One important takeaway from the first Republican presidential primary debate was that every candidate shared lackluster views on education.
The GOP has not developed a coherent position on this crucial issue. Sure, they have a few talking points: They want to abolish the Department of Education, break up teachers unions, protect children from leftist radicals, and implement some kind of school choice. But this doesn’t come close to a comprehensive vision of an issue that affects all Americans and will largely determine the trajectory of the country’s future.
Assuming the candidates received their wishes, how would this work out? In all likelihood, this would mean that the federal government would save billions of dollars by offering fewer grants to needy college students and underprivileged schools. Teachers in all states would lose their leverage in negotiating a fair wage and better working conditions. And a whole new industry of education scammers would crop up to con unwitting parents out of their school vouchers.
These ostensible “reforms” could be made without such negative outcomes — and I’ve argued for some of them myself — but only if the reformers did their homework and took the time to understand how these systems and processes worked.
Unfortunately, the Democrat Party is even worse on education. Even as they claim to be pro-teacher and defend teachers unions (who fund their campaigns in turn), they undermine this by routinely attacking parents. They ignore the rampant decay and dysfunction of so many public school systems, particularly in large Democrat-run cities. They even weaponize government agencies to intimidate parents who protest at school board meetings. Despite their professed commitment to so-called equity, they seem utterly blind to the gross inequality in education everywhere — which is why so many of them would never be caught dead sending their kids to the local public school.
Meanwhile, public education in the U.S. is going through a rough time, especially post-Covid. American students have experienced substantial declines in their reading, math, and civics scores, all of which were at low levels already. Many of them struggle with poor mental health and show high levels of anxiety. Tech addiction is rampant. Bullying and violence are on the rise. Grade inflation is common, and many schools are devoid of academic rigor, making them little more than publicly funded daycare centers. And, to top it all off, a nationwide teacher shortage continues to worsen.
These are massive problems that carry massive consequences for the health of the country, which is already experiencing a growing competency crisis. This problem was recently encapsulated in the wildfires that consumed Maui.
Incompetence preceded the fires. Public leaders took no precautionary measures to prevent the fires from starting. Incompetence occurred during the fires. No warning alarms were activated, and roads were being barricaded. And incompetence is now on display as the public officials neglect the victims and stupidly blame climate change for the whole thing. This is not how a well-educated society handles disasters.
To make matters worse, as American leaders usher in a new idiocracy, other countries are moving in the opposite direction, transforming their backward, destitute, war-torn societies into rich first-world nations that are more advanced than most parts of the U.S. This would include places like Finland, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and the major cities in China.
What accounts for these countries’ meteoric rise is their heavy emphasis on education — all of them rank among the top countries on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In her book Cleverlands, Lucy Crehan, a public school teacher from the U.K., travels around the world and examines each of these countries’ schools. While they may differ in a few ways, all of them are committed to holding students accountable, valuing their teachers, and maintaining high academic standards.
At most, there are only a handful of elements of these countries’ educational policies that align with the agenda of today’s leftists and conservatives. Leftists will appreciate the trust and support given to teachers and administrators while conservatives will like the professionalism and meritocracy at work. But instead of talking about ways to adopt these successful models for American students, leftists and conservatives tend to go in circles, arguing about banning pornographic books in school libraries or whether grades are racist.
Like I sometimes tell people, these cultural battles, while important in themselves, aren’t really a concern for most of us teachers who have a thousand other worries.
Nevertheless, they tend to dominate the public discourse because they attract attention and are relatively easy to understand. By contrast, important matters like school budgets, teacher training, modes of assessment, pedagogical strategy, or academic and behavior standards usually bore otherwise informed Americans who want better schools.
Perhaps it requires more instances of preventable catastrophes and a prolonged erosion of our quality of life for people to take education more seriously. In the short term, however, there’s a wide-open lane for any politician, left or right, to make a name for himself by taking on this crisis. For those of us who are teachers and parents, this is what we’re worried about now, and no one is really talking about it in the ways that matter most.