The New CDC School Reopening Guidelines Should Be Ignored

The CDC finally released new guidance to aid school administrators in their Herculean (and in some cases, Sisyphean) task to reopen schools to in-person learning this fall. Unfortunately, the guidelines suffer from a number of faults, starting with the credibility of the agency itself.

The CDC makes its position clear, releasing a document titled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools This Fall“, which parrots favored talking points of the most vocal reopening advocates. We are reminded that in addition to their original purpose of educating kids, schools also perform such vital functions as developing the social and emotional skills of children, addressing kids’ nutritional needs, and facilitating physical activity among children. The CDC bolsters its argument by citing statistics and studies showing that “COVID-19 poses relatively low risks to school-aged children” and that children “are not the primary drivers of COVID-19 spread in schools or in the community.”

Shoot The Messenger

The problem here is less the message than the messenger. As recently as June, Americans generally trusted the nation’s premier public health agency, with 64% saying it “gets the facts right almost or most of the time regarding COVID-19.” But in the last month, the President has frequently criticized the apolitical organization, calling earlier reopening guidelines “very tough and expensive.” The Vice President then said none of those guidelines should be used as a “barrier” to reopening schools. The Secretary of Education continued to undermine the CDC’s guidelines when she said in a CNN interview that they were “meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation.”

Vice President Pence intimated that the CDC would be releasing new guidelines, the clear insinuation being that those guidelines would more closely align with the administration’s desire to find a way to open schools. All of this occurred as CDC internal documents stated that fully reopening K-12 schools and universities would be the “highest risk” for the spread of coronavirus. CDC Director Robert Redfield pushed back against the President, saying that the agency would not be revising the guidelines while at the same time backpedaling by saying “it’s guidance, it’s not requirements, and its purpose is to facilitate the reopening and keeping open the schools in this country.” Pence’s promised new guidance was then delayed a week. It was finally released yesterday.

It’s not hard to figure out what happened here. The CDC capitulated to pressure from the administration to release guidance that made it easier for schools to open. They haven’t determined that opening schools is safe because new data has come to light. They simply did what the President wanted. Therefore, there’s no reason to trust anything the CDC says on what’s become a highly-charged issue, regardless of the studies it cites and the statistics it elects to reference. These documents are tainted by political influence, and as such, they deserve no credibility.

A False Choice

A second problem with the CDC guidance is that it sets up a false choice between remote learning as we experienced it during an emergency shutdown and pre-pandemic, in-person education. Few will argue that distance learning is preferable to pre-pandemic education, but those are not the options Americans are facing.

In-person schooling will look nothing like it used to, so when the CDC argues that we have to get kids back to school because children’s social and emotional health is at-risk without it, the agency is failing to consider how such schooling might impact children. Yes, students don’t have the opportunities to engage with peers when they’re stuck home learning on a computer. But will they have authentic opportunities to do so when social distancing at schools is enforced?

No, students probably aren’t getting enough exercise outside of school, but will they get it if specials classes like P.E. are canceled and if students have to remain in predefined areas on playgrounds so they don’t get too close to others?

The CDC makes the same mistake I see nearly everyone making by comparing remote learning, which is bound to be at least somewhat better in the fall than it was in the spring, to in-person education, which is guaranteed to be worse than it was before the pandemic. You can’t fairly claim remote learning is worse for children without considering how bad in-person schooling with social distancing, mask-wearing, and cohorting might be.

Continued isolation at home because of online education is undoubtedly bad for children’s mental health. But how much better will their mental health be if they’re told to get away from their friends, to not hug an injured classmate, and to put their mask back on or else when they attend school in the midst of a pandemic? What will it do to a child’s mental health if their classmates scoot even further away from them when they start coughing in class?

If we’re going to compare models of schooling, we should at least compare what those models will actually look like.

Typical Ignorance

A third problem with the CDC guidance is its inescapable ignorance of how schools work. If this pandemic has revealed anything it’s that large swaths of this nation have no clue about what really goes on in our public schools. One of the major recommendations in the CDC’s guidelines is cohorting, or the keeping of students together in pods throughout the day. This is done to limit exposure and make contact tracing easier in the invent a student catches the virus. Nowhere in the document does the CDC address how the benefits of cohorting are negated as soon as students step on a bus or attend after-school child care.

Those at the CDC also do not understand that social distancing is impossible in public schools. They have evidently never been in the midst of more than three first-graders or tried to get high schoolers from not congregating in a hallway. They’ve never been in a school if they think that frequent cleaning of surfaces, drinking fountains, and bathrooms is going to occur without an army to do the work. My school has one night custodian, and there are only so many hours in a night.

And nowhere does the CDC acknowledge just how disruptive the regular opening and closing of schools will be to student learning, parents’ work schedules, and the economy as a whole. What does the CDC expect to happen when an automated call goes out to 25 parents telling them that because of a positive test result their child’s classroom will be closed for the next two weeks and everyone who was potentially infected should self-isolate? They make no recommendations about just who should self-isolate, leaving that up to local health officials. Should siblings stay home, too? Should classmates of siblings? And what are parents to do in such a situation? Should they assume they’re COVID-positive and stay home from work? Will their employers allow them to? Now multiply this times however many classrooms have a suspected COVID-positive student or teacher, and don’t forget that this won’t just happen one time during the year. It may happen over and over again.

And what point do such frequent disruptions tilt the scale away from what will assuredly be intensely flawed in-person learning experiences toward less disruptive and unquestionably safer remote learning? Doesn’t certainty, even if it’s in something less than ideal, affect the calculus?

The guidelines from the CDC reflect an optimism that has proven time and again to be deadly. Every hope we have had about this virus has been dashed, and cruelly. We hoped it would stay in China, hoped it would “disappear”, hoped it was seasonal, hoped we could reopen our economy, and hoped we’d be immune once we had it.

Now the CDC is hoping schools won’t spread the virus. Their recommendation to reopen schools is purported to be the result of a sober analysis of costs versus benefits. Instead, it’s a political document that compares the wrong things and makes the wrong conclusion. For those reasons, it deserves to be ignored by school leaders.

The CDC is hoping schools won't spread the virus. Their recommendation to reopen schools is purported to be the result of a sober analysis of costs versus benefits. Instead, it's a political document that compares the wrong things and… Click To Tweet

What Happens If I Get Sick?

This past week my district hosted a virtual “happy hour” during which administrators provided an update on planning for the fall and invited questions from staff. There were many questions and not quite as many answers. I do not fault district leaders for this. When the Secretary of Education has no plan and the state’s school reopening Roadmap is not really a plan, it’s a bit much to expect local administrators to have a plan.

Part of the reason for the lack of a plan is that there are no answers. The pandemic has acted as a stress test for our entire society and schools, barely surviving in normal times, have broken under that stress. We haven’t witnessed the destruction yet because schools are not in session, but if they reopen in the manner advocated for by the President, Secretary of Education, and ill-informed parents on Facebook who want to get back to work and are sick of watching their own kids, then the crumbling will be swift, vivid, and startling.

Teachers who actually work in schools have thousands of questions about how in-person education will work. Those questions will continue to go unanswered because most are unanswerable.

Either there are no answers or the answers are so unpalatable that to voice them exposes the absurdity of the entire effort.

Those who insist we embark on this ill-fated escapade have either given no serious thought to how any of it will work or they’ve placed their heads firmly in the sand and are, unimaginably, relying on nothing more than hope to see us through.

Hope may be the thing with feathers but it’s a terrible strategy.

Consider just one relatively simple (and likely) scenario and see if you can provide reasonable answers to the questions that arise.

What happens if I, a fourth-grade teacher, get sick?

Imagine the following scene:

I have woken up in the night with a fever. It’s 4 a.m. As advised by my state’s Roadmap and mandated by district policy, I take my temperature. It’s 100 degrees. I will be staying home. So I log on to my laptop and put in for a sub.


Does my district notify the substitute pool that I am absent because of a high temperature (which of course implies that I may be COVID-positive)? If so, can we reasonably expect any sub to take the job? If not, isn’t my district being unethical? Do they open themselves up to a lawsuit if a sub, ignorant of the reason for my absence, takes the job and then gets infected and dies?

What should my wife, who teaches at a different building in the same district, do? Although she has no temperature or other symptoms, should she take precautions against possible infection and also stay home? Should she explain the situation to our employer? If she does, every question asked above must be asked again.

And what about our daughter, who will be a ninth-grader this year? Should we also assume she might be infected and keep her home? Should we notify the district that it’s possible she has been walking around the hallways of the high school as an asymptomatic carrier of the virus?

Which parents should be notified if I wake up with a temperature? Surely the parents of my students, but what about the parents of my wife’s students? What about my daughter’s classmates?

How will these parents be notified? Wouldn’t parents want the earliest possible notification if their children may have been exposed to COVID by their teacher or a classmate? Does the district send a robocall at 5 a.m. to give parents enough time to find child care?

What about privacy? Will the district be informing parents which teacher might be positive so parents can assess their child’s risk for themselves?

Being a responsible person, I, of course, don’t rely on a thermometer. I go get tested for the virus. Now I wait, possibly for as long as a week, for the results.

What do my students do in the meantime? Are they taught by a sub? Who would take such a job, knowing I had been in the room touching and breathing on everything? If a sub isn’t acquired, who will teach my students? Perhaps nobody will and my students, having been exposed to me, will have to stay home and do remote learning. Who’s teaching them? Me, even though COVID can leave its victims bedridden and bereft of energy and appetite? Is it even legal to require sick teachers to perform their jobs? Or will the district have to find a substitute to teach my students remotely? Have subs been trained to do so? Will I need to turn my Google Classroom and Google Meet credentials over to this person? Will I be expected, as I always have been, to furnish my substitute with lesson plans, even though I can’t get out of bed and can barely stay awake? Who provides these plans if I’m hospitalized?

And what of my wife? Every question asked for my situation must also be asked (and answered) for hers.

What about my COVID-possible daughter? Which high school students should be asked to self-quarantine? Every student she shares a class with? Every student with whom she may have shared air while walking the hallways? What about those students’ younger siblings? For that matter, what about the siblings of my and my wife’s students? Should they also stay home for two weeks? Should they get tested? What should they do while they wait for the results?

Let’s say my test comes back positive. I won’t be returning until I test negative, which could take a month. When can my students return to school? Who will teach them? Does the district get a long-term sub to teach my students remotely until my return? What happens when I run out of sick days? What happens when my wife also runs out of sick days? Do we just not get paid for two weeks?

And what’s the threshold for total school closure? How many teachers and/or students have to test positive before everyone goes remote? What if 20 kids are sick one morning and are in the process of waiting for test results? Do we just assume they don’t have COVID and keep schools operating as normal, or do we assume they’re infected and shut down immediately?

When teachers complain there isn’t a plan, this is just a sliver of what they’re talking about. The above is one scenario – it doesn’t address questions about what happens when students don’t follow guidelines, or how to provide special education and intervention services without increasing the risk of spreading the virus, or what bus drivers should do when a student has a coughing fit on the bus ride to school in the morning – and it’s hardly inconceivable. It’s also just one family in one district. What happens if three teachers, all of whom have multiple children in the district, wake up with a fever that might be COVID?

Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to start school in the fall. What’s unacceptable is to begin without a plan that answers the most challenging questions. Teachers, parents, and students deserve to know what school will look like and what will happen when the inevitable occurs. To not develop detailed plans is to either admit hopelessness or to put all your eggs in the basket of providence, praying that everything will magically work out.

That’s not just irresponsible, it’s stupid.

If you can’t answer basic questions about likely scenarios, then you can’t reopen schools.

If you can't answer basic questions about likely scenarios, then you can't reopen schools. Click To Tweet

We’ve already tried hope. We hoped this would stay in China. We hoped it would disappear. We hoped anti-malarial drugs would be therapeutic. We hoped the virus would weaken with the summer. The South hoped it could reopen its economy without a subsequent spike.

Now we hope children won’t get sick. We hope kids won’t spread the virus to their teachers, parents, and siblings. We hope it will all work out.

Hope has failed us because hope, for all its wonder, isn’t a strategy.

The education system should not make the same mistake as the federal government. Instead of hoping our problems away, we should come up with plans that deal with them or we should admit that we can’t and give up on a return to in-person education.

Instead of hoping our problems away, we should come up with plans that deal with them or we should admit that we can't and give up on a return to in-person education. Click To Tweet

What Happens When They Don’t?

States have finally started to release guidance to school districts for the “safe” reopening of buildings for in-person instruction. My state’s Return to School Roadmap takes a phased approach, with each phase providing guidelines that are either “required,” “strongly recommended” or “recommended.” In Phase 4, some of the requirements are:

“Facial coverings must be worn in classrooms by all students grades 6-12 ” and that “Facial coverings must always be worn by staff except for meals.”

Schools “must cooperate with the local public health department regarding implementing protocols for screening students and staff.”

Schools are also required to “provide adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene behaviors (including soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol for safe use by staff and students, paper towels, tissues, and signs reinforcing proper handwashing techniques).”

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ letter advocating the reopening of in-person learning provides similarly authoritative guidance. It says that,

Bus drivers “should be a minimum of 6 feet from students; drivers must wear face coverings; consider physical barriers for drivers (eg, plexiglass).”

“Surfaces that are used frequently, such a drinking fountains, door handles, sinks and faucet handles, etc, should be cleaned and disinfected at least daily and as often as possible.”

“Children should wear face coverings when harms (eg, increasing hand-mouth/nose contact) do not outweigh benefits (potential COVID-19 risk reduction).”

I’ve got few reservations about the recommendations and I don’t envy any leaders trying to figure out how to make face-to-face instruction work in the middle of a pandemic, but neither Michigan’s Roadmap nor the AAP’s letter say anything about enforcement.

They’ve written a rulebook and left out the part where it explains what happens when the rules are broken.

No matter what states “require” or what plans districts formulate in the next month, it’s all useless if one question doesn’t get answered and answered definitively:

What happens when they don’t?

What happens when students don’t wear their masks? What happens when I, as the teacher, tells Mark to put on his mask and he tells me no? What then?

That’s not rhetorical. What then?

What happens when parents walk their children to their classrooms each morning even though school policy forbids non-employee adult access to the building? What happens when after I politely remind them of the policy they return the next day? What happens when they tell me that as taxpayers they have the right to walk their five-year-old to the classroom each morning? What do I do about that?

What happens when a sick kid is sent to school and parents refuse to pick them up because they can’t leave work without risking their job? It’s been made abundantly clear that schools are child care providers that produce the oil that lubricates the engine of the American economy. So what happens when Mom says she’ll get fired if she has to miss work to watch over her coughing child? What does the student do with that student and about that parent?

What is a bus driver to do with a student who starts violently coughing five minutes after she’s boarded? There may be no one at home to leave her with, but keeping her on the bus risks infecting others, including the driver himself. So what’s the policy? What does that bus driver, at that moment in time, do?

What happens when custodians don’t clean as often as they’re supposed to?

What happens when the district doesn’t provide what it’s”required” to?

Where does an employee report such grievances? How does a teacher complain without making herself vulnerable to staffing reductions which many districts will still be looking to make?

It’s as if those who’ve designed the plans are deluded by the fanciful dream that everyone will simply abide. They seem to not understand what every teacher in the country who will enter their classrooms knows with the same certitude that the President will say something stupid today. Teachers will be confronted with defiance because they have always been confronted with defiance. It’s not a matter of if students and parents will ignore or willfully defy the rules; it’s only a matter of how quickly and how often they will.

And if teachers required further assurance of such inevitabilities, they need look no further than their own social media accounts. Twitter provides daily examples of people flouting even the mildest mitigation efforts. Young people congregating at parties, hysterically intransigent Karens shouting about their “right” to not wear masks, toxically masculine Trump-loving bros slandering mask-wearers as unthinking sheep. All of them will be sending their kids to school. Judging by your Facebook, is there any doubt that some of these students, having marinated in the stew of their parents’ opinions for six months, are going to manifest those beliefs when they board buses and stomp through schoolhouse doors?

Teachers are being told that it’s critically important for students and teachers to return to in-person education. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance argues that academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech/mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity are all harmed by further time away from school. They claim that the interruption of school services results in social isolation and leaves kids more vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicide. According to these pediatricians, school reopenings are literally a matter of life and death.

The opening of schools is therefore so important we are willing to impose and accept a number of aggravations to make it possible, and, we hope, safe.

If it is indeed so crucial that students return to school, then it’s equally crucial that funding is provided to open in the safest ways possible. And if new rules are the only way we can ensure such safety, then the state must provide the authority to enforce those rules.

Teachers, bus drivers, principals, and school boards have to know what they should do when the rules, which, again, are meant to prevent death, are disregarded or brazenly contradicted.

Just how serious are we prepared to be with those who don’t comply?

It’s not enough for states to punt enforcement to districts. I’m a local control guy as much as the next teacher but states already insert themselves in areas of significant consequence. They don’t allow districts to create their own policies around standardized testing, special education services, or contact hours. Much of what my district does is at the behest of the state, with severe consequences for noncompliance.

When things are important enough – and it’s hard to argue that the reopening of schools during a pandemic doesn’t meet that standard – then the state steps in. Some things are non-negotiable. Limiting the spread of a deadly virus should be one of them.

If the state doesn’t provide direction, some districts will abdicate their responsibilities. Afraid of lawsuits, they’ll adopt overly timid approaches. Because so much of the pandemic has become political, districts will be reluctant to enter such divisive territory. Unwilling to offend those they serve, they’ll choose no side at all. Such dereliction will do what it always does: leaves teachers in the lurch.

Teachers will be expected, as they always are, to fill the void created by governments unwilling to pay for the very things they will require and too timorous to boldly stand behind their new rules. Or they’ll be betrayed by district leaders who cravenly elect to avoid conflict with vocal parents. Instead of clear direction and support, teachers will be told to have a growth mindset! To sacrifice because kids are worth it! To be a team player!

If teachers want the door handles disinfected, they’ll be the ones to do it.

If they want Kleenex, they’ll buy it or ask parents to.

If they want masks, they’ll head to DonorsChoose.

If they want to be protected from kids coughing in their faces they’ll … well, I don’t know what they’ll do, which is the whole point.

It is unconscionable to send teachers back to school with a set of new rules meant to keep society safe while depriving them of the authority necessary to enforce those rules.

It is unconscionable to send teachers back to school with a set of new rules meant to keep society safe while depriving them of the authority necessary to enforce those rules. Click To Tweet

We teachers have learned to expect little from the rest of society. In spite of our essentialness to the American economy, we don’t expect a raise this year. We don’t expect our employers to actually provide everything we need to do our jobs; we’re conditioned to fill those gaps with our own money. We’ve gotten used to taxpayers sniping about our “part-time” status. We’re not really surprised at the insincerity of those who at the start of the pandemic professed newfound gratitude for what we do each day. It doesn’t shock us that we’re being sent back to classrooms with little more than hope that everything will work out.

We’re not too sure about the new rules put in place for students’ return to school. But we might be willing to give them a shot if you could tell us what to do when they’re not followed.

What Teachers Are Worth

My childhood ended on the afternoon I tried to sell a Tony Fernandez rookie card. Dad had driven me to the next town over because I was hoping to complete a set of 1985 Topps baseball cards. I was six short, and in those pre-Internet days, the only way to get your hands on missing singles was to trade for them or buy them. I was going to buy mine and Dad, to his credit, had elected to not intervene. This was my ballgame.

I had a stack of cards to sell, the idea being I’d make five or six bucks unloading a pile of unwanted duplicates and then turn around and buy the ones I needed with the cash. I’d done the math. Any card collector of the era either had Beckett Baseball Card Monthly prices memorized or carried around the most recent volume. Beckett said my Tony Fernandez was worth 50 cents. So I started by offering him up.

The owner of the store, a gruff middle-aged fellow with a bushy mustache who stood opposite me behind a display case of Mantles, Koufaxes, and a Tom Brunanski I coveted, peered down at the rangy Blue Jays shortstop. Then he dismissed him, sliding the card to the side and considering the next one, which he also rejected.

“I’ll give you a dollar for the lot,” he told me, which made no sense to ten-year-old me. Beckett said that Tony Fernandez was worth two quarters by himself!

Back in the car on the ride home, Dad explained to his crestfallen, teary-eyed son how the world of baseball cards (and everything else) really worked.

“It doesn’t matter what the magazine says the card is worth,” he explained. “Something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it.”

Many people have opined on what teachers are worth. Two of the most determined are Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at AEI, and Jason Richwine, a public policy analyst in Washington, D.C. Together, they have repeatedly argued that teachers are overcompensated, penning reports and articles with titles like:

No, Teachers Are Not Underpaid

Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid

The ‘Underpaid Teachers’ Myth

The Truth About Teacher Pay

Average Public School Teacher Is Paid Too Much

They make many arguments, some of them compelling, but the main one is that teachers don’t have skills that society values and are therefore overpaid. If they were subjected to the laws of supply and demand instead of protected by government and their unions, they’d earn much less. Here they are in their own words:

“The average teacher working in a public school today receives total compensation roughly 52 percent higher than what he or she would receive in private-sector employment.”

“Prospective teachers are predominantly drawn from the bottom third of their college graduating class. Compared with those of college graduates with similar skills, teachers’ average annual salaries of around $55,000 are about right. It is generous fringe benefits that push total teacher compensation far ahead of private-sector levels.”

“Wages are not determined by years of schooling but by the supply and demand for skills. These skills vary by field of study. About half of teachers major in education, among the least-rigorous fields at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.”

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) analyzes the skill requirements of different jobs, assigning each a pay grade based on the federal government’s General Schedule (GS). At the lowest skill levels—a GS-6 on the federal scale—teachers earn salaries about 26 percent higher than similar white-collar workers.” 

“Contrary to myth, teachers are generally not foregoing higher salaries by staying in the classroom. Data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation show that teachers who change to non-teaching jobs take an average salary cut of about 3 percent.”

Ignoring the many problems with Biggs and Richwine’s methodology and analysis, which others have written about here, here, and here, the error which begets all others is the authors’ myopic focus on the relationship between compensation and skill.

That people are willing to pay a premium to those possessing certain skills is not in question. That these skills actuate supply and demand is similarly self-evident.

Because most people cannot safely perform open-heart surgery, patients will pay almost any amount to surgeons. Because my freedom is priceless, I’ll shell out hundreds of dollars an hour to a lawyer for her specialized knowledge of the law and legal procedures. Companies will pay high salaries to software developers and engineers because demand outpaces supply.

By this standard, the one Biggs and Richwine fixate on, teachers do in fact appear overpaid.

But as my Tony Fernandez baseball card experience taught me, what something is worth depends on what someone else will pay for it. And people do not only pay for skill.

My neighbor is retired and very active. He rides a bike every day and even goes on cross-country cycling trips. But he doesn’t mow his own lawn. For that, he pays a local teenager $25 for a job that takes about 30 minutes.

I have a friend who decided to remove the wallpaper from her house. She did half of one room and then decided to pay thousands of dollars to have a company come in and finish the job.

Roofing, while back-breaking, is not especially difficult. It does not require a college degree or hours of training. But most people overpay to have someone else reshingle their house.

People pay to have their groceries delivered, their cars washed, and their toenails painted.

People will pay for services they can’t do themselves, but they will also pay for services they are unwilling to do themselves, regardless of the skill needed to do them.

And they will pay a lot.

Consider the cost of child care. Child care, of which most parents expect little more than their kid be returned safely to them at the end of each day, is prohibitively expensive for many families, despite the “low skill” of providers. Cost varies significantly by state, but the average for the United States is about $10,000 per year.

Or how about babysitting? Certainly, nobody needs a babysitter. Babysitters do not have skills prized in the marketplace. They’re usually teenage girls looking for a few extra bucks. But what are you willing to pay such a skills-deficient laborer so you can have a night out? 10 bucks an hour? 20? According to UrbanSitter’s survey of 28,000 families, the average babysitting rate is $16.75 for one child and $19.26 for two.

To put that in perspective, a teacher with 25 students in her room, who, you might need reminding, is expected to both watch over kids and teach them stuff, would earn almost a quarter-million dollars a year, and that’s if she were only paid $10 an hour (180 days x 5 hours/day (I rounded down, taking out lunch, etc.) x 25 students x $10/hour = $225,000). That’s about $9,000 per student per year.

The market, it seems, has spoken. And it values child care, low-skill or not.

But of course school isn’t just about supervision. Education also has value. And again, when exposed to market forces, it has proved expensive.

Private tutors cost anywhere from $25 to $80 an hour.

The average cost of an elementary private school is about $10,000, which, again, in a class of 25 students comes out to a quarter of a million bucks. Not all of that money goes to the teacher — private schools have administrators and overhead, too — but in the mind of the parent who is paying the bill, they are trading $10,000 for the service provided by the school, most of which is performed by the teacher.

The cost of college also proves how much value parents place on education. Even with states kicking in major taxpayer dollars, the average yearly tuition at an in-state public university costs families — you guessed it — about $10,000. Those arguing teachers would be paid less if they were subject to the merciless forces of capitalism should have to explain why the cost of attending a private college in the United States is more than $36,000 annually, with 120 schools charging over $50,000 last year.

A pet argument among the public-school-teachers-are-overpaid crowd is that private school teachers, who basically do the same job, make far less money. Because private schools are at the mercy of the market, so the argument goes, their salaries are true reflections of what all teachers are worth. But private school teachers aren’t paid less because parents don’t value their work. The fact they’re willing to pay ten grand a year proves that. They’re paid less for the same reason child care workers are paid poorly: low adult to child ratios.

Private schools average a 12:1 student to teacher ratio, compared to 16:1 in public schools. States restrict the number of children a licensed child-care provider can supervise, meaning all that money parents pay gets divvied up among a whole lot of adults, lowering the pay for each of them. If public schools followed suit, their teachers would indeed be paid less. But you’d need a bunch more of them and costs would likely rise as increased turnover would lead to higher training expenses, so taxpayers wouldn’t really gain anything.

Watch: Why Does Child Care Cost So Much Yet Providers Make So Little? | Child Care Aware of America

Those who believe public school teachers are overpaid like to blame the government and teachers unions. They believe that if teachers had to compete in the marketplace like other workers, their pay would reflect what they’re actually worth.

But evidence suggests the opposite.

Parents are willing to pay a premium for others to watch their kids. They’re willing to pay a lot for their kids to receive an education. Government’s involvement does not inflate teachers’ salaries. If anything, it depresses them. In a totally free market, the cost of elementary education would look a lot like the cost of child-care. Or college. Or even babysitting.

To slightly rephrase the lesson on capitalism my ten-year-old self received from my dad:

It doesn’t matter what economists, public policy analysts, and “resident scholars” say teachers are worth. It matters what parents are willing to pay.

And unlike that stingy baseball card dealer who destroyed the innocence of my youth, they’re willing to pay quite a lot. It’s the generosity of taxpayers that prevents them from doing so.

“My Child Doesn’t Like to Read”

During the debate over Michigan’s third-grade reading law, I read this article that contained this quote from a mom: “My son doesn’t like to read. It’s hard to force him, but he does well in every other subject, so they should not be forced to stay back.”

And I agree that he should not be held back.

But how in the world have we gotten to the place where a mom can admit to a reporter, on the record, that her kid isn’t a very good reader because he doesn’t like it and it’s hard to make him?

I mean, I get it. I don’t like forcing my daughter to do things she doesn’t like, either. And sometimes, I don’t because some of the things I think are important aren’t actually that important. They’re just a reflection of my values.

But there are some things that are non-negotiable because they’re just too important.

She has to go to bed at a certain time because sleep is inarguably, scientifically-proven to be extremely important. And even if science didn’t have anything to say on the matter, my own observations of my sleep-deprived child would quickly convince me of its necessity.

She has to take showers and brush her teeth because personal hygiene is both important for one’s health and because being in middle school is hard enough without going through it as the smelly kid.

She has to go to school if she’s not sick because it’s the law.

She doesn’t get to say no to these things. And if she does, I make her do them anyway, damn the resistance no matter its form.

Reading is one of these things.

Parents, pardon my bluntness, but society doesn’t expect a whole lot from you. We don’t really care if your kid goes to college; plenty of other kids will. We’d like it if your child grew up and found gainful employment because if he doesn’t some of our tax money will be spent on him instead of things we’d maybe rather have it spent on, but we also know that your unemployed son will likely be a greater hardship for you than for us, so even here, we’re fairly indifferent. We really don’t even care if you follow through on the personal hygiene stuff. Yes, it offends our sensibilities to stand next to your smelly offspring on the subway and we may cringe a bit at his toothless smile, but these are temporary inconveniences and, for the most part, we can avoid them.

Here is what we do want: We don’t want your kid to be a blithering idiot. Idiots are problematic. They generally suck at their jobs, which, if I’m a customer, is going to make my day worse. They do stupid things that impact other people, like take out zero-interest loans on homes they can’t afford which contribute to mass foreclosers and a total meltdown of the housing market. They commit crimes. They share fake news on Facebook. They vote for buffoons.

Idiocy affects everyone.

We want your child to grow up with some basic intelligence and knowledge of the world, and one of the easiest ways to gain these things is by reading.

Here is how important it is that your child read (source):

  • Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education and is a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio-economic background. 
  • 16-year-olds who choose to read books for pleasure outside of school are more likely to secure managerial or professional jobs in later life. 
  • Regular readers for pleasure reported fewer feelings of stress and depression than non-readers, and stronger feelings of relaxation from reading than from watching television or engaging with technology-intensive activities. 
  • Those who read for pleasure have higher levels of self-esteem and a greater ability to cope with difficult situations. Reading for pleasure was also associated with better sleeping patterns.
  • Adults who read for just 30 minutes a week are 20% more likely to report greater life satisfaction. 
  • Studies have found that reading for pleasure enhances empathy, understanding of the self, and the ability to understand one’s own and others’ identities.

Also, to the mom quoted at the beginning of this article, your son is not going to continue to do well in every other subject if he struggles to read. Here’s an example of a math question from the program I use with my third graders:

I know of very few children who love bathing. And yet no parent would simply accept that their kid will be forever filthy. Parents would never admit in an interview, “Well, my son doesn’t like to take baths, so we don’t make him do it.” They don’t excuse their child’s disgusting state by saying, “Yeah, he doesn’t like showers but you should see him build Lego sets.”

Reading is as important to your child’s brain as hygiene is to your child’s health.

Reading is as important to your child's brain as hygiene is to your child's health. Click To Tweet

One of the rationalizations parents of reluctant readers make is that if they force their child to read then they’ll destroy any chance that the kid will like reading in the future. They believe that by compelling reading, they’ll make it less likely that their child will fall in love with books. They take a hands-off approach in the hopes that their child will discover a love of reading on their own at some future date.

But we don’t do this with other important skills. We don’t believe that making children brush their teeth will result in so much hatred for the act that they will refuse to brush as adults.

I don’t buy the argument that forcing someone do to something means they will never learn to love that thing. One reason kids don’t like reading is that they aren’t good at it. It’s the same reason I don’t like doing burpees, performing car maintenance, or quilting.

But if you forced me to quilt for an hour every day, day after day, guess what will happen? I will get incrementally better at quilting to the point that someday, I won’t suck as much. I might, as I improve, realize that I no longer hate quilting. I might even choose to do it on my own.

This is literally the process of learning any new skill. First, you stink. Then, with some instruction, positive feedback, helpful criticism, and lots more practice, you get incrementally better. Then, with more of those things, you get better still. Eventually, you get pretty decent and maybe even good. Somewhere along the way, you learn to enjoy this thing. If you do, you choose to do it more on your own time and you get even better.

When I was a kid I hated going to bed. Then, when I got to my teenage years, it was pretty much my favorite thing to do. Still is.

When I was a kid I hated taking baths. Now? I choose to take a shower every day. Sometimes, I take two! Sometimes in the winter, I’ll take a shower just to warm up. I also like hot tubs.

When I was a kid, I hated cleaning my room. Today? Okay, I still hate cleaning my room. No rule is without exception and there’s no guarantee that your kid will ever love to read. But at least they will know how!

I look forward to the day when parents will be as ashamed to utter the words, “My son doesn’t like to read” as they would be to say, “My son doesn’t like to use the toilet.”

Some things are unacceptable. Not making your kid read outside of school is one of them.