[Original article:Kids Can Recover From Missing Even A Lot Of School]


Many commenters shared their own stories of missing lots of school and bouncing back from it. For example, Rachel E:

I was unschooled until I was 15, I’m pursuing a PhD now. Catching up on the basics wasn’t easy but only took a few months. There are still a bunch of random general knowledge things I don’t know, but at most it’s caused a moment of embarrassment in social situations (e.g., when I genuinely thought dinosaurs were mythical creatures). BUT I was motivated to catch up, which I think makes a big difference. I’d say most kids probably don’t care too much about their education, so for them, missing school might matter more

And ral:

Hear, hear. I had serious medical problems in grade 5, needed a major surgery in grade 6, and was told I’d have to miss a year. My parents tried homeschooling, rigorously followed a bunch of curricula, and discovered I could finish all the assigned coursework in 2 hours/day and spend the rest of the time reading my favorite books. We were so unimpressed by the time wasted in “regular school” that we kept homeschooling another 2 years. I now have a PhD, but those were among the best days of my life.

And Pepe:

If you are interested in an anecdote: I did not go to high school (well, attended for two or three months) and now I have a PhD from a very good university. Not receiving any formal education between the ages of 16 and 23 does not seem to have affected my ability to do college (and later grad school) level work.

And Magus:

I’m homeschooling 6 kids, with the oldest two in college now, having started when they were 13-14. So far they’re doing well, better GPA than school educated me at an equally good college. This is in spite of a total of 6-10 hours per week of instruction before college. They all proceed at their own pace, but I predict the rest of them will follow their elder siblings in starting college early and finishing in 4-5 years. This tells me that smart kids don’t get much at all from school. I remember it mostly as busywork and a waste of time, and I’m happy that I get a chance to spare my children that misery.

I’m including Magus’ story for the “6-10 hours per week of instruction” comment, which is about 20% of what a normal student gets and should probably count as some of the way to unschooling. This seemed to be a popular theme among these kinds of comments, second only to the inevitable “…and now I have a PhD”.

I’d be interested in hearing stories from some of these people about getting into college. Was it hard without a GPA? Did admissions officers treat your unschooling or homeschooling as a positive or a negative? Did people give you advice on what to do?


Another common theme was that I underestimate how bad missing school could be for poorer children. From David Roberts:

For the at risk kids, school closing is a disaster. Imagine a kid living in a homeless shelter or a kid whose parents are terrible role models or, worse, abusive, or a kid who doesn’t have enough to eat. For those kids, school may be their only oasis of normalcy. Without school, they will at minimum suffer and might permanently lose a chance at a decent life. This has little to do with test scores and everything to do with socialization and having adults in their lives who care.

And Dan:

Yeah, came here to say this. I remember articles from last spring talking about how all the rich kids would be fine, and the high school kids would survive (education-wise), but things could turn out really bad in the long term for elementary school kids from families with non-helicopter parents.

(Of course, to the extent that this article is “Contra Helicopter Parents on Educational Outcomes” it would still be correct, but it might be missing other real problems while disproving their fake ones.)

And Emily:

A lot of kids in DC missed nearly a year and a half of in-person school, and we don’t know how many of them also had very little involvement with virtual school. We have some data on learning loss already, and the real story is probably worse because we’re not tracking anything for the kids who weren’t present enough to take tests. I agree with the conclusion of this, which is that if you’re the kind of parent who is an SSC reader, your young kids are probably not going to permanently academically affected in any way by not having school for awhile.

But from the perspective of ‘should we keep schools closed this year’ - which is the perspective I am personally terrified of right now - this is a disaster on a number of levels. We see the kids who were already the worst-off losing the most learning. We don’t know how many kids just aren’t going to come back at all. (Chronic truancy already having been a major issue, it’s not like we’re great at making teenagers go to school if they don’t want to.) Our teen (and tween) carjacking sprees certainly aren’t being helped by not having kids in school. And the message that our city government has sent parents who do think it’s important kids be in school is so negative for trust in institutions.

And from a slightly different direction, Argentus:

I think there’s a few places where missing school would have outsize effects. One is if the kid had some kind of treatable problem (say ADHD) that the parents are not equipped to identify but that possibly somebody at school might recommend taking the kid in for testing. Granted this could still be identified once the kid goes back to school, but if you assume the parent will fail to notice it forever but some teacher/counselor/whoever might notice it, then less exposure to the people who might notice will reduce the chance it ever gets noticed. For people who don’t find this plausible, do not underestimate the inability of many low income or rural parents to think in these terms. My sister was not diagnosed with ADHD until she was in late high school and was prescribed Ritalin. It was literally life changing for her. It never occurred to my parents to think of her various behavioral problems in terms of anything except childish defiance they could fix with rules.

One thing I gather from all of these comments, especially David’s, is the idea of school as being covert social services for poor children.

It would be hard to openly have social services for poor children. Partly this is because Americans don’t like paying for anything that’s too openly a social service aimed at the poor, which means a lot of social service work gets picked up by other systems in roundabout inefficient ways.

And partly it’s because a lot of the service being provided is (taking David’s description seriously) something like “your home environment sucks, we are going to make you spend time with normal people in a normal environment in the hopes that some of it rubs off on you”. Framed that way, it sounds pretty offensive, kind of adjacent to “you are unqualified to raise this kid, so please turn them over to the government”. If you openly asked parents in dysfunctional families to do this, they would probably revolt. But forcing everybody get your social service, even the people from functional families who don’t need it, is a pretty neat trick for looking less sinister.


The points above argued that closing school might increase inequality (I think all the cool people are calling it “inequity” these days, but I am not that cool). But a few commenters thought that actually, Zoom school is worse than nothing on that front. For example, DasKlaus:

My mother, a teacher at a regional school in Germany (regional schools being the type of school that doesn’t qualify you for university, it’s grades 5-10) (in a bad neighbourhood, if it matters), has observed that [in online school] about half the students did their homework assignments and tried to keep up (or their parents made them) whereas the other half didn’t really do anything at all - some of the kids don’t have (enough) access to the internet, no room for themselves, siblings they had to care for while the parents used the family computer for work etc, so this is not surprising. (I have heard from other classes in secondary schools where all kids attended Zoom meetings - I expect these are socioeconomic differences).

And to make things even more complicated, here’s eccdogg:

For some kids zoom school was better than in person as far as learning. I think that was definitely the case for my 11 year old. In regular school there are lots of disruptive kids that get in the way of learning. In zoom school those kids just completely checked out, which was bad for them but actually good for my daughter because they were no longer disruptive.


Some random strong critiques of my post that I admit I missed or didn’t integrate well enough, starting with neill_here:

NOLA lost about 1/2 its population after Katrina. Also, Case studies of neighborhood recovery show that more-advantaged neighborhoods before Katrina have higher rates of return, and even gain new residents, while disadvantaged neighborhoods remain sparsely populated (Elliott et al. 2009).”

…this being a rebuttal of my point that New Orleans kids seemed to do well (compared to their previous baseline) after missing a lot of school post-Katrina.


This article cites a number of studies about various incidents that disrupted education, including Hurricane Katrina, the bombing of German cities during WWII, the Blitz, and the closing of the public school system in Prince Edward County, Virginia after Brown v. Board, that claim to have found long-lasting effects though I’m sure some of them suffer from the problems you mentioned.

I acknowledge that there are always more studies. I tried to find all of them (or at least a good cross-section of the most relevant ones) before posting, but I guess I missed these. I haven’t looked at them yet, but I’ll try to do so if I post about this topic again.

And Josh Winslow:

Something that was missing from almost all of those studies is a measurement of resources required for catching the students back up. Almost all systems have some stabilizing mechanisms to help bring up students who e.g. got cancer back up to grade level (extra attention by classroom teachers, special ed, social workers, etc). Even disasters come with extra resources in the US to help support the students. Just because a system kept results within it’s normal parameters during normal times doesn’t imply it can do so during abnormal times. Looked at from this lens the Pakistan study looks much worse.

I predict that even without too many extra resources kids will catch up eventually, but I admit this is a plausible alternate explanation for the phenomenon of kids catching up.


Another common category of post was “even if missing school doesn’t harm test scores, it probably affects some more complicated form of learning or understanding or academic engagement”. So, for example, Shawn:

I think that test scores are the wrong thing to look at. I suspect the main benefits of grade school come from getting improved socialization and developing better strategies for general learning/problem solving. Like in your Spanish example, I also don’t remember the majority of my second-language education from grade school, but I feel like the experience alone let me explore a lot of new ways of thinking.

And Carl Pham:

You also learn a great deal of categorization and existence knowledge. For example, while Scott does not remember Guassian elimination, he knows something called that actually exists, that it’s relevant in math, probably algebra. That means if he hears “Gaussian elimination” in some context later on, he knows enough to roughly place the idea – it has something to do with algebra – which means he’s about 80% of the way to being able to use the idea, all he needs now is some decent google-fu.

This is a very important part of education, which naive people often overlook when they contemplate how much factual knowledge has evaporated from memory over time. Learning sets of facts brings with it some additional meta-factual knowledge, including about the existence and categorization of facts, which usually sticks around long after the facts have evaporated, and which allows the human mind to recover the knowledge much faster than someone who never learned the facts at all (especially in this era of search-at-your-fingertips).

And Mr. Doolittle:

I certainly agree with this, but there is value in learning culturally relevant things that others will also learn. It amazes me when my kids come home from school having learned the same folk story cultural things (like Johnny Appleseed, but including songs, anecdotal stories, patriotism, etc.) that I did. There’s a baseline for communal living that helps groups of people who have very little reason to ever meet still have shared values and understandings. If we all just do our own thing, then we might be better individuals in a worse society.

And Ivan Fyodorovich:

Sure, I’m a molecular biologist and I don’t use much beyond biology and general literacy. But to figure out I wanted to be a biologist I had to learn a lot of stuff. I figured out that I liked traveling but had no faculty for languages. I learned that I loved reading history but disliked doing historical research. I was good at math by normal human standards but not future mathematician/physicist standards. I liked devising chemical syntheses on paper but not doing them in the lab. But I really liked and had an aptitude for molecular bio, and that’s what I do.

And Phil H:

One further reflection: I think Scott’s “we forget most of what we get taught in school” is not such an important point as he suggests. Because in that process, you learn something massively important: that you can pick up skills as needed. We never need long division after school, but we remember perfectly well that we learned it in 5th grade or whatever, and so we know we can learn it again. All of that learned-and-forgotten stuff does two things: (1) it maps out the sphere of knowledge, so we are aware that there’s stuff beyond the things that we use in our day-to-day; (2) it gives us experience of learning stuff as required, so we have confidence to learn new stuff later.

And Matt H:

The argument “because we forget much of what we learn in school, school isn’t important” proves too much. I forget the content of most books I read years later. Is it not important to read books? No, I say – those books affected me and had some small impact on my character and thinking. I have forgotten a lot of math since college, but learning the mathematics was still valuable because it taught me how to think mathematically. Same applies to sports. Most kids won’t end up playing professional sports, so should they not bother playing while young? I actually think that competition is important – kids learn what they can and cannot do.

And dorsophilia:

During the pandemic a lot of kids sat at home bored out of their minds, wasting away on their laptops, melting into twitter and facebook, eating bonbons, and getting fat. They missed badmouthing their teachers and playing jokes on their friends, having tween relationships, and playing sports. No chess club, robotics, jazz band, or lacrosse. Many parents saw their kids wasting away so they ponied up the big bucks for private schools that stayed open. One of my elementary-age daughters got into Finnish hobbyhorsing through school. The school does expose kids to things they would not see at home. None of this is measured on tests…

It sure is lucky that this institution, created by long-dead Puritans to teach reading and arithmetic, coincidentally ended up having all of these totally different benefits, any one of which would be sufficient justification for keeping it around!

Eliezer Yudkowsky tells a parable about a society where people hit themselves on the head with a baseball bat eight hours a day for some reason. Maybe they believe it drives out demons or something. Then they learn that it does not, in fact, drive out demons. But everyone has great reasons why they need to keep doing it.

“It’s a great way to increase your pain tolerance so that the little things in life don’t bother you as much.”

“It builds character!”

“Every hour you’re hitting yourself on the head with a bat is an hour you’re not out on the street, doing drugs and committing crime.”

“It increases the demand for bats, which stimulates the lumber industry, which means we’ll have surplus lumber available in case of a disaster.”

“It improves strength and hand-eye coordination.”

“It may not literally drive out demons, but it’s a powerful social reminder of our shared commitment for demons to be driven out.”

“It’s one of the few things that everyone, rich or poor, black or white, man or woman, all do together, which means it crosses boundaries and builds a shared identity.”

“It binds us to our forefathers, who hit their own heads with bats eight hours a day.”

“If we stopped forcing everyone to do it, better-informed rich people would probably be the first to abandon the practice. And then they would have fewer concussions than poor people, which would promote inequality.”

“It creates jobs for bat-makers, bat-sellers, and the overseers who watch us to make sure we bang for a full eight hours.”

“Sometimes people collapse of exhaustion after only six hours, and that’s the first sign that they have a serious disease, and then they’re able to get diagnosed and treated. If we didn’t make them bang bats into their heads for eight hours, it would take much longer to catch their condition.”

“Chesterton’s fence!”

None of these are false per se. Banging a bat against your head for eight hours a day does have lots of advantages. They’re just not advantages that would cause us to want to take up the practice if we weren’t already used to it.

Eliezer brings this up as part of his project of teaching rationality, and it’s a great example. What do you do in a world where people can easily generate superficially-plausible reasons for hitting your head with a bat for eight hours? Abandon reason entirely? But then you’re left with social convention, which in this case is hitting your head with a bat. Some kind of really rigorous cost-benefit analysis? I don’t want to say this is impossible, but it would be pretty hard, and I would hate for anything important to hinge on getting it right.

I don’t think we have a great solution yet, which is why we always talk about “the rationalist project” and not “the rationalist solved problem”. But I get nervous when I see a giant institution with lots of really legible costs, whose legible benefits don’t withstand scrutiny, and people proposing a bunch of very diverse, kind of flaky sounding illegible benefits that mean we should still force everyone to participate in it.

That’s my general objection. I also have a more specific objection, which is that everyone seems to think school has some sort of special ability to produce these illegible benefits - if we weren’t exposing kids to new things and new ideas at school, it would just never happen. Let me pick on the last comment in particular. Just to jog your memory, it was:

During the pandemic a lot of kids sat at home bored out of their minds, wasting away on their laptops, melting into twitter and Facebook, eating bonbons, and getting fat. They missed badmouthing their teachers and playing jokes on their friends, having tween relationships, and playing sports. No chess club, robotics, jazz band, or lacrosse. Many parents saw their kids wasting away so they ponied up the big bucks for private schools that stayed open. One of my elementary-age daughters got into Finnish hobbyhorsing through school. The school does expose kids to things they would not see at home. None of this is measured on tests.

I always distrust adults who talk about how “bored out of their mind” kids are, because my mother would accuse me of being this person. “Oh, you say you hate school now, but once summer vacation starts, you’ll be bored out of your mind.” Then summer vacation would start and I would have an amazing time, and catch up on all the cool things I had wanted to learn about that I hadn’t been able to during the school year, and do lots of great activities. And then school would start again and I would be sitting in a mind-numbing classroom all day, stuck doing review worksheets for material we had learned five times before. And I would complain, and again my mother would say “Oh, but last time you were off school I’m pretty sure you hated it.” I’m pretty sure I eventually learned to telegraph how much fun I was having so frequently and obnoxiously that my mother gave up.

But also - I looked up what Finnish hobbyhorsing is. It’s a thing where you ride toy horses on sticks as if they were real horses, and pretend that you are galloping and cantering and breeding important Arabian thoroughbreds and stuff. I don’t want to make fun of this; it seems fun and imaginative, and it’s a harmless hobby that a lot of people enjoy. But it doesn’t seem so obviously non-make-fun-of-able that it should get to go around making fun of everyone else. If you are going to go around pretending that your toy horse is real, I feel like you owe it to other people to accept that their preferences might be valid too.

When I was young, a lot of these kids who were “wasting away on their laptops” after school were learning to code , something which - back in the dark days of 2000 - got pooh-poohed by adults. “My son is so addicted to videogames that he doesn’t just play them, he even spends all day reading tutorials on the Internet so he can make mods for them. If only he was at school for longer so they could make him do something cool, like Finnish hobbyhorsing!”

Obligatory xkcd (source)

There’s this weird trap a lot of adults fall into where anything a kid does on their own, however interesting, is “wasting away”, and anything they do at school, however ridiculous, is Exciting Prosocial Learning Fun Glowing Childhood Memories. I think this might be entirely a function of whether the parents can spectate and take pictures that look good on a mantlepiece: easy with hobbyhorsing, harder with learning C++.

My neighbors have a four year old kid, and every day she comes up with games at least as imaginative as riding a toy horse and pretending that it’s real. The hobbyhorsing comment gets dangerously close to the idea that kids need adults to force them to play pretend, according to predetermined adult-made rules, or else they’ll never learn to have imagination. But if you just stop forcing kids to be sitting in school, or sitting in their room doing homework, during the time when they would otherwise be inventing these things, they will come up with things so much more brilliant than this. My own teenage hobbies looked to all the world like me sitting on a laptop, but I will put them up against hobbyhorsing on any axis you might care about, and I remain deeply grateful that I had enough time off from school and its stupid forced fake fun to develop them.

…sorry for getting so animated here, but this topic is my hobbyhorse. On another level, I 100% get where this stuff is coming from. I don’t have kids yet, but even now I’m scared that my future kid might be an Internet addict. Or wander into the wrong part of social media and become alt-right, or dirtbag left, or one of those people who quote-tweet Vox articles with the comment “This”. I laughed at my parents for having these kinds of fears, and my parents’ fears ended up completely wrong, and now I have those same dumb fears in turn. I don’t plan to fully unschool my children. I do plan to make them “try new things”, maybe even including Finnish hobbyhorsing. If they seem too relaxed all the time, I will have the usual parental worries that they’re getting soft and flabby and will not survive the winter. We just know so little about child-rearing that any deviation from the norm is scary, and there does seem to be a norm of “make sure your kids have some really tough experiences”. I’ve written about this before here. This kind of parent-child conflict is inevitable. Maybe the best I can do is try to avoid the very specific problems that traumatized me personally.

Though I also wonder if we could do what Nassim Taleb calls a barbell strategy. Let kids have fun some of the time, then do something crazy and challenging some other time - instead of forcing them to sit at a desk for 20,000 hours filling in worksheets with a few forced quirky hobbies thrown in here and there.


From the Twitter comments:

I got a lot of comments like these, and they kind of concerned me.

Yeah, I have some anti-school positions. But I was trying not to show them in the post. The post was aimed at generally pro-school people who were freaking out over the possibility of their kids missing a few months of school because of COVID, and I tried to meet them on their level. The fact that you can miss a few months of school and still do well academically, is no different in principle from that fact that you can miss a few months of training, and still become a world-class athlete. Great athletes miss a few months of training all the time, for injuries or something, and nobody ever says “oh, she missed six months of training, now she’ll never catch up to all those other athletes who have six months more training than she does”.

(this is actually kind of surprising, and I’d love to have a deeper model of what’s going on here)

But this is compatible with “training is valuable for athletes.” So my post wasn’t, in and of itself, meant to be an argument that school was valueless. Just that school had the same property as athletic training, where even though it might be valuable, missing a few months doesn’t hurt. Separately, not expressed in the post, I believed that school wasn’t that valuable for a lot of people. But I tried not to express it! But everyone acted as if I expressed it anyway!

I’m wondering whether people who knew my opinions elsewhere used them as context, or whether I failed to restrain myself and stick to the topic as well as I’d hoped.

There’s also an ethical issue here: is it okay to make the weaker point “you can recover from missing some school” and convince a lot of nice conventional-minded people that I’m on their side, when secretly I believe the much stronger claim that school itself might not be too valuable for a lot of people? I hadn’t thought of this as an ethical question at all, but at some point I saw someone refer to one of my stronger claims as “the mask comes off”, eg “he previously said he just wanted common-sense drug regulation, but now the mask comes off and you learn he actually wants to destroy the FDA” (I don’t endorse the word “destroy” here).

I think it’s generally fair to endorse a weaker claim even if you hold a stronger one. For example, a lot of people who want to defund the police, who think all cops are bastards, etc, probably also want to fight police brutality. Suppose one of these people writes an article successfully convincing others that police brutality is bad, and they don’t add “also we should disband policing as an institution”. Or suppose someone whose end goal is a full communist revolution is currently fighting for Medicare For All. Has anything gone wrong here? I would say no. We all have weak claims that we can defend easily and stronger claims that would take more argument, and it’s fair to decide how strongly you want to come off at any given time (as long as you’re not lying and denying you hold the stronger claim).

Maybe this is silly,and I’m defending myself against an attack no real person is making. Serves me right for checking Twitter.


Elsewhere in the world of Twitter takes I probably shouldn’t be reading - an epidemiologist wrote this tweet:

…and everyone roasted it harder than anyone had ever roasted anything before. EG Nate Silver:

Even the usually-restrained Tyler Cowen got in on it:

I really don’t view MR or links as a chance to dunk on people, but this is so, so wrong, and so indicative of the problems with public health “experts.” More here. That is an example, and in my view an instructive one, but really not interested in making this about any particular person. It was in turn taught by someone else, and it is believed by many in the field. The actual reality is that even very poorly educated Americans, on the whole, hold more sensible views than that.

I’m grateful that people aren’t as angry at me as they are with this person, but I’m not sure why - I feel like I was making a pretty similar point. Granted, I don’t care too much about closing schools - I guess I want parents/kids who want to go to school to be allowed to (and feel socially sanctioned to), and those who don’t want to etc. I still feel like she deserved better.


The most charming part of the comments was the subthread on CS Lewis, starting here. I’ll just quote FLWAB’s comment:

In “Prince Caspian” when Aslan goes around freeing the kingdom from Telmarine tyranny one of the first places he stops is a school building, which he magically turns into a forest glade. C. S. Lewis didn’t like school, and for good reason. He was tutored by his mother until she died of cancer while he was young. Then he was sent to an awful boarding school in Britain, where the headmaster was suffering from some kind of mental disorder and only taught geometry: the rest of the “lessons” consisted of him randomly choosing kids to answer questions on various topics and beating them with a cane if they got it wrong. After the school folded (due to not teaching anything and having a crazy headmaster) he was sent to a much better boarding school where he didn’t have a great time. Quoting from his autobiography: “Never, except in the front line trenches (and not always there) do I remember such aching and continuous weariness as at (school). Oh, the implacable day, the horror of waking, the endless desert of hours that separated one from bed-time! And remember…a school day contains hardly any leisure for a boy who does not like games. For him, to pass from the form-room to the playing field is simply to exchange work in which he can take some interest for work in which he can take none, in which failure is more severely punished, and in which (worst of all) he must feign an interest…Consciousness itself was becoming the supreme evil; sleep, the prime good. To lie down, to be out of the sound of voices, to pretend and grimace and evade and slink no more, that was the object of all desire–if only there were not another morning ahead–if only sleep could last for ever!”

Then after a couple years of this his father took him out of school to be educated by a private tutor. He writes about how his father tried to prepare him for the change: “He did his best to put all the risks before me: the dangers of solitude, the sudden change from the life and bustle of a great school (which change I might not like so much as I anticipated), the possibly deadening effect of living with only an old man and his old wife for company. Should I really be happy with no companions of my own age? I tried to look very grave at these questions. But it was all imposture. My heart laughed. Happy without other boys? Happy without toothache, without chilblains, happy without pebbles in my shoes? And so the arrangement was made. If it had had nothing else to recommend it, the mere thought, ‘Never, never, never, shall I have to play games again,’ was enough to transport me. If you want to know how I felt, imagine your own feelings on waking one morning to find that income tax or unrequited love had somehow vanished from the world.”

So yeah, C. S. Lewis hated school big time.