School of Hard Knocks: The Tribulations of American Education
By Alan Resnick
I’m not sure what‘s more challenging these days, being a student or a teacher in the public school system. But what I am certain of is that I’m elated to be in neither group.
Being a student now seems infinitely more difficult than back when I was in public school during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Conducting a Google search for information about climate change for a term paper can generate hundreds of links, many of which contain misleading if not total misinformation. Social media has brought people together, but at the cost of creating anxiety, eroding self-esteem, and providing new opportunities for bullying. Students are bombarded daily with pictures, videos, and posts suggesting that everyone else’s life is better than their own. And they live with a realistic fear that a classmate one day may decide to bring a gun to school and open fire.
On top of all this, students have been forced into remote learning during the pandemic. That’s not a small obstacle. For the last few years I have participated in a large adult education program based in metropolitan Detroit. The 2020 spring semester was cancelled due to the Covid-19 outbreak. So when it was announced that the fall semester would be delivered via Zoom-based instruction, I decided to enroll and give it a try.
My attention span gave out 30 minutes into the first presentation. Listening to a disembodied voice drone on about the Crimean War while staring at a PowerPoint presentation on a laptop was not for me.
School kids have been expected to learn remotely for full days multiple times a week during an entire school year. And this doesn’t take into account how remote classes have stunted some kids’ social and emotional growth.
But as bad as being a student in the public school system is these days, being a teacher there is also very difficult and stressful. Like their students, remote teaching has left many instructors physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.
School districts across the country are attempting to dramatically enlarge their summer school programs to compensate for pandemic learning deficits and the resulting poor grades. For example, the superintendent of Philadelphia schools announced in early April that the district would provide summer school opportunities “for any family who wants their child in some sort of program.”
But many districts are finding that their faculty members are too burnt out to teach. A May 23 article in The Washington Post reported that some districts in the Washington D.C. area are offering incentives such as double pay and $1,000 bonuses to attract the necessary number of teachers. Even with these sweeteners, though, there have been some cutbacks on the number of students that districts can serve this summer because not enough teachers are enlisting.
For me, though, the thing that makes teaching most stressful and nerve-wracking is educating students in a way that is meaningful and yet not offensive to anyone. Many educators find themselves trapped in the ultimate dilemma of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” particularly when teaching “softer” subjects like history, civics, or health.
For example, let’s say you are teaching sex education and want to include a module on sexual orientation or gender identity. The Brown Political Review reports that, as of March, six states have what are known as “no homo promo” laws limiting the discussion of homosexuality in public schools. The article goes on to say that “Teachers in Texas and Alabama are required to tell students that: ‘homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public’ during sexual education classes.”
Similar laws are on the books in Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oklahoma. And in April, a bill allowing parents to opt their children out of LGBTQ+ education was signed into law by Tennessee Republican Governor Bill Lee. Under this law, schools must notify parents 30 days before topics related to LGBTQ+ identity are discussed in the classroom, giving them time to request that their child be exempted from the lesson.
I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be a teacher and know that you have to marginalize or ignore the sexual orientation or gender identity of some of your students or risk incurring the wrath of angry parents or administrators. How is a teacher to respond if a student brings up the subject of homosexuality? What if you are an LGBTQ+ educator forbidden to discuss your own sexual orientation or gender identity with your students? How painful it must be if you are a teacher who has an LGBTQ+ child.
History and civics professors don’t have it any easier. They somehow have to thread the needle of educating students about the history of racism in a way that is simultaneously accurate and impactful, but inoffensive in highly politicized and hyper-polarized times. That makes it exceptionally difficult to incorporate concepts like critical race theory (CRT) or the New York Times’ 1619 Project into a lesson plan.
CRT and the 1619 Project posit that systemic racism helped found the United States and remains in place today. They present a far less idealistic and flattering picture of our nation’s history than is typically taught in public schools.
According to a May 29 article in the Washington Post, “Since the murder of George Floyd by a police officer last year, schools across the country have been overhauling their curriculums to address systemic racism and seek to make classrooms more equitable. Among other efforts, districts are instituting anti-bias training for teachers and requiring that history lessons include the experiences of marginalized groups.”
The article continues: “Critics say teachers are trying to ‘rewrite history’ and should not consider race when interacting with students. Proponents counter that discussing race creates more inclusive schools and helps students overcome systemic barriers restricting their achievement.”
But CRT and the 1619 Project are ultimately historical perspectives, albeit different ones than what appear in current textbooks. They are not necessarily entirely correct, but do provide students with another way of thinking about our country’s past and present.
However, a number of states find these perspectives extremely threatening, so much so that they do not want their students exposed to them. Legislatures in Arkansas, Idaho, Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma have passed bans on these concepts, with some restricting the teaching of CRT in public colleges and grade school classrooms. Other states like New Hampshire and Utah are considering similar bills.
While some proposed laws explicitly use the term “critical race theory,” others allude to “divisive concepts” or race-related guilt. In a news conference in March, Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said, “Let me be clear, there’s no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.”
A May 18 article in Education Week points out that many of these laws are so vaguely written that it is unclear what they would cover or whether they would impermissibly limit free speech. The piece asks, “Could a teacher who wants to talk about a factual instance of state-sponsored racism—like the establishment of Jim Crow, the series of laws that prevented Black Americans from voting or holding office and separated them from white people in public spaces—be considered in violation of these laws?”
And how would it even be possible to monitor and police what’s discussed in thousands of classrooms around these states? Yet the article asserts “Social studies educators fear that such laws could have a chilling effect on teachers who might self-censor their own lessons out of concern for parent or administrator complaints.”
One English teacher quoted in the article goes even further: “History teachers cannot adequately teach about the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. English teachers will have to avoid teaching almost any text by an African American author because many of them mention racism to various extents.”
I began to wonder if there were any constraints or restrictions placed on my teachers back in the good old days. So I private messaged Ms. Randel (nee Miss Horowitz), one of my wonderful junior high school English teachers, to ask for her opinion: “Alan, I never felt I could not include anything in lesson plans. But remember I was only 20 when I started teaching and ridiculously naive. Things are so much different now.”
Indeed they are.
Albert Einstein once said the value of education “is not the cramming of many facts, but the training of the mind to think.” How minds are being trained has become a battleground where teachers and students look like certain losers.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.