Two Terrible Ways Schools Rob Children Of Their Futures—And Make Money Doing So

I recently discussed with a colleague one of the oddities many of us continually encounter when teaching college students, and we both agreed this is one of the maddening truths of dealing with high school graduates today: They simply do not believe us when we explain that they will fail our courses if they neglect to pay attention and do the work we have assigned.  

However, the sheer incredulity that I sometimes encounter when I explain to a young adult that they have flunked is perfectly understandable to me.  We are often today dealing with students who were pencil-whipped through their high school courses, offered phony-baloney credit recovery for those classes where they did not even bother to attend, and were generally taught nothing in K-12 other than that there is no actual consequence for steadfast ignorance.  Therefore, why should they believe that their college teacher has no intention for passing them just because they are carbon-based life forms?  Was this ever the case during their 13 year plod through public schooling?  

Probably not.

K-12 education in America is typical of most entrenched government bureaucracies: There is no connection at all between pay and performance.  In fact, given that school funding is typically tied to nothing other than mere daily attendance, there is truly no incentive for anyone to bother with teaching and learning.  Your local public school will get their cash from local taxes, state funding, and federal grants whether students are studying Calculus or sleeping through a film on penguin reproduction.  Outcomes have no real place in American public education; the point is to keep students in a seat so the funding keeps rolling in.  If youve ever wondered why 35 years of education reform has resulted in negligible results while costing taxpayers a small fortune, this is a good place to begin your inquiry.

This peculiar quirk of how we fund K-12 education perhaps helps to explain at least some portion of the attraction to our latest American educational fad: Restorative Justicediscipline in our public schools.  

Despite any reliable research to demonstrate the efficacy of this punishment-light approach to school discipline, one that exchanges suspensions and expulsions of troublemakers with methods more akin to plain wishful thinking, Restorative Justice—“RJin todays lingohas taken hold across the nation.  Aside from promising that a more nurturing and sensitive approach is somehow better than dealing forcefully with those who disrupt classes, instill fear, and injure others, this method also puts money directly into the pockets of any district that adopts it because students who are expelled or suspended do not count as being in attendance, which means the money that follows them in the door will not be forthcoming.  Consequently, RJ can be a moneymaker disguised as compassionalthough the compassion seems to extend not at all to the victims of the bullies, stalkers, and abusers who now need not fear many (if any) consequences for causing physical and emotional harm to others.

Forgiveness does, of course, have a place in the classroom because young people always make mistakes, which is the reason we place them under the care and supervision of adults, and learning from mistakes is a necessary part of emotional maturation and development.  

Therefore, public schools have an obligation to model and teach the necessity of engaging in respectful behavior, obeying reasonable rulesand accepting the punishment that follows if respect is not offered and rules are not followed.  The alternative is to enable the most selfish attitudes and the rudest possible behavior among our young, which is going to further harm these children and adolescents as they proceed through life and discover just how many doors are closed to them due to learning from their public schools that lashing out has no consequence attached.  Educators who tacitly encourage misbehavior by failing to nip it in the bud are actively harming the young people in their care, and parents should be appalled at what is being taught—or not being taught—to their children through the Restorative Justice model of school discipline.

The same misguided compassion(not to mention the same yearning for the cash tied to school attendance) that informs our nations misbegotten embrace of Restorative Justice also animates the continued movement toward dramatically reducingor outright banninghomework in our nations public schools.  Setting aside for a moment the boon these practices provide for classroom teachers who will no longer need to deal with stacks of assignments to grade, policies that reduce or eliminate homework also keep many students coming to school because the stress of the academic workload is dramatically lessened.  Everyone may enjoy the opportunity to relax more and study less, but the negative impacts are rarely discussed.

Although some argue that any policy that keeps students in school is most definitely a good one, it must be pointed out that actual learning requires mastering the skills necessary to study andwork independently.  Moreover, the complex and time-intensive assignments that are necessary in middle and high school to enable students to learn the higher level academic skills they will need later in lifeparticularly if college is part of their life plansimply cannot be squished into the confines of the regular school day.  Homework is a critical adjunct to classroom instruction, and the failure to learn how study and work independently perhaps helps to explain why 30% of college freshman across our nation do not return for their sophomore yearsthey are simply unable to sustain the study habits necessary for classroom success.  

Would assigning and grading homework in K-12 have helped the millions of students who will abandon higher education this year? Would abandoning Restorative Justice discipline policies improve our schools and help our students?  I would argue that the answer is yes to both questions, but I am certain the Education professors will continue to publish academic papers suggesting otherwise.  Why is this the case?  Darned if I know, but at least their learned studies provide plenty of cover for school districts who care more about the cash tied to attendance than providing safe and academically sound classrooms for our nations children.

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The Fluid “Truths” Of Statistics

Over the past half century we have, as I have pointed out before, increasingly turned over the management of our nation to credentialed experts. These experts direct virtually every aspect of our lives based on jargon-filled studies and massive data sets, which purport to show that all their recommendations and actions are in our best interests. To question their judgments is to question logic and reason itself—and will earn you a whomp on the head with the latest edition of The Journal of Unquestionable Truths.

However, as statisticians have known for a very long time, the problem with data is that it can be readily manipulated—and deceptively compiled, selectively presented, or entirely ignored—to “prove” whatever you might wish. This numerical black magic is a boon to politicians who need to either direct attention away from their own job performances or whoop up anger to win votes.

One well-worn way to conceal the truth is to use methods of measurement that define the problem away. The official U.S. unemployment rate is a fine example of this chicanery. In order to be considered unemployed, you must have actively sought employment—that is, applied for a job—during the previous four weeks, which does a wonderful job eliminating discouraged workers and those for whom no suitable job openings are presently available. Moreover, you are no longer considered unemployed if you work a single hour—yes, one hour!—during an entire week. Very few people can purchase food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare with just one hour of pay, so this seems like the cruelest gaming of the numbers imaginable.

It has been variously estimated that the actual unemployment rate would double—or even triple—if a more honest accounting of those driven out of the job market or unable to secure full-time work were used, but I would not hold my breath waiting for this day to come. Comforting half-truths boost the reelections of many incumbents and must be maintained.

Another handy trick for misleading the public is to present data without context in order to support a narrative that would be contradicted were the full story actually to be told. Given the national attention now being paid to the issue of fatal police shootings of African-Americans—which is a matter that should always be of the keenest possible concern—one would hope politicians would focus upon sober facts in order to avoid inflaming public opinion and causing unnecessary fear of the police, but this is unfortunately not always the case.

Most would probably be amazed that during 2017, the last full year for which statistics are available, less than 1000 people were killed by the police in the United States. Roughly a quarter of these cases involved civilians who were mentally ill, in only 7% of these cases was the person who was shot unarmed, almost a third were fleeing the police—and roughly twice as many whites as blacks were killed by the police that year. It must also must be noted, were one interested in facts, that 135 police officers died from duty-related causes during this same year.

Although the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the small subset of unarmed African-Americans killed by the police must be carefully reviewed for signs of incompetence, bias, or malfeasance—and the officers involved punished if this is the case—we should not be routinely and loudly characterizing police officers as wanton murderers and racists. The facts do not support these assertions. As is often the case, the truth is much more complex and frustrating, and simplistic and dubious mischaracterizations interfere with the core mission of law enforcement, which is to apprehend the accused and protect the public from criminals.

A final way to fudge statistics is both simple and startling: ignore them altogether. We see this method most visibly used when it comes to reporting on the academic outcomes of our nation’s K-12 public schools and the students who attend them. Even though voluminous data on academic progress and college/career readiness is readily available across the nation—and helpfully broken down by individual schools and school districts—think carefully about the coverage you see on a daily basis about the public schools in your area. Most of the stories focus upon charming human interest topics such as high school athletes triumphing over adversity, trips to petting zoos and museums, sweet middle school students raising money for charity, teachers attending conferences, principals engaging in goofy stunts to raise school spirit, or retirees reminiscing about their careers.

One would be hard-pressed to ascertain from the occasional dribble of actual data provided by the media that American public education performs very poorly overall—and at far greater expense—compared to other nations, American college students continue to flunk out at astonishing rates due to weak K-12 academic preparation, and public school teachers are abandoning the profession in droves due to problems with disrespect, threats, and violence from both students and their parents. Education reporting seems to have, in many cases, abandoned actual investigation and inquiry in favor of rewriting glowing press releases because criticizing public schools risks offending powerful constituencies that include local businesses, construction companies, real estate agents, and neighborhood organizations—all of whom have a stake in the illusion of successful local schools for reasons both personal and financial.

Numbers do matter, and we ignore troubling trends and ongoing problems at our own peril. The peculiar lack of national coverage concerning our mounting and terrifying public sector budget deficits and debts is a fine example of a looming and significant problem that is largely absent from our 24/7 news cycles. As much as we enjoy our daily diets of scandal, silliness, and celebrity gossip, perhaps—just as the regular consumption of sugary sweets eventually rots the teeth—the consumption of “news” that provides no complete or reliable data to support its dishonest assertions and wild accusations is contributing mightily to our horrifying and destructive civic rot.

The Roots of American Despair

We have long assumed that America is the “Land of Opportunity” for all. Our national belief that everyone is free to succeed—or fail—based on their hard work and personal initiative is a key component of both our self-perceptions and our perceptions of those around us.

However, international rankings of social mobility show that many other nations now surpass the United States in terms of their citizens being able to rise above the socio-economic classes of their births. This increasingly obvious disconnect between our preferred myth and harsh reality is likely one of the root causes of the political and social discontent that has pervaded our nation for many years. Americans, who are generally very hardworking, are perfectly willing to sweat and sacrifice—if there is a payoff. If, however, we are simply treading water or, worse yet, falling deeper into debt and dysfunction each day, our frustrations are likely to boil over.

Although there are many reasons for our extraordinarily divided politics, perhaps we fail to properly acknowledge the role of stagnated social mobility in driving American anger regarding our lives and our leaders. Whether it is the case that our futures are more and more being circumscribed by government that is too activist—or are harmed by government that is not activist enough—is a topic for a very long discussion that will likely do little to sway opinions entrenched on either side of this issue.

It can plausibly be argued that a great many problems that impede social mobility—rampant drug use, single parenthood, poor work habits, lack of personal initiative, the relocation of manufacturing jobs overseas, escalating public and private debts, and a disregard for personal responsibility—have been encouraged by government programs and policies that sometimes seem designed to produce the most destructive possible consequences for individuals and society. However, others argue that it is precisely a lack of more expensive and expansive government programs that leaves so many Americans without the tools they need to improve their lives.

Although I agree that we do sometimes need targeted programs to alleviate local and national problems—I would, for example, love to see more attention paid to our crumbling infrastructure—I also fear the many well-intentioned elected officials, bureaucrats, and policy wonks who seem to excel at producing the least possible benefit at the highest possible price. Anyone who has, as I have, watched a half-century of progressive educational dogma produce generation after generation of students who know very little—but feel really, really good about their ignorance—has to seriously question why any rational person would ever listen to a politician or PhD who claims to be able to improve our lives. Self-esteem, as I have often pointed out, can easily cross the line into self-delusion—and sheer stupidity is one of the most powerful precursors to lifelong poverty.

Access to a quality K-12 education—and the lack thereof—is both one of the persistent challenges now suppressing social mobility and a possible solution to this problem. Effective public schools are probably our single most important mechanism for promoting social mobility. Their continued failures over the past fifty years or so are both very visible and very depressing. We hear the outcome of public schools that fail to educate when employers consistently complain of high school graduates who lack the basic skills necessary for work. We see the consequences of public schools that fail to educate in our packed “developmental” classes at colleges and universities—and the many students who slink off after flunking out their freshman years because they lack the basic skills necessary for academic success.

If you want to cripple the futures of your nation’s people, just be certain they can neither read well, write fluently, nor compute accurately when they finish public school. Next offer them a vast array of social programs that discourage independence and encourage irresponsibility. Be certain that you also promote a range of government policies that drive well-paying jobs out of your communities and country while saddling everyone with frighteningly unsustainable levels of debt that will further retard economic growth and opportunity for all. Repeat this process year after year—and generation after generation—and watch Americans become more angry and less hopeful until they finally turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain. Does any of this sound at all familiar?

I don’t worry about Russia; I worry about our own government. Our leaders are much more likely than Vladimir Putin to destroy America—because they want so badly to justify their existence by “helping” us. However, given that the national unemployment rate is currently trending down to levels not seen in half a century, perhaps those who have had their lives sidetracked by decades of government assistance, which has primarily served to assist them into lives of quiet despair, will now have opportunities available to rejoin the labor force, develop a sense of self-confidence heretofore cruelly stripped from them, and begin to reduce some portion of the income inequality that is a legacy of so many decades of government help gone awry.

The Waste Land

Philip Roth recently died. During his long career as a novelist, he won every major award for his work except the Nobel Prize, and he is considered one of the preeminent writers of the late 20th century. However, with all due respect to Mr. Roth’ life and career, I don’t believe very many people outside of the rarified literary salons of the Boston-Washington corridor or a handful of PhD programs elsewhere actually read many of his novels—and he is an apt symbol for the wrong turn our cultural elites took in the post-WW II period.

In order to quickly illustrate my point and avoid a protracted explanation, please allow me to quote directly from Mr. Roth’s obituary in The New York Times: “His creations include Alexander Portnoy, a teenager so libidinous he has sex with both his baseball mitt and the family dinner, and David Kepesh, a professor who turns into an exquisitely sensitive 155-pound female breast.”

How could he have failed to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, you might well ask….

The literary novel—which was once, a long time ago now, built around characters wrestling with weighty matters of personal or social morality—has surrendered its purpose and lost its way. Our prevailing creative norm—in not only novels but movies and television as well—is now to sanctimoniously celebrate the triumphs of individuals over those family, foes, or institutions that fail to allow them to live just as they please. For an audience apparently content to be reassured that anyone who might pass moral judgment is simply hateful, this is somehow sufficient to make a story. Hence, there are generations of readers who, for reasons surpassing all understanding, find it entertaining that Holden Caulfield, the teenaged narrator of A Catcher in the Rye, calls every adult he meets a “phony”. When I had to inflict this novel on my own high school students, I sometimes wondered why this was considered a good use of instructional time, but keener minds than mine had long before determined this was a literary classic worthy of their attention.

The dramatic tension inherent in parsing issues of right and wrong (concepts utterly alien to much of our culture today) once gave the novel its power and cultural significance. Today these are reduced to a predictable polemic pitting the pure-hearted protagonists against an oppressive society that fails to properly recognize their uniqueness and sensitivity. It is little wonder that so much of our artistic output is now snark, pastiche, meta-fiction, satire—or comic book superheroes. To simply and seriously discuss the many complexities of morals or values today is to be hopelessly old-fashioned and overly judgmental.

Imagine our literary classics rewritten for our tolerant—and tech-savvy—modern world. Prince Hamlet today would be furiously and ineffectually tweeting about what a jerk his stepfather was, Ophelia would simply sext with Hamlet behind her father’s back, and Queen Gertrude would be busily working on her next palace podcast about her wonderful remarriage and her own journey of personal self-discovery. Given that all choices are now equally valid and correct, there would be no need for dramatic resolution. Everyone could simply do what they pleased, secure in the knowledge that their individual choices were unassailable, and we could sit back and enjoy the farce inherent in blowhards like Polonius futilely attempting to rein them all in. Ha-ha-ha.

Individual wants and needs are, of course, important; I am not advocating for a world run according to a hive mind mentality that neglects the critical importance of individuals within a larger community or society. However, there comes a point when a single-minded emphasis on individual wonderfulness becomes an empty intellectual exercise because it eventually will exclude any notions of shared duty or self-sacrifice for the common good—which, inconveniently enough, are necessary for a functioning and healthy society.

Adolescent self-satisfaction is, sad to say, now our predominant cultural characteristic, and just as any teenager typically does, we get awfully surly when someone points out that our selfish self-focus might be negatively affecting others. As much as we might want to sit in our rooms and just ignore all those other pesky people in our lives who somehow seem not to understand the importance of our needs, we do sometimes have to acknowledge the needs of others. It sucks, I know, but that’s what adulthood is all about. I might be ruining someone’s day by pointing this out, but a country composed of preening and self-involved individualists can cause as much damage to its citizens and their overall well-being as the most oppressive totalitarian state.

Please allow me to offer another related radical suggestion: That which is outré is not necessarily interesting or worthwhile. Circus “freak shows”, a blessedly discarded component of our entertainment culture, at one time offered viewers a chance to gawk at the physically afflicted. Sadly, we have not progressed much beyond this. Our late 20th and early 21st century cultural and artistic life has become overly enamored with the notion that examining characters and ideas occupying the fringes of our society will reveal heretofore untold truths about ourselves, an approach that, like the circus freak show, offers titillation but no illumination.

Which brings me back to modern literature, which has managed to write itself into irrelevance by mistaking the bizarre and obscure for the profound and life affirming. There is a reason that so many still love the plays of William Shakespeare, find life lessons in the Iliad and Odyssey, revel in the novels and short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or continue to lose themselves in the adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes. These works have survived the test of time because they engage with our minds and souls rather than attempting to shock and repel the average reader. Even those characters who are less than admirable are presented as fully formed—but deeply flawed—human beings rather than two dimensional caricatures of corruption and dysfunction.

If you want people to read your books and—perhaps more importantly—you want your work to be part of our daily cultural dialogue, it might be worth giving your readers a reason to continue to turn the page. Setting up straw men and knocking them down might be satisfying on some simplistic level, but it will only rarely sustain reader interest over the long term because there is no recognition of the difficulties that even the most seemingly insignificant life choices entail. Having your main character furiously masturbate into a piece of liver his family will later consume will shock us—but there is no knowledge or insight to be gained beyond this.

Spiritually and morally bankrupt cultures often privilege the sensational over the conversational. Good authors realize this. The “two minute hates” in George Orwell’s 1984 existed in a fictional culture devoid of humanity. The “feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World were mass entertainment that stimulated rather than engaged their emotionally empty audiences. Our own two minute hates and feelies—now brought to us by our major literary publishers as well as cable television and the internet—are signs of how spiritually and morally bankrupt our culture has become, and we need to seriously discuss just how we can move literature and entertainment back in a direction that can again engage a mass audience in a broader discussion of the values that inform our lives.

A Modest Proposal For Our Public Schools

We live in the age of “big ideas” regarding how we can improve K-12 education in America.

We need personalized learning. Flipped classrooms would help. Teachers and students need to practice mindfulness. We could use more classroom technology—or perhaps less. No child will be left behind. Every student will succeed. I anxiously await the Lake Woebegone Education Act of 2035, which will mandate that every child be certifiably above average.

Let’s face the hard truth right here and now: All these many, many decades of reforms later, real and lasting improvements in K-12 academic outcomes are hard to find, and much of the available evidence points to further systemic declines.

Standardized tests continue to show that huge numbers of students are failing to learn, but apparently we should pay no attention to these test scores because they are nothing but a “snapshot” that fails to capture the “whole child”. As a result, hordes of high school graduates will continue to enroll in college each year—yet be wholly unprepared for college work—and flunk out after a semester or two. This is, however, not a reflection of the work being done (or not being done) at your local public schools. These danged kids must be partying too much.

Local news media—which pretty much operate as transcription services these days—will continue to report that their public schools are doing a fine job because these local television stations and newspapers really have no alternative but to do so. To report honestly about deficient academic measures and outcomes runs the risk of angering homeowners who are worried about their property values and contractors who are equally worried that the latest school construction bond might not pass and hence screw them out of lovely, fat paychecks. Any national or governmental data on broader problems with our country’s public schools do not, of course, apply to the schools in your own community, which the local news media have assured you are doing an excellent job preparing your children for successful futures. The circular logic of it all is a wonder to behold.

However, if a child is willing to sit in a classroom—or anywhere inside the building—so that your local district can collect their daily apportionment of state tax dollars, all will be well. If a student doesn’t like to write, that child can complete an “alternative” assignment—draw something, perhaps? If a child flunks a test, there is no need for worry—the school will likely allow unlimited test retakes. Hate to take notes or study? A student need have no concerns about that—count on a “study guide” the day before the quiz that contains all the answers. If nothing else works, your child can always enroll in a “credit recovery” course where, after watching a few movies and jotting down some random thoughts, full course credit will be expeditiously granted.

There are, of course, still public schools where some standards are maintained—and more and more charter schools are opening to provide alternatives for frustrated parents and students—but the daily reality for many children and adolescents throughout the length and breadth of our nation is maximum busywork and minimum learning. These problems later wash up on the doorsteps of our nation’s beleaguered community colleges, which are expected to somehow remediate 13 empty years of schooling within the span of a single semester.

I have suggestion so radical that to speak it out loud almost tempts a bolt of lightning to strike: Start flunking students who cannot perform to a minimal level of competence, which should translate into skills that would give that student a 50/50 chance of earning a C in a first year college course.

This does not seem an unreasonably high standard to set, and it would both bring some much-needed rigor back into our nation’s public schools and provide some reward for hard work. Our current system of striving to pass any student who can fog a mirror has turned much of our core coursework into a joke and has convinced everyone—students and teachers alike—that caring about learning is a waste of time.

Our unrealistically high graduation rates would obviously dip were we to adopt this standard throughout our nation’s schools, but those who thereafter received a diploma would at least have some assurance they possessed a good portion of the skills necessary to succeed in college or job training—and would not be condemned to a life of nothing other than the most minimally skilled jobs.

As odd as it might be to say this to those many Americans who are unaware of the diploma mills that so many of our public schools have become, implementing and sticking to this standard would entail a shock to the system akin to violent revolution. Rather than just pencil-whipping students through the grades, it would involve actual teaching, assessment, learning, and the many stresses of hard and sustained work—with no guarantee of success—that were once common in our nation’s public schools. Those teachers and administrators who cannot adjust to this new reality would need to be pushed aside, the happy nonsense that consumes so much of the average school day would need to be discarded, and both students and parents would need to face up to the fact that failure is sometimes a necessary stop on the path to actual learning.

Our other option is, of course, to continue to chase every educational fad that comes along, make excuses, and keep right on cheating many, many eighteen year olds of their futures while giving them nothing but an utterly false sense of their own competencies. A renewed commitment to teaching and learning seems an obvious choice to make, but one should never underestimate the corrosive powers of the inertia, laziness, petty politics, and bureaucratic timidity that are the hallmarks of American public education today.