We’re Not Sophisticated Enough to Have Public Schooling

The May 24, 2022 Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde, Texas is just the latest reminder that American culture is not sophisticated enough to have public schooling. The public in public schooling reminds us that educational institutions reflect the public’s commitment to education. In the U.S., there is little commitment to speak of. A nation committed to public education appreciates teaching as a profession, encourages community members to engage in conflict constructively not destructively, recognizes the value in content that challenges the status quo, and strives to create a safe space for students to imagine, express themselves and learn. The U.S. has no such commitment and that is why we cannot have nice things like public education.

What else can be said about a nation devoid of substantive dialogue on pertinent issues of education, but brimming with ideas about how to arm educators, ban books, and outlaw select curriculum? Over the last two centuries, public schools in the U.S. have strayed from the locally controlled laboratories of democracy that Horace Mann and John Deweyenvisioned; discussions about curriculum have been reduced to vapid partisan debates, and teachers have been transformed from professionals who empower democratic citizens to overworked and poorly paid employees tasked with serving management.

The professional neutering of educators was made possible by national education policies such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core which promised – but did not deliver – improved student learning. Instead, these policies disempowered teachers and created a nation of bubble fillers: citizens who can make the best choice when given a limited set of options. Such skills will prove useful to students who engage in America’s defunct electoral system, but they will have little applicability elsewhere. Regardless, the public was led to support these corrosive education policies thanks to slick propaganda such as the federal government’s 1983 report Nation at Risk, the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, and the former Chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools Michelle Rhee, who oversaw the collection of questionable if not outright false data to justify a national campaign to disempower teacher unions and public schools.

Paradoxically, as they disempowered and disrespected teachers, the public loaded more social responsibility on schools and teachers such as food insecurity and the mental health crisis. For teachers, these responsibilities translate into burnout. Teachers experience high levels of stress and anxiety over the additional work and responsibility bestowed upon them without sufficient resources or remuneration. This was put on full display during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to managing the dramatic shift to remote education and the mental health needs of their students during the COVID-19 pandemic, educators had to thwart criticism from numerous parents about their refusal to return to the classroom and risk catching a deadly virus during a pandemic. Indeed, many parents made it clear that they view teachers as nothing more than babysitters who watch their children while they are at work.

Prior to the pandemic schools struggled to attract and retain teachers. Throw in requests to arm teachers and thwart school shooters and it is no wonder that the combined pressure of teaching in new and multiple modalities, pretending to be a mental health counselor, and facing constant disrespect in the form of being reduced to a babysitter who is not worthy of avoiding the pandemic, has resulted in historical levels of turnover in the teaching profession.

American parents would be wise to remove their children from public schooling until the nation grows up and becomes mature enough to have public schools. Our lack of investment in schools and teachers as well as disregard for learning and knowledge have left the U.S. lagging far behind other nations in key educational outcomes. However, the U.S. is number one in one key area: school shootings. From 2009-2018, the U.S. experienced 288 such school shootings, while the country with the next highest rate, Mexico, had eight. Such shameful statistics are the logical outcome from a nation that focuses on punishing teachers over professional development; banning books over funding education; outlawing curriculum rather than abolishing standardized testing; and arming teachers with guns instead of providing professional security and mental health support for students. Parents: America is not grown up enough to have public education.

Nolan Higdon is a Project Censored judge and contributor. He is a lecturer in Merrill College and the Education Department at University of California, Santa Cruz and co-author of Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Literacy.