UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Schools are in crisis — and always have been

“Everything about American education is getting bigger all the time: the number of students enrolled, the amount of dollars it spends–and the vast amount of pedagogical gobbledygook. As it gets bigger, more and more people are insistently asking: is it any good? The complaining voice is not that of a few carping malcontents but a multitude of doubters deeply skeptical of what is being produced in the way of a people who should be personally content, socially responsible, and politically effective. Thoughtful parents – often aghast at what is being done and not being done – organize, agitate, protest and petition.”

While the passage above would seem to be an accurate reflection of contemporary America in 2022, the words actually come from an article entitled “U.S. Schools: They Face a Crisis,” which was published in LIFE Magazine on October 16, 1950. Though we like to look to the past with nostalgic rose-colored glasses, all was clearly not well in the post-war years portrayed so placidly in television shows such as Leave It to Beaver and Happy Days. So much for “the Golden Age” of America when all kids were above average. For as long as there have been schools, people have been complaining about them. The kids complain about the work. The teachers complain about the kids. Parents and taxpayers complain about the teachers. And everyone complains about “schools these days,” decrying the state of public education and offering dire warnings about the future.

As I’ve noted before, the education system is simultaneously a great American success story and an inadequate institution which regularly fails to meet the needs of its most vulnerable members. Every year when standardized test scores are released and seized upon by the print media and the talking heads of television, the country frets about the abysmal scores which would seem to indicate that few students can read. The literacy battles will continue to wage over theories and pedagogy with terms like phonemic awareness, whole language, balanced literacy, and calls to simply get “back-to-basics.” However, anyone criticizing literacy today might want to remember that Rudolph Flesch wrote and published Why Johnny Can’t Read back in 1951.\

Of course, it’s disappointing to learn that as few as 40% of middle and high school students read anything outside of assigned schoolwork. But is that any surprise considering all the toddlers and pre-school kids out there playing with their parents’ cell phones and watching endless videos online and on television? Can schools really have that much influence on literacy rates when teachers may be the only people to ever tell kids to put the phone down, turn the TV off, close the laptop and pick up a book? In expecting schools to influence and change the behavior of students, it’s helpful to remember that between kindergarten and high school graduation, children will spend roughly 10% of their time in school and 90% of it elsewhere.

Obviously, schools and schooling are no guarantee of success and achievement. Educational institutions represent an opportunity for growth and learning. And while the opportunity must be guaranteed, the outcomes gleaned from students, families, and communities are generally commensurate with what they put into the institution. And that includes the faith, trust, and resources of stakeholders. With nearly fifty million children in K-12 education, the staffing of all those classrooms is no small task. Forbes and Bloomberg have recently reported on the coming crisis in education, as fewer people enter the field while an increasing number of teachers are leaving at a time the demands and expectations placed on schools increase on what seems like a daily basis.\

The most important consideration is to be pragmatic about what schools can and should be expected to do, as well as acknowledging and accepting the limitations. Many of the controversies, concerns, and criticisms about schools today are simply distractions at best, as are warnings of a crisis. The very nature of schools can be messy and unsettling at times. In a column on education and the role institutions play in our lives, David Brooks discussed a Harvard study on the purpose of education. According to the report, “The aim of a liberal [arts] education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.”

Schools may be in crisis, but no more or less than they always have been.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com