We Need To Be Careful About Predictions about School/College Reopenings

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If I have been asked once, I have been asked a hundred times in recent months: When will schools and colleges reopen? Will they reopen as brick and mortar institutions or pure online institutions or hybrid institutions? What will it be like when they reopen? What will change and what will be the same across the PreK — college pipeline? Will be changes improve education? What can students and parents do to prepare themselves for this future? What can teachers do to protect themselves and prepare themselves?

All of these questions are actually asking for predictions, although they may not framed that way exactly. They are asking me what the future holds in store in education for those seeking the answers. And, until today, I answered. Readily. Folks wanted something onto which to hang their hat.

Predictions, as a defined term, are a type of educated guess, oft-times based on facts and evidence. We don’t predict in a vacuum. We use our experience to guide us so we can speak about the future based on clues and events and activities in the past.

Some folks are better at predicting than others. Weather forecasters predict the weather all the time and while we can be critical of their error rate, they seem to rely on different maps and algorithms and historic data to get the forecast (prediction) right.

But, I am hesitating now about making any predictions related to educational institutions reopening because of how a particular question was phrased by a reporter. She specifically asked me to predict what will happen in higher education in the coming years. She used the word “predict.” She observed: Parents of high school students want to know what to expect, so they can prepare themselves and their teenage children. I get the parental desire for answers. Students want answers too.

I get the need for answers.

Predictions vs Conjecture

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So, I did what law students do when they can’t or won’t answer a hypothetical: they fight the questions asked, seeking a different way of framing a response. I used to object to this “fighting the hypothetical” but I now see its value; for some, the frame isn’t right. That is what happened in this instance: I told the reporter I couldn’t and wouldn’t do predictions.

Here’s why:

At best, any predictions I would make would need to be based on facts and data and science and studies and experience in the trenches. Even then, predictions are fraught with uncertainty. Gamblers know that. You can make a prediction on a professional sports team as to how they will fare in a particular upcoming season, but when the QB goes out with a torn ACL or the mainstay pitcher needs Tommy John surgery, well, that prediction goes awry. We know the problems with predicting elections, including based on polls. We sometimes run into problems because the polls don’t reflect what is deep in a respondent’s heart or the poll was taken before events or circumstances changed.

Remember Mike Dukakis wearing a helmet in a tank? He was ahead in the polls before he had the helmet incident captured on camera and folks perceptions of him changed almost instantly; he moved from serious to comedic. Fast.

No Predictions and a Caveat too

In my response to this particular reporter, I started with this caveat: higher ed is not homogeneous. What will happen depends on what type of institutions the reporter is referencing and about which she is inquiring. Among the thousands of higher ed institutions, some are huge; others are small; some are highly selective; others are open admission; some are rural; some are urban; some are elite and in existence for decades; others are of a more recent vintage; some are “liberal arts” and some are career launching (or both); some have huge endowments; some have meager sums. Bottom line: there will not be consistency in the changes that will occur across higher education except at the 300,000 foot level. And, I agree that there will be changes afoot.

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Conjectures vs Predictions

But, I suggested that it was vastly better for me to provide conjectures rather than predictions. Here’s why:

Conjecturing is what you do when you have incomplete information. Conjectures are made in the absence of proof or sufficient evidence. They are weaker in this sense than predictions; they are guesses but there is not enough data for proof or certainty. In short, I’m a conjecturer, not a predictor, of education’s future. No soothsaying. No fortune telling.

Consider these reasons:

The world is changing so fast with Covid, with racial tensions, with the economy, with joblessness and homelessness and food scarcity; we’re in unknown territory. I suspect we don’t have all the data and what data we have most assuredly suffers from flaws. Our past experiences aren’t transportable easily. Add to this that what is not political (take as an example wearing a mask) has become political. We are not used to restrictions on our interactions, our engagement with others, our mobility. Social distancing and masks are inhibiting a nation that prides itself in individualism. Our crystal balls are all broken.

It is for these very reasons that we feel anxious and stressed and a tad (or more) out of sorts. We have no control; we have no visible pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow; we have an absence of certainty. And it’s not like the messaging from our governments is consistent either. For many, this constitutes trauma and it is accompanied by trauma symptomology.

Stated another way, our inability to predict is actually our problem. We can’t do it and therein lies the disquiet. So, in response to the editor’s questions, I won’t make predictions. Instead, I’ll conjecture. And, my conjectures on higher education will appear in a separate piece.

The Elite Exception and Psychological Vacuum

Sadly, there are two caveats to the foregoing:

First, I can predict that most elite colleges and universities will not be on the front line of innovation and change. They can afford to do neither. That’s not good news but it is a prediction is which I have confidence….regrettably.

I feel safe making this prediction because change in education has been slow in coming. Professors are, for the most part, not overly eager to do things differently. Many teach as they were taught. We may be inclined toward micro changes but wholesale bottom up and top down change is not in the DNA of many educators — which is ironic in a sense. It is too disruptive. And even when change is needed, its pace is slow….very ssssllloooowww. And, within elite institutions, there is enough money to maintain the status quo.

Second, I can predict that the psychological needs of students, faculty and staff will increase; the experiences of the past few months (closures and openings and moving and leaving and trying online) are disruptive and trigger assorted negative memories. Our focus on reopening has been on physical well being, and I appreciate that that is important.

But, I predict we will not have sufficient trained personnel on campuses to help all those who need psychological support and help. And, the first step is recognizing that help is needed, that trauma has occurred or been retriggered. If you can’t even name what people are experiencing and feeling, you cannot address it and ameliorate it.

Don’t get me started on how my alma mater. They wrote a whole plan called Culture of Care to implement upon reopening and there is nary a word in that plan about psychological well being. How exactly can there be care without attention to the brain and accompanying feelings/emotions/moods/behaviors, given that the brain is not disconnected from the body?

Yes, I have written on the latter topic in a new book published by Teachers College Press: Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door. And yes, it will help institutions become more trauma responsive. That’s good news. But I am not suffering for any delusions. We are a long way off from systemic and systematic recognition and amelioration of trauma within the educational realm. That’s not even a prediction; that’s a fact.

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Written by

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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