Eric Stinton: “Failing” schools are an easy political target, but the reality is much more complex
Last month, Tulsi Gabbard posted a video on Twitter about Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Bill, commonly referred to as the “don’t say gay” bill. She didn’t just applaud the bill to ‘prohibit classroom discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity at certain levels’ – who knows what might happen if children learned that gay people and trans exist in the world – she accused public schools of “indoctrinating” students with “woke sexual values”.
“The reality we face in this country is that our schools are failing,” Gabbard said, saying one in four high school graduates are “functionally illiterate.”
She continued, “I am convinced that if our schools focused on educating our children, teaching them the basics…we would see our literacy rates improve…That is what our public schools should be on. focus.”
The idea that public schools don’t focus on teaching the fundamentals has surprised those of us who actually spend time in public schools.
Although statistics vary, she is generally correct that a significant number of students graduate with low reading ability. Reading is a fundamental skill for living well and participating in society. It is truly alarming to see adult illiteracy rates as high as they are in the richest country in the history of the world. This is a serious problem; I’m sure Gabbard cares deeply about this and has spent a lot of time responding to it.
But why are so many high school graduates illiterate? According to Gabbard, it’s because the schools failed. This is a serious accusation, and one which requires proof. The problem is that if she tried to prove it, she would have to spend time with public school teachers and students. Worse still, she would find out that she was wrong.
Illiteracy is not just a statistic for me. There are real people who have real reasons for not knowing how to read. I know because I taught them.
The oldest students I taught who couldn’t read were in grades 8 and 9. Without exception, they came from unstable and low-income family backgrounds. Many of them grew up in a home where English was not spoken and the parents had gone to work several minimum wage jobs. Some had parents who were drug addicts, in prison or homeless. Many of them had been abused as children.
I wonder if Gabbard knows the illiteracy statistics of rich kids or kids who grew up with parents who read to them. Gabbard says parents, not schools, “are responsible for their children’s education”, but she seems to think that providing foundational skills like reading is solely the job of schools.
When we really know the students who make up the statistic Gabbard employs, we can understand the problem and implement real solutions. As far as I can tell, Gabbard’s investment in this issue is to use it to score points on social media. If she really cared, she would get involved; and if she got involved, she wouldn’t say that illiteracy is just a consequence of failing schools.
A common answer is that if students can’t read, they shouldn’t move on to the next grade. It sounds intuitive, but in study after study, when students are held back in middle school or high school, the likelihood of them dropping out of school increases dramatically.
Even Gabbard would agree that children have a much better chance of learning to read in a classroom than on the street. If we want children to read, we want them to stay in school.
Unfortunately, Gabbard is not alone in her ignorance. A few days after posting this video, State Senate candidate Brenton Awa posted an image of himself holding a sign that read “Demand the DOE teach students financial literacy.”
It’s a good idea – so good, in fact, that most schools already embed financial skills in several content areas. I asked him in the comments if his idea was just to add more curriculum requirements for schools, or if he had a substantive plan for how schools should teach financial literacy.
Although Awa presents himself as a political outsider, his response is what is expected of career politicians: “There can be no more excuses. The system fails these children.
I asked him why he thought the system was broken and whether “the system” only referred to schools. Since this is a subject he has certainly thought about, he chose not to respond.
Since January, Awa has been a substitute teacher at her alma mater, Kahuku High and Intermediate School. It’s admirable, and I hope it gives him a better perspective on these issues than his social media posts suggest.
If the whole education system is failing, as Awa says, does he really think adding financial literacy classes will make a difference? If you’re worried about the health of a fried cheeseburger, is adding a side of baby carrots the answer?
Gabbard and Awa are not the same. Gabbard is a career politician who, as far as I can tell, only cares about Hawaii insofar as she can benefit from identifying with it. I believe Awa is naïve on this issue, but I also think he is genuinely concerned about the local people.
Despite their differences in experience and motivation, they still end up saying similar, misinformed things about education, which are then repeated uncritically by their fans and supporters. How we talk about education matters.
If our plans are only to demand that schools change and nothing else, our efforts will inevitably fail, and we will continue to mistakenly think that schools are the reason for our failures, when in reality it is usually us. who are failing schools.
Leaders are supposed to guide us to solutions, but they can’t if they mislead us about why our problems exist in the first place. Saying “schools are failing” might be a good social media post, but the lack of good social media posts isn’t the problem of local politics. A lack of informed action is.
If you genuinely care about these issues – and by “these issues” I mean “our children” – then you need to demonstrate that you care about these issues by diving into the nuances and making detailed plans.
If you’re worried about literacy rates, you should also be worried about poverty, hunger, and the forces that keep families from getting involved in their children’s education.
If you’re worried about kids not understanding how to save and budget money, you also need to worry about the cost of living and the work environment in which students graduate.
If you say you want to send your children to private schools for “better opportunities,” you need to be specific about what those opportunities are and why they don’t exist in public schools.
These questions are multiple, inseparable from each other. If our plans are only to demand that schools change and nothing else, our efforts will inevitably fail, and we will continue to mistakenly think that schools are the reason for our failures, when in reality it is usually us. who are failing schools.