It’s been quite a year for us teachers!
No, not 2020-2021, the first official school year that saw schools canceled and remote learning implemented in the name of Covid, while nearly any in-person learning was limited and made miserable with social-distancing guidelines and mask mandates.
I’m talking about the current school year when most public schools were reopened, social distancing guidelines were dropped somewhat, and mask mandates were ended. Many students returned to campus for the first time since March 2020. Many teachers had to actually dress up for work and think about what they’d do with the students in their classrooms, while bracing for the emotional and psychological fallout of lockdowns.
Naturally, after the first year of Covid hysteria, it would take more than a return to high school football and standardized testing to bring back any real sense of normalcy. There were those like me who simply wanted to return to the good old days of covering prescribed material, preparing kids for their exams, and resuming all the extracurricular programs.
But there were even more who questioned all of these things and found them absurd in light of the pandemic. Why discuss a book’s main idea or its author’s purpose, when people around the world were dying of Covid?
In a sense, Covid had not gone away but had instead enrolled for the new school year. Whether the threat was real or not, every decision and program was filtered through the prism of Covid. Of all supposed “stakeholders” in public education, this virus was the first and foremost. It didn’t really matter if the other actual stakeholders were harmed, if only Covid’s needs were fully addressed.
Ditching Covid Rules Didn’t End their Damage
As a result, most schools effectively morphed into daycare centers. Assignments turned into activities; teachers turned into therapists/supervisors/web designers; students turned into helpless victims; and the school community dissolved into a senseless, demoralized crowd of people who feared one another. Even after two years, everyone at school is simply trying to make it safely through the day.
Granted, many would contend that schools were this way even before Covid, and in many cases this is unfortunately true. However, Covid certainly made this preexisting dysfunction worse. Formerly reputable schools in affluent suburbs suddenly took on attributes of violent schools in the inner cities, and violent inner-city schools took on attributes of refugee camps. Everyone took a hit.
Before Covid, it could be said that, whatever faults existed in public schools, they were still better than no schooling. After Covid, even the prospect of no schooling seems better than what’s going on at most campuses. If a child spends much of his day binging TikTok videos in his bedroom, it’s still an improvement from the neighborhood school where he would probably be doing the same thing, just while wearing a mask, receiving a meaningless grade, and risking being brutalized by his peers.
Added to the breakdown in order, Covid heightened political differences among faculty. Many leftist teachers felt the need to racialize their instruction and encourage political activism. No longer satisfied with teaching knowledge and skills and taking a balanced approach to controversial issues, they had their students explore their identity, check their privilege, and learn the “real history” of the United States. And if parents were upset that their children were failing exams and lacking life skills, this was only proof that they were white supremacists.
As bad as these teachers were, at least they did what they thought was their job. Even worse were the teachers who shamelessly cited Covid as an excuse to do nothing. In blue states infested with teachers unions, teachers successfully kept schools from fully reopening for nearly two years.
Like the bad student who’s lectured to behave by his teachers and principals but goes back to class to misbehave once more, Covid continues to make an already bad situation worse. There’s now even less learning, less safety, less community, and plenty more paranoia and hypochondria.
Parents Have Noticed How Bad Schools Are
Fortunately, there’s a light at the end of this dark tunnel: Schools have finally become bad enough for people to notice. No longer can parents drop their kids off at school and blithely assume the best. They know something has to change.
Unfortunately, many things have to change, almost too many to count. To their great credit, parents around the country have taken to protesting school boards over some of these things, like critical race theory, leftist gender ideology, pornography in school libraries, and eliminating Gifted and Talented programs for the sake of equity.
School choice advocates are making inroads with audiences, showing the public school monopoly resists all kinds of reform. But is this enough?
No doubt school choice would improve the situation at most schools — although at this point, any change would be an improvement — but it’s unlikely that they would improve enough for any kind of educational golden age. Moreover, they probably wouldn’t improve enough to make up for the damage done by the country’s Covid response.
Choice and sanity are key, but so is a proper understanding of how schooling works. Parents can pull their kids out of a bad public school and use a voucher to enroll them in a private school, but a new school may not be much better (see elite Dallas prep schools Hockaday or the Episcopal School of Dallas). And sure, people can rest a little easier knowing that American children aren’t being indoctrinated with leftist propaganda (at least at school), but there’s no reason to think they’re learning much else now that it’s gone.
What Is the Purpose of Education?
To effectively address public education’s array of challenges, it’s necessary to reexamine the purpose of school. If it’s about educating children and preparing them for the adult world, what does this look like? What is a good education? Is there an objective standard that applies to all people, or is the standard relative and dependent on each individual?
Should we clad all young people in blazers and slacks and have them read and study the classics? Should we ditch the books and have their students learn by doing and train them for a future career? Should we inculcate students in America’s founding principles and make them model citizens? Or should we offer as many options and paths as possible?
The catch-all approach to schooling (multiple paths, multiple definitions of success) is what schools have operated on for a very long time. But, in trying to please everyone, most public schools are pleasing no one.
In addition to expanding options, academic and moral excellence must become the primary goals for any reform effort. This entails a holistic approach to the project of public education, touching on safety, instruction, culture, and discipline.
I remain optimistic that we can have better schools, and we can get past the virus and the accompanying fallout. But for that to happen, it’s up to all of us to get informed, get involved, and make our voices heard.