Politics and Education

Changing Our Schools is Vital to Our National Healing

What would you rather have in America’s schools; high test scores or students who are empathetic and have strong critical thinking skills? What good is it for an individual, or for American society, if students test well but also think that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election? What good is it if they have no interest in providing a strong safety net so that no Americans need to live in poverty?

Today, a full three-quarters of Trump voters falsely believe the election was “rigged and stolen, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll – more than ever before. Just 9 percent, meanwhile, think Biden “won fair and square” – down from 13 percent a year ago. This is clearly stinkin’ thinkin.’ High school graduates have spent more than ten thousand hours in class, and they still cannot recognize the obvious. They are so jaded that they fall for the most unlikely of conspiracy theories.

It’s been a dozen years since we first heard of the Tea Party. They were the predecessor to MAGA. One of their strategies was to expand right-wing influence over what is taught in schools by fielding more candidates to run for school boards. Pandering to voters through fear, Tea Partiers and their allies won a number of elections and began the process of censoring more of what was being taught in schools. In the wake of the January 6, 2021 insurrection, the right has greatly increased its efforts to win school board seats and further suppress free and open thinking in our schools. New books are being added to the “banned list” such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Hate U Give.

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg recently wrote:

There is a quote from Ralph Reed that I often return to when trying to understand how the right builds political power. “I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members,” the former leader of the Christian Coalition said in 1996. School board elections are a great training ground for national activism. They can pull parents, particularly mothers, into politics around intensely emotional issues, building a thriving grass roots and keeping it mobilized.

Recently the right has created a straw horse in demanding that “Critical Race Theory” not be taught in our schools. First, there are hardly any schools teaching it. That does not stop people on the right from winning school board and other legislative seats because they convince many voters that white people are being denigrated. Second, what precipitated the modern opposition to teaching CRT was the 1619 Project published by the New York Times and the Pulitzer Center. The project is not about theory; it is about history. Specifically, it addresses the origins of slavery in the United States and the impact that slavery has had for over 400 years on the lives of African-Americans, and other Americans. Our history has always been heavily weighted towards teaching about white people. If we are going to become better equipped to live in the multi-cultural society that we have, it is essential for all students to learn the history of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian- Americans, Native Americans and other minorities are included. Let us not forget that by 2045, we will be a minority-majority nation.

So, what can non-MAGA people do to support more open learning in our schools? The first thing is to recognize that our schools are in crisis, and have been for some time. The evidence is clear; more than seventy million adults voted for Donald Trump in 2020. Plainly their education was short on important values like critical thinking and empathy.

Part of the problem with our schools is that they suffer from a major problem in our body politic. I’m talking about “fake news,” which almost entirely comes from the right. Our schools unwittingly teach fake news. They do a poor job of helping students recognize fake news when they hear or see it.

Similar to our political system and our society in general, our schools are very competitive with one another. The conflicts are basically fought on two levels, substance and image. This is a central reason why so many students, and adults, have skewed views of the world.

Examples of substance being taught in schools would include teaching children how to read, providing students with opportunities to take science labs, encouraging students in social studies class to play a role in a model UN or a mock legislature, or providing students with real opportunities to be involved in school decision-making.

Unfortunately, much of school is about image and bragging rights. A big part of that is the obsession with standardized tests. Like sport contests, standardized tests are measured with numbers. Those numbers can be compared, and that means they provide platforms on which schools can compete, just like football or basketball. Students are under enormous pressure to do well on standardized tests in order to make their teachers look good, their school look good, their district look good, and their state look good.

This means that many teachers are teaching to the test. Much of that involves memorization. So, students are presumably learning how to do well on tests, both those that are standardized and those that are part of their regular classroom studies.

Teachers are also under enormous pressure to teach the state-mandated curriculum. It gets to the point where many teachers become robotic in what they present to students. Spontaneity, which is another way of saying “being tuned into the moment,” becomes more and more rare. If teachers are not questioning what they are “supposed” to do, how can students learn to peacefully question teachers, and others who are in positions of authority?

This fits right in with the right-wing agenda. Follow-orders; rarely question; and always remember that you are competing against others, particularly those from “elsewhere.”

So, how can we change schools so that students develop much more in the way of critical thinking skills and empathy? Ultimately, we need teachers who are more human, or who already are human and are not afraid to show their humanity. We need teachers who are willing to be like quarterbacks, or coaches. They need to call the right plays, and often that means calling an audible (making a last-second change). What makes teaching much more difficult than running an offense or a defense in football is that what might be a good play for one student may not be a good one for another student. Teachers need to do the best that they can at making sure that they are providing the best information and techniques for each student in their classes.

So how do we do this? Here are several suggestions:

  1. Reallocate resources so that technology can do more, freeing teachers to have more time. Anyone who has taught knows that teaching is far more than a full-time job. Most teachers have several hours of work to do each evening. We need to cut back on the “make-work” that consumes many teachers, and also give teachers shorter working hours. The stress that teachers experience “trickles down” to students, sometimes like a shower. We need to reduce the amount of stress and tension in our schools.
  2. If we want students to become better critical thinkers and to develop more empathy, these are two of the most important qualities that we need in our teachers. But this begs several important questions:
    1. What percentage of today’s teachers are good critical thinkers?
    2. What percentage of today’s teachers feel and express empathy to their students?
    3. If these percentages are lower than what we would want, then does it have anything to do with the ways in which we teach teachers?

So much of what teachers learn in education school is so prescribed and top-down. Over time, this squeezes some of the humanity out of students who will become teachers.

Additionally, it takes a certain type of person to decide to major in education and take classes with rigid curricula. This person is often someone who is comfortable with top-down decisions and may not value autonomy and creativity as much as others.

When they finally become teachers, combine the rigidity of their training with the pressure that parents, administrators, teachers and students all feel to achieve to the max, and you have a very oppressive environment.

We need to find ways for the nation’s best and brightest, and also most empathetic to become teachers. This means looking for individuals who will bring a maximum amount of empathy and critical thinking to the classroom, regardless of what training they have had.

This is not easy. But now is an excellent time to ramp up this movement. We have a tremendous shortage of teachers and districts are now loosening their certification requirements. If you are a person who thinks that you can humanize learning for students, and make them less likely to wind up as Tea Party or MAGA members, then it is a good time to step forward. We need teachers who are civil and civic-minded to help avoid civil war.