22 December 2022

Public schools as battlefields

"If you're an American schoolchild, you've probably spent much of your recent life alone at home in the mesmerizing glow of a screen, twitching between Google Classroom and innumerable online distractions. Perhaps you've been lucky enough to spend most days in an actual classroom with two-thirds of your face wrapped up, trying to make yourself heard and hear others, taking 30 seconds to shove your lunch down. Your schedule is often unpredictable; some days there's no one to teach you at all. During the pandemic, you've lost at least three months of instruction or nearly twice that, if your family is poor—as well as the steady company of people your own age. The grownups around you fret incessantly about your “mental-health issues” and "social-emotional learning," which only makes your anxiety and depression worse.

You're also the nonvoting, perhaps unwitting, subject of adults' latest pedagogical experiments: either relentless test prep or test abolition; quasi-religious instruction in identity-based virtue and sin; a flood of state laws to keep various books out of your hands and ideas out of your head. Your parents, looking over your shoulder at your education and not liking what they see, have started showing up at school-board meetings in a mortifying state of rage. If you live in Virginia, your governor has set up a hotline where they can rat out your teachers to the government. If you live in Florida, your governor wants your parents to sue your school if it ever makes feel “discomfort" about who you are. Adults keep telling you the pandemic will never end, your education is being destroyed by ideologues, digital technology is poisoning your soul, democracy is collapsing, and the planet is dying-but they're counting on you to fix everything when you grow up.

It isn't clear how the American public school system will survive the COVID years. Teachers, whose relative pay and status have been in decline for decades, are fleeing the field. In 2021, buckling under the stresses of the pandemic, nearly 1 million people quit jobs in public education, a 40 percent increase over the previous year. The shortage is so dire that New Mexico has resorted to encouraging members of the National Guard to volunteer as substitute teachers.

Students are leaving as well. Since 2020, nearly 1.5 million children have been removed from public schools to attend private or charter schools or be homeschooled. Families are deserting the public system out of frustration with unending closures and quarantines, stubborn teachers' unions, inadequate resources, and the low standards exposed by remote learning. It's not just rich families, either, David Steiner, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, told me. “COVID has encouraged poor parents to question the quality of public education. We are seeing diminished numbers of children in our public schools, particularly our urban public schools." In New York, more than 80,000 children have disappeared from city schools; in Los Angeles, more than 26,000; in Chicago, more than 24,000.

These kids, and the investments that come with them, may never return—the beginning of a cycle of attrition that could continue long after the pandemic ends and leave public schools even more underfunded and dilapidated than before. “It's an open question whether the public-school system will recover," Steiner said. "That is a real concern for democratic education.""
This essay by George Packer continues in The Atlantic.


  1. The potential bright side to this, if any such thing can be found, is that perhaps, just perhaps, this will force the US to address the fundamental insufficiency of our school system to do the one and only job it has; to teach children how to think. We haven't done that in literally decades, and it's an intentional thing, because ignorant masses are easier to control and abuse. With any luck at all, that may finally be about to change, because people are realizing that it's true.

  2. I honestly thought this was going to be a post about the fact that school is an ACTUAL battlefield for children in the United States, thanks to our Guns Are Sacred obsession and the White Christian Nationalist movement which attacks anyone who doesn't fit a very narrow profile of what it means to be an 'American'.

    Kids need socializing, sure. Somehow that's never considered an insurmountable problem when they're being homeschooled for their entire childhoods to keep them from learning real math, real science, real history, and real Humanities.

  3. Education, on an industrial scale, is one of the worms in the civilized apple. You must dumb people down in order to get the conformity necessary to the task of making them "governable"--as the Prussians were honest enough to admit in the 19th century. But, if they're dumbed-down too much, you have a nation of too-dumb sheep. This balance will never be perfectly struck. It's not in the cards. I think people might freak a bit less if they read John Taylor Gatto (Dumbing Us Down) and Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society). These authors attempt to get at the core of the problem; a problem that existed long before Covid did its "deed."


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