The True Issues Confronting American Education
I must admit that writing on this topic, at this moment in time, made me a bit nervous. In case you haven’t noticed, education — not unlike everything else — has become extrememly politicized. It is no longer just a civic issue, but has exploded into a cultural one as well.
Before I begin, I want to say that I believe in the American system of public education. I am under the opinion that it needs to be updated in ways that people are not talkng about. Therefore, I am not going to delve into any of the current mainstream narratives regarding our system. Rather, I am going to address (what I believe) are key issues that people truly should be concerned with. I ask that you bear with me.
Education is a complex process. For some, this truth came harshly during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when a majority of American public schools had been shuttered. Many of us (for the first time) were forced to see the dynamic roles and extensive range schools have within our communities. As we now all know, the process of education is not just information, quizzes, tests, and grades. It also involves social and emotional development, structure, self expression, discipline, empathy, listening, discovery, and creativity. The whole of education is many things that happen at the same time inside of and as a result of each other. And the roles teachers play goes far beyond the scope of teaching. The work teachers now do involves a broad scope of awareness as well as responsibility.
School — like most things in life — is ultimately about building relationships, and these are not limited to the social kind involving peers, classmates and teachers. The process that is education asks that students also establish relationships with the information they are receiving and studying. This is not just what’s read in books and heard in class, but also includes the opinions and perspectives of peers as well as those of authors and thinkers. “School” isn’t just sitting there in a mindless state listening to rote facts and figures. It’s engaging with information. Playing with it. Considering it. Drinking it in. Discussing it with others. Writing about and expressing how you see and interpret it. Twisting it around. Seeing it from a different perspective. Tangling it up, then untangling it with teachers and classmates. This process means that the relationships between peers, teachers, as well as information must intertwine, mingle, and work together. If our students are going to establish these varied and open relationships, it’s important they come to school open and ready to receive different ideas and perspectives.
And this is where the first issue begins.
The world we currently live in has changed when it comes to human relationships. For many of us, we no longer exist in a world with each other. Rather, we live in a world the other. The other is someone who does not sit on your side of political and/or social issues. Yes, this has always been the case to some extent, but in our current climate this means that you not only do not speak to the other, but you do not respect, listen to, or even consider them. Their perspectives and ideas are wholly intolerable. This skewed view also affects the way you look at them as people. They are no longer fellow humans with different perspectives. They are now insignificant, stupid, and moronic. It’s not just their ideas and words that have been rendered meaningless, but their entire existence. Maybe they are even seen as dangerous.
How is this effecting education?
If kids and young people come to school (or college) with extreme pre-conceived ideas about opposing views, perspectives, words, and language — as well as the individuals who possess them — how do you think this will affect their learning mindset? How will this impact their thoughts and potential creativity? How will this affect their relationships regarding the information and ideas from others? Preconceived ideas that are extreme cut off meaningful and deep discussion which ultimately cut off discovery, and this is a key piece of learning.
The want and need to engage with each other is a natural human instinct. Verbal sparring, spirited discussion, intellectual debate, empathetic listening, as well as the ability to acquiesce, are all essential not only to learning, but also the formation of new and creative ideas. They are also essential ingredients to maintaining a functional democracy. We can’t do that if we keep with our current mindset. And this is really dangerous in the context modern times.
Our kids (and us) currently exist in a world that has experienced monumental shifts socially, emotionally, politically, environmentally, economically, technologically, and (most recently) from a public health perspective. Many of these shifts seem to be doing so on a fairly regular basis. My son (age 22) has already lived through: The September 11th terrorist attacks; The Afghan and Iraq wars; the 2008 global financial crisis; the creation of social media and its massive impact on children’s social and emotional development; three major hurricanes in our region*; the January 6th riot at the US Capitol; and…a global pandemic. There are kids in other regions of the country who (in addition to variations of the aforementioned) have also lived through wildfires; extreme heat events; extreme weather events; and/or the opioid epidemic.
I believe that our politically dysfunctional climate, and subsequent broken discourse, will not allow our kids to be properly educated within a world that is experiencing massive change. Are our kids coming into school with open minds and hearts? Are they being educated to be dynamic and creative individuals? Are they going to be able to come up with creative and dynamic solutions in a world where (in the same year) the state of Texas was paralyzed by a blizzard (which killed over 100 people and knocked out the power for more than 4 million), and the states of Washington and Oregon were crippled by extreme heat (that literally cooked live shellfish on the ocean shore)? Are our kids engaging in the kinds of discussions and exchanges of ideas that will allow for this type of creative growth as well as thinking? Are they open to forming relationships with differentiating opinions in an effort to inspire new ideas and perspectives?
If we don’t allow our kids to hear the other’s ideas and thoughts, we are effectively cutting off the development of their own ideas. If we continue to harbor an intellectual and cultural climate that is not only intolerant, but shut off, where will new ideas come from? How will they develop and grow? The world around us is changing at a rapid pace, and is doing so in real time. A failure, or lack of interest, to engage is not the current formula for success. In fact, it’s the opposite. This climate not only stifles ideas, thoughts and creativity, but is also causing emotional and social stress.
Which brings me to the next issue.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic the rates of anxiety and depression amongst American kids were skyrocketing. The causes were generally seen as multiple: undue pressures caused by social media, lack of outdoor play, social isolation, poverty, and an absurd amount of pressure to succeed at everything they do. Prior to the pandemic, the CDC produced the following statistics regarding neurological based disabilities in American kids:
- 3.2% of children aged 3–17 years (approximately 1.9 million) have diagnosed depression.
- 7.1% of children aged 3–17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety.
- 7.4% of children aged 3–17 years (approximately 4.5 million) have a diagnosed behavior problem.
- 9.4% of children aged 2–17 years (approximately 6.1 million) have received an ADHD diagnosis.
These numbers have undoubtedly increased since the pandemic began.
As I was writing this essay Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, held a press conference to release a report titled Protecting Youth Mental Health. In the report, it is stated that our kid’s mental health is in crisis. Some of the reasons cited: “…legitimate, and distressing, issues like climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the opioid epidemic and gun violence…” The report goes on to talk about how the pandemic not only heightened isolation, but also kid’s and young people’s feelings of disconnect from others.
I have a friend who has a middle school aged daughter. Her daughter’s school was remote for all of last school year, but returned to full-time in-person instruction this year. In addition to wearing masks, the kids don’t go to their lockers (as to avoid crowding) and carry all of their books around in their backpacks all day. A teacher told my friend that during class changes, many of the kids — in addition to being hampered by the cumbersome weight of their backpacks — appear to have forgotten how to navigate the hallways. She said kids are (literally) falling down on the floor.
One of my private piano students (a high school junior) recently told me that because of masking, he has yet to see any of his teacher’s actual faces. In fact he told me he saw one of his teachers from last year without their mask and didn’t recognize her.
On top of all this, December saw us heading into yet another period of pandemic uncertainty as the Omicron varient moved rapidly across the globe. Radio City Music Hall cancelled all remaining performances of its Christmas Spectacular, and the Broadway show “Hamilton” stopped performances until further notice due to breakthrough COVID infections.
Cornell University sent students home early for their semester break because more than 900 tested positive for COVID — and all are fully vaccinated. Other universities are telling students to prepare for the posibility they might return to campus for their spring semester late…or not at all. My hometown school district’s high school is remote the first week back from break.
School (and life) is still far from “normal”. We are entering year three of the pandemic and the experiences of our children and young people remain far removed from what school, education, and life are truly about.
In light of all this, we began the 2021–2022 school year just like any other. Kids have walked into buildings where — despite masks, social distancing, varied COVID protocols…and having been away from school for over a year—the general mindset in Sepetmber of 2021 was one of OK! Welcome back! Let’s just pick up where we left off!
Again (generally speaking), there were no opportunities given to kids to express what they have been and continue to go through. Outside the box ideas such as offering an early start to the year for those who felt academically behind were not offered. Nor were concepts like using the first month of school to catch up academically, socially and/or emotionally. There was no national plan or strategy set up to accommodate kids who are in the midst of living through what truly is a global humanitarian crisis.
We are now beginning to see the by-products of that.
One school district in Oregon experienced such a drastic increase in violent student behaviors that on November 22nd (when they left for Thanksgiving break) parents and students were told they would be shifting back to remote learning until December 7th. Why? The teachers felt unsafe. One district official said the behaviors were the result of: “…struggles some kids are having with socialization skills after months away from the classroom. Others can’t deal with COVID protocols...”
In Detroit, on November 17th, a district-wide announcement was made stating that beginning on December 3rd, all Fridays for the rest of the month would be remote. Amongst the reasons listed: “…mental health relief, rising COVID cases, and time to more thoroughly clean schools…”
A New Jersey school district announced to its staff, students, and parents they would be providing an extra day off from school as a day to “take a breath”. This came on the heels of an announcement that calls to the New Jersey Children’s Mental Health Hotline have increased this year from last. The district announcement also came following the tragic school shooting in Michigan.
In the early part of the fall, there was a viral “challenge” on the social media app Tik Tok. It (literally) encouraged students to vandalize school property and record/post the acts and their results directly to the app. One California district’s high school bathrooms were so damaged, they had to close them to students and staff and bring in porta potties. The money that is being spent to fix the bathrooms (and pay for the porta potties) could’ve gone to other student related services (like mental health).
As I am writing this, there is another nationwide social media threat rooted in school gun violence and bomb threats. Schools across the nation have shut down and/or locked down as a result.
It is time for us to step back and collectively realize that what needs to be addressed within our education system is not what’s currently being talked (or screamed) about within the national dialogue. The true question is: How much do we care about our kids and their futures? The follow-up question is: What kind of education system do we want?
The work of educating kids has always been complex. Our current world, and what our children will be facing, is making this work even more complex. Mind you, this does not mean it’s impossible. It just means that it’s going to require us to look at education through a highly creative as well as open lens. Clearly our kid’s mental health as well as social and emotional development are at the forefront of what’s affecting education.
I believe that it’s time to begin training teachers to be highly creative and dynanmic individuals. I also believe it’s time that we begin to look at teaching as the highly creative job it truly is. I also believe that this moment in time demands that we give our kids and young people the opportunity to express themselves in school. In fact, this should be given priority. I believe that right now a writing class holds just as much importance as math. Band, chorus and dance hold the same significance of any STEM class. This is a moment in time that — for our children — is unprecedented and we have to let them express what they’re going through.
We must also begin to respect the fact that the world is comprised of people who hold different perspectives, views, and opinions other than our own. Part of being a human — as well as democratic citizen — is the ability to be open to all of it. Differences of all kinds, after all, are what make the world interesting, and disagreeing with someone doesn’t mean you have to despise or hate them. What it does mean is that you can have a civilized, interesting and perhaps eye opening conversation. Or, as Walt Whitman said: “It does a man good to turn himself inside out once in a while…to look at himself through other eyes — especially skeptical eyes, if he can.”
If we can’t do this as adults, how can we possibly expect our kids to do it? Dissuading our kids from open and challenging discussion actually has an adverse effect on their mental health. Feeling stifled or afraid to engage in discourse causes undue stress.
In his poem “Song of Myself”, Walt Whitman asked: “Do I contradict myself?” Part of his response is: “I am large, I contain multitudes”. We are all large and contain multitudes of experiences and witness. This is what forms who we are and makes us capable of not only achieving but understanding. Within those multitudes are abilities not only to do for ourselves, but for others. We have to make sure that we are teaching our kids to not only see, feel and respect these multitudes within themselves, but also within those around them — even those they may not agree with.
We must also ensure that we are tending to our children’s mental health, as well as development, so they can gain a clear understanding of these multitudes. Providing avenues of healthy and open expression — as well as highly creative teachers to encourage and guide students through it — will enable this. It’s all a part of the complex process that is modern education.
*1. Irene (2011): destroyed homes near us as well as our basement. 2. Sandy (2012): did billions of dollars worth of damage to our state and left us without power for 12 days. 3. Ida (2021): destroyed friend’s homes and/or businesses as well as one of my school buildings