Across all occupations, the anticipation of receiving a poor performance report gives rise to a tempting work-around: when the current metrics show substandard results, then find new metrics. Or, in the desperate case when one’s work product is worse than substandard, then one argues for the rejection of standards all together.

The head of Washington state’s largest teachers’ union appeared to reach that “break glass” decision-point during an interview with TVW’s Austin Jenkins which aired first on the September 3rd.  

Amid an interview covering a range of issues, Jenkins asked Washington Education Association President Larry Delaney a pertinent question that is on the minds of millions of parents during the COVID crisis: What do educators believe will be the effect of remote education on student learning and achievement?

“Austin, our kids are resilient,” Delaney said. “I think one of the concerns that as a parent, we have concerns is, ‘Is my child falling behind?’ My question is, ‘Falling behind who?’ Across the country, everyone has missed certain learning, so if everyone is, quote, ‘behind,’ I guess no one is behind.”

Got it. Grading to the curve is once again très cool.

Delaney continued, saying, “Really, we’ve gotten this attachment to some arbitrary standards that we’ve put out there. Our students are going to be fine. Are they going to catch up from the learning missed last spring, and maybe even this fall, in a week of two weeks? No. But over a school career, our students, they’ll be fine.”

You might hear in Delaney’s arrangement of talking points some corresponding notes that begin to form a bridge between the current COVID era to future post-COVID negotiating lingo – in the not-so-distant future, when whinging about the lack of public dollars is less politically toxic, and the fanatical appetite of the union to secure windfalls of no-strings attached funds will once again roar. This riff Delaney is putting down deserves deconstruction; there’s more in there than a discordant defense of dumbed-down education.

The teachers’ union has an impressive track record of fighting and pushing back against standards. On the other hand, most parents, students, college admissions officers, and in some cases employers look to standards such as grades and standardized test scores as rough measures of academic achievement. Even within a student’s K-12 career, a certain (though very low) standard of grade performance is used to determine whether they progress to the next grade, and even whether they place into advanced-level coursework.

So, for the sake of argument, what does a post-standard educational system in K-12 really look like? It looks a lot like a conveyor belt, but one that on which the student is less able to overcome the human foibles of educators, and is more at the mercy of the whims of individual teachers and administrators. To borrow Orwell’s formulation, all students would be equal, but some students would be more equal than others. Standards restore some objective measure to what would otherwise become an almost totally subjective process. Standards may be imperfect and flawed in the margins, but this slightly messy but ordered system seems supremely preferable to planned venality.

Finally, there’s this assertion that students will catch up. Even one interjects the fact that teachers routinely claim that the demands of a normal school year exceed the number of hours for which they’re paid, and that this great bootstrapping back to adequacy would very likely not be viewed as pro bono work, there’s a group who can’t just “catch up” over the rest of their student career, as Delaney suggests they will.

Even in pre-COVID times, most high school juniors and seniors are, let’s be honest, just beginning to embrace the need to perform with anything like the discipline the real world expects. Those last two years are the time when even the most checked-out among them suddenly find their mindset forcibly aligned to reality. Now, in our current time and situation, an entire graduating class has already endured one half-year of mediocre instruction. Their school year will end long before the teachers’ union can send in what taxpayers should anticipate will be a very expensive rescue mission. Does Mr. Delaney and the teachers he represents have a plan to deliver on the promise to catch them up? No, of course not. Parents will do the heavy lifting in that effort. Some students who parents don’t have the means or the background or, let’s be real, the values, those students will have been failed by everyone.

The concern that schools could become a new vector for the spread of COVID-19 is not lightly taken. As of the date of this reporting has killed more than 190,000 Americans, 1,945 in Washington state. But policy decisions that seek to address the risks posed by COVID also have a substantial impact on huge numbers of people in ways that may harm lives in ways not so easy to reverse. These policies need to be balance the disparate costs of said policies. Long-term setbacks to students are a cost, and one the teachers’ union appears comfortable ignoring.

The teachers’ union does a disservice to students, parents, and taxpayers when it constructs fantasies of a future educational restoration project on the one hand, and then suggests that the real problem is that we attach any measure to student achievement on the other. They are taking the easiest road out of a complex crisis, while denying any ownership or share of the costs of decisions to completely shut down in-class learning, decisions that most agree were a complete inside negotiation to avert confrontations with the teachers. The only credit they can perhaps take is for teaching students a hard lesson about self-reliance.