.
The New York Timesreported this week that an alarming increase in student suicides has prompted schools in Las Vegas to move quickly to reopen schools for in-person learning. In the Clark County, Nevada school district, 18 students took their lives during the nine months of school closures, which is double the number of students who committed suicide in the district in all of 2019. The youngest child was just nine years old.
According to the Times: “One student left a note saying he had nothing to look forward to.”
Rising Youth Despair
Youth despair amid lockdowns and related public health orders appears to be worsening. While US aggregate suicide data for 2020 won’t be available for a couple of years, due to reporting lags, state and county level data reveal dismal trends. In Pima County, Arizona suicides were up 67 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year for children ages 12 to 17, and statewide childhood suicides had also increased since 2019. West Virginia has seen a spike in student suicide attempts during the pandemic. Parts of Wisconsin reported skyrocketing suicide rates among young people in 2020, while hospitals in Texas and North Carolina are seeing more young suicidal patients. CDC data show a 24 percent increase in emergency room mental health visits for children ages 5 to 11, compared to 2019. Among adolescents ages 12 to 17, that increase is 31 percent. Last summer, the CDC reported that one in four young adults had contemplated suicide in the previous month.
Childhood and adolescent mental health has been deteriorating over the past decade, with youth depression and suicide rates climbing. But the isolation and hopelessness brought on by the pandemic response has exacerbated this trend. Earlier this month, a high school student and football star in Illinois, who had struggled previously with depression, committed suicide. His father says that his son’s “depression worsened significantly after Covid hit.”
Another high schooler and football player in Maine, Spencer Smith, took his own life last month after leaving a note saying that he felt locked in his house and the peer separation with remote learning was too much for him to bear any longer. “The kids need their peers more than ever now,” his father, Jay Smith, said. “They need face-to-face contact so they can let their emotions out.”
A Holistic Approach to Public Health
Some researchers recognized early on in the pandemic that there would be significant unintended consequences of lockdowns and government orders, warning of high mental health costs and other declines in public health. “The COVID-19 crisis may increase suicide rates during and after the pandemic,” noted a June 2020 paper in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine. “Mental health consequences of the COVID-19 crisis including suicidal behavior are likely to be present for a long time and peak later than the actual pandemic.”
Later, the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, a document that urges a “focused protection” response to COVID-19 rather than universally restrictive pandemic policies, explained that public health policy must look at all aspects of public health—not just one virus and not just near-term effects.
Harvard University biostatistician, Martin Kulldorff, toldThe Wall Street Journal that “you can’t just look at COVID, you have to look holistically at health and consider the collateral damage.” One of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, Kulldorff adds: “You can’t just look short-term.”
What Kulldorff and other public health researchers expose is the fact that there are tradeoffs to any policy. “If it saves just one life,” a mantra echoed during the COVID response as a rallying cry for lockdowns, fails to acknowledge the lives damaged or lost due to these lockdown policies. Lockdown harms and deaths are as real as COVID harms and deaths and should be taken seriously when considering a holistic pandemic response.
Economists scrutinize tradeoffs, and many have been highlighting COVID-related tradeoffs since last spring. As FEE’s Antony Davies and James Harrigan wrote in April: “Regardless of whether we acknowledge them, tradeoffs exist. And acknowledging tradeoffs is an important part of constructing sound policy.” This basic economic principle was beautifully articulated by Henry Hazlitt in his classic book, Economics in One Lesson:
The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.groups.
Nine-tenths of the economic fallacies that are working such dreadful harm in the world today are the result of ignoring this lesson. Those fallacies all stem from one of two central fallacies, or both: that of looking only at the immediate consequences of an act or proposal, and that of looking at the consequences only for a particular group to the neglect of other groups.
As data on the unintended consequences of pandemic policy becomes gloomier, policy makers are beginning to acknowledge tradeoffs. School reopenings in Las Vegas are one positive sign of this policy shift, but more needs to be done to loosen harmful pandemic restrictions and allow for social and economic life to rebound. The justification for the widespread lockdowns and pandemic restrictions enacted since last spring was to save lives, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that these mandatory measures are costing lives and may be ineffective at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
This is particularly important now as more research shows that the harms of lockdowns and related policies may outweigh their benefits. A new peer-reviewed study in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation finds that restrictive, mandatory policies may not be any more effective at controlling the spread of the coronavirus than more voluntary measures.
“We do not question the role of all public health interventions, or of coordinated communications about the epidemic, but we fail to find an additional benefit of stay-at-home orders and business closures,” the researchers conclude. There is no perfect policy response to a pandemic, but acknowledging tradeoffs, examining consequences across groups and over time, and advocating for a more voluntary, decentralized approach can minimize human costs and maximize overall health and well-being.