I fear for the future of public education in this nation. These forces fuel my angst:
- Students, teachers, parents and administrators are dealing with lost learning and lost connections from the pandemic.
- Public support for education seems less reliable. From my first teaching experience in 1970 until my retirement, I saw a shift from teachers almost always being right to teachers almost always being wrong, neither of which seems right to me. The assault on teachers’ choices and on school board decisions suggests an us-you dynamic instead of collaborative support.
- Micromanaging public education by non-educators has become a costly epidemic. From the days of “No Child Left Behind” to now, legislators have been setting rules and guidelines that may not align with known “Best Practices” and that disempower teachers and teacher decision-making.
- People using the “culture wars” for their own political purposes are polarizing communities and hurting support for schools. They are robbing schools and educators of decision-making, hamstringing their ability to teach students to think and learn.
- Critical thinking, perhaps the most important life skill schools should nurture, cannot be taught without exploring more than one side of an issue. Unfortunately, too often today adults want kids to parrot their beliefs instead of developing their own.
I hold core values that matter here:
- All students can learn given good teachers and appropriate materials and lessons. One size has never fit all, and well-trained teachers are best equipped to figure out how to reach a wide array of students.
- Educators have a moral responsibility to nurture students thinking, especially critical thinking. We seem to be living in a time when many don’t value critical thinking, when many adults want students to toe their line of thinking instead. How can we solve the great problems facing our world if we can’t think about them openly and explore possibilities collaboratively?
- Educators can – and should – be responsive to parental concerns about curriculum on a case-by-case basis, thereby honoring their family values without dictating them to everyone else. When I had a parent concerned about controversial content, I could offer alternatives without the entire class being deprived of an important experience or exposure to ideas.
- Educators, especially when they work in teams and have their curricula evaluated by their administrations and boards of education, are by far the most qualified to develop curricula. Teachers have been trained to evaluate material and put it in a meaningful context. Working in teams, they are best suited to identify what is appropriate and provides an opportunity for learning.
- Winston Churchill [and/or George Santayana] supposedly said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” How can we teach history from which we can learn valuable lessons if we continue to sanitize it and dismiss uncomfortable past realities?
I knew I wanted to spend my life teaching and learning by the time I was in sixth grade, and I loved my career most of the time. Now, though, I’m less convinced that I would choose it. The politics in Florida may be among the more extreme, but their policies are catching on in other states. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE Act” regulates what schools can teach about race and identity [washingtonpost.com]. Although the law is currently being challenged in court, it should still strike fear in proponents of public education. Critics warn that the efforts in Florida are a harbinger for other states [Ibid.]. “’Florida may be leading the charge,’ said Fairfield University mathematics professor Irene Mulvey, the president of the American Association of University Professors, adding that Texas is not far behind and that many other states are following suit. ‘It’s a trend in the larger culture wars … where you see these politicians trying to throw red meat to the base and stir people up’” [Ibid.].
Florida is trying to control every aspect of education and to focus on a sanitized and Christian worldview. “The DeSantis administration has decried teachings on race, suggested civics instruction that downplays the historical separation of church and state, told school districts to ignore advice from the federal government that guarantees civil rights protections for LGBTQ students and, on Wednesday, asserted that children in elementary schools are being told they are the wrong gender” [washingtonpost.com]. The vagueness of the rules and the conflicting instruction from the state and federal governments are sowing fear and confusion. According to Michael Woods, a Palm Beach teacher and member of the Classroom Teachers Association, “’The vagueness of these laws is doing exactly what it was intended to do. It’s silencing teachers… I have grown people coming up to me worried about what they can say’” [Ibid.].
Florida also requires new civics training for public school teachers that includes the statement that it is a “’misconception’ that “the Founders desired strict separation of church and state’” [washingtonpost.com]. This flies in the face of the First Amendment, which prevents the government from “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which scholars widely interpret to require a separation of church and state. Broward County teacher Richard Judd, who attended the three-day training on the new civics curriculum, said the trainers told teachers, “This is the way you should think” [Ibid.]. Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said, “Then they kind of slipped in a Christian values piece, ignoring the fact that this country is made up of so many different cultures and religions” [Ibid.]. If teachers can only present one view, how can students learn to think critically and evaluate the information offered?
And this same state has flip-flopped over the use of a specific textbook in health and still hasn’t made a decision for the start of this year’s instruction. Health professionals are alarmed, especially in a state with the third-highest rate of new HIV infections in the country according to the CDC, in a state ranked 23rd for teen pregnancies. They point out that public opinion surveys show significant support for sexual education [Ibid.].
If these actions were limited to one state, I would be less concerned. But they are not. Lawmakers across the country are proposing bills like these: “’First Florida. Then Alabama. Now, lawmakers in Ohio and Louisiana are considering legislation that mimics the Florida law,’ according to NPR” [catholicvote.org]. After Florida passed the Don’t Say Gay Bill, 19 other states have introduced similar legislation [nbcnews.com]. For this issue alone, The Guardian identifies Georgia, Louisiana, Kansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Arizona, Oklahoma, Ohio, and South Carolina as states emulating the Florida Don’t Say Gay Bill. Education Week shows similarcontagion from state to state [theguardian.com].
Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the only flashpoint. Since January 2021, 14 states have passed laws prohibiting “critical race theory, even though that term refers to post-secondary scholarship. Legislators want to sanitize the nation’s history of slavery. These laws and orders, combined with local actions to restrict certain types of instruction, now impact more than one out of every three children in the country, according to a recent study from UCLA [edweek.org]. Education Week analyzed active state bills and warns that “Republicans this year have drastically broadened their legislative efforts to censor what’s taught in the classroom. What started in early 2021 as a conservative effort to prohibit teachers from talking about diversity and inequality in so-called ‘divisive’ ways or taking sides on ‘controversial’ issues has now expanded to include proposed restrictions on teaching that the United States is a racist country, that certain economic or political systems are racist, or that multiple gender identities exist, according to an Education Week analysis of 61 new bills and other state-level actions” [Ibid.].
Teaching has always been hard, and other factors [like the pandemic and verbal fights at school board meetings] have only increased its difficulty. But this national movement to disempower educators, to take away their decision-making, to make them fearful of lawsuits as they try to determine what subject matter is safe in their state, is crippling their ability to teach. A survey of members of the American Federation of Teachers shows dramatically increased job dissatisfaction, up from 27% in 2014 to 79% in 2022 [AFT Member Survey]. That news should be especially concerning given the existing shortage of teachers and the insufficiency of the pipeline of teachers in training.
Publishing my teaching memoir this year reminded me of the joys as well as the challenges of my career. Would I choose it now? I don’t know. Will others? The current climate hardly encourages the best and the brightest. Don’t our students deserve them?