Rebuilding intangibles like trust will be needed for schools to recover, expert says at Law School program

This appeared as a column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 7, 2021.

As we reach the one-year mark in the greatest crisis American education has faced since the public schooling began taking its current form in the 19th Century, there are so many tangible things to be concerned about. Getting more kids back to school in person, especially now that teachers are getting vaccinated. What to do to help kids cover educational ground they didn’t cover in past months. How to use the coming summer. Money issues. Handling continuing health precautions. On and on.

But underlying the tangible issues are intangibles that also need big attention. I was involved in a virtual program on March 2 sponsored by the Marquette Law School and the Marquette College of Education on the state of K-12 education. Here are a few valuable thoughts from that session, emphasizing some of those intangibles:

Trust. A good school community is one where people – adults and children – are confident that, overall, things are being done well and for the good of all. There is a sense of everyone being on the same team. Trust underlies all of this. And the relationships and assumptions involved in trust have taken big steps backwards in many communities. That shows up especially in disputes nationwide over whether to have school in person.   

“The underlying tension is a trust issue,” Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinvention of Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, said during an interview. “Where there is fundamental mistrust, there is political tension, and that’s what we’ve got.” Lake said that strong leadership on every level, up to and including the federal government, can help rebuild trust.

Urgency and creativity. I have found the research and analysis by Lake and the center she heads to be consistently worth attention during this period. Here’s one of the things she said in the interview: “What’s killed me since the beginning of the pandemic is the lack of urgency and the lack of creative solutions that we’re hearing about.”

Lake said that nationwide, whether kids are in school in-person or virtually, “they’re suffering. to some degree. It’s been jolting, there’s been a lot of social isolation . . . this is a tough time for teenagers.” And in the broad picture, it appears that “achievement gaps or opportunity gaps are becoming chasms.” Big and energetic steps will be needed in response.

Urgency has been low for many years when it comes to addressing the huge differences in opportunities and outcomes in education for children in the Milwaukee area. Those differences, of course, fall largely along income and racial lines. Are we up for a new commitment to do something about these things as we try to rise from the impact of the pandemic?

Concern for kids. There are sets of students who are dealing with the most difficulties during the pandemic. Lake offered thoughts on some of them:

The increased numbers of kids struggling with mental and emotional issues. One silver lining in the current situation, Lake said, “is the increasing degree to which this is on the radar of school leaders nationwide.” Now what will be done to help?

Kids with special education needs: This period “has been a complete disaster for kids with special needs, just a complete disaster,” Lake said. Again, will they be given enough help to rebound?

What appears to be the large number of students who have just not engaged with school since last March. Lake said many of them weren’t doing well in school before the pandemic and one good step now would be to ask questions that have needed more attention for a long time, such as, “what is it about schooling that they really hate so much that they’re willing to just throw it all aside? Can we use this moment to go to them and say, hey, what would be exciting to you, can we build something that would give you your degree and be exciting and meaningful to you?”

Co-operation and unity. Another highlight from the Law School’s program: Matthew Joynt, superintendent of Mequon-Thiensville School, was asked by my colleague, Mike Gousha, about politics during the pandemic.

Joynt’s response is worth quoting at length:

“Politics and how it interplays with schools in the pandemic has affected our teachers and our staff as well. It is part of what has created the increased tension and anxiousness as our employees, our teachers, have worked to meet student needs. To be honest with you, Mike, when I look back on the pandemic one day, it will be the area where I will say I am most disappointed.

“If you had asked me a year ago about education and its place in politics, I would have proudly told you that I was a superintendent in an era where education . . . brought the right and left together. And here, one year later, . . .  it’s the opposite. Education has become a place that the right and left work to grab and use against one another. And I think it’s really unfortunate because if there is something to come together around, it’s our children and it’s our future, and that’s the role that education plays. So I’ll be honest in answering the question. The politics related to the pandemic and what schools should and shouldn’t look like from the perspective of others is the part that has disappointed me the most.”

As things overall trend gradually toward more normal school life, the schools, communities and states that do well in dealing with intangibles like these will be in the best positions to deal with the formidable tangible issues in front of them and with getting students on the best possible paths.

Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at The March 2 program on the state of K-12 education may be viewed at







Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.