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K-12 Culture

An Insider Reveals Why Our Schools Don't Teach

Some K-12 teachers know little about their subject matter, and as shameful as that is, that is not the core problem in our public schools. Many classrooms are overcrowded with resentful students, keeping teachers so busy with discipline they have little time left to teach; but that is not the core problem, either. The main reason our schools fail to educate is culture.

I've taught in high schools, middle schools, charter schools, wealthy schools, and impoverished schools. They all have the same culture. Education is not the number one priority, either among the teachers or among the administrators. It is, at best, a distant fourth.

The top three priorities are:

  1. control the students
  2. keep their parents quiet
  3. maintain high attendance

These priorities do not just overshadow education, they often preclude it.

Keeping Parents Quiet

When parents complain, for example, it is rarely about their children learning too little. (Many parents don't really expect schools to educate, and parents fear victim-blaming. Your daughter isn't learning? She must be dumb / inattentive / learning disabled.) But some parents do complain about their children learning too much. How dare you teach my son scientific facts that contradict my religious beliefs? How dare you teach my daughter a history that doesn't support the worldview I want for her?

9th grade English teachers are required to cover Romeo & Juliet, but few really teach it. The play is filled with sexual references, so teachers leave vital passages unexplained, leaving students confused and then bored. The entire exercise becomes a waste of students' time. But if students understood they were reading an Elizabethan sex-comedy, parents might find out and some would get vocal. As long as students see nothing in their text but foreign-sounding gibberish, parents are quiet and teachers are safe.

Control

Educating students would also risk making them harder to control. The California standards, for example, require 8th grade social studies teachers discuss Henry David Thoreau (the father of civil disobedience) yet I was once punished for planning to do so. "Our students are already disobedient," I was scolded as my plans for a modest lecture were overruled. Even when state law requires education, control comes first.

Students who learn how their society values rights may become angry when their school violates theirs, and students who learn the details of our government's judicial system may sue. Knowledge is power, and school officials are safest when their students are powerless.

Two-hundred years ago, it was illegal to teach slaves to read. While today's K-12 schools teach reading, they carefully control what students read.

When I taught high school, I was surprised to find our textbook including Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." I was not surprised to find the classic essay heavily censored. In the original, King argues it is wrong for the majority to impose on a minority a law that the majority does not impose on itself. This could describe laws against truancy since the adults who shape the truancy law do not require themselves to attend these schools; so King's criticism of such laws, and King's call to defy such laws, is removed. Gone, too, are his controversial views on the separation of church and state, his strategies for creating change, and his ideas on how to defy the law in a responsible and honorable manner. All that remain are a few paragraphs about the poor treatment of blacks in a time and place with little relevance to today's students.

The uncensored King was a daring intellectual and a risky role model, someone who would engage today's students and provoke new levels of thinking. So our schools reduce him to a poetic whiner.

Attendance

Because school funding is based on attendance, the healthiest budgets occur when there are many students and few employees. This is why classrooms get crowded. When a student misses a class, the school loses money; so disruptive students are rarely suspended, while the student who cuts a worthless class to study at the library is punished.

When a student brings a library book to class and reads while the class does busywork, that student is usually punished as well — he may be maintaining attendance, but he is threatening the teacher's control. Education comes last.

These values create institutions where students are kept in their place and parents are kept quiet, but no purpose is served.

Other Possibilities

A different culture is possible. I once interviewed for a job teaching English at a private school. Parents who pay over $10,000 per year may complain if their children don't learn, and may even take their money elsewhere, so different values prevail. During my interview, an English teacher spent an hour assessing my knowledge of the subject. The fact that I had already taught English at a public school for a year did not impress him. When I admitted I was unsure what a "trope" was and I had never read Hamlet, I was dropped from consideration.

I have interviewed at dozens of public schools and not once was I asked about subject matter, whether I was applying to teach English, history, government, or economics. At public schools, interviewers ask instead about classroom-management and dealing with parents. Having knowledge to share is considered less important.

High stakes standardized tests are slowly nudging schools in the right direction. If we want our children to receive a quality education, we need to increase the pressure to educate. If test-results affect funding as much as attendance records do, administrators will want students to learn (not just attend), they will hire knowledgeable teachers, and they will reduce class-sizes to optimize success.

We need parents who value education to get as vocal as the ones who don't. When you go to Parents Night, don't just say hi to your son's teachers — quiz them. If the civics teacher cannot explain why the 9th Amendment is controversial, complain to the principal. If the English teacher cannot distinguish active voice from passive, tell the school board. If the science teacher cannot explain why Pluto is now a moon, make some noise.

Individual administrators and teachers can make a difference, and do. But they need support from the outside, creating an environment where embracing education is not just the right thing but the safest thing.

Community colleges have shown us that even publicly funded schools welcoming mediocre students can offer a great education when they make it their top priority. Our K-12 schools can do it, too. They need only reprioritize.

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