We need to get past politics and face up to the earthquake that has devastated the lives of our children.

Only a small percentage of privileged kids have parents who have had the time and skills to shepherd their education through this devastating pandemic. The majority have not been so lucky and have learned almost nothing during the past two years. This is even more tragic for the many students who were struggling even before the pandemic began.

We need to confront this challenge with the resourcefulness, boldness and determination needed to set things right. To coin a phrase, Americans need to build back better.

Using “grades” is one of our problems. I mean using it in the sense of first grade, second grade, third grade, and so forth — and in the sense of A, B, C, D and F. What does it mean to say that a child has been promoted to the fourth grade with a D in reading? It means we have failed to teach this child and have given up on their potential to be a valued member of society.

In the 1800s, American children went to one-room schools and worked on a subject until they learned it. In the 1900s, as our population became more urban, we sought to adopt the efficiencies of the factory. We created a rigid structure dividing learners by their ages and expected grade levels. Whistles and electronic bells began to divide the day into precise segments as educational leaders tried to manage the factory.

This was never a good idea. And it is definitely not the way to recover from the aftermath of the pandemic. We need to confront the fact that many of our children are “behind” and won’t have a basic education unless they continue to be instructed until they are in their early 20s.

Those of us who have attended Arizona schools over the last 70 years are well aware of how the pursuit of “average daily membership” and state money overpowers all other concerns. In this crisis, our schools have been able to continue to get state money, but adhering to the old formulas has not given our young people a decent education.

Let’s be willing to face the fact that grade levels are unhelpful in this environment. If a student cannot read, they will probably need to be in a nearly full-time reading lab until they can. When they have full competence in all their key subjects, they will be ready to move on with their lives. In the overall scheme of things, it matters very little whether they reach this point at 15 or 22.

It’s not helpful to have a system where we announce who has “passed” and who has “failed.” It is also unhelpful to have social promotion. We need to support our children in this crisis by giving them the instruction they need — when they need it — for as long as they need it. If the kids have the courage to do their part, do we have the courage to patiently support them without judging them against an irrelevant timeline?

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Eric Kramer, who attended school in Casa Grande, lives in Pinetop and is a retired systems engineer.

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