Back to School in Crisis

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Mon, 09/25/2023 - 9:00am to 10:00am

Back to School in Crisis: Claims that education is in crisis often mischaracterize the nature of the problems and of the solutions. The problems do not arise from remote learning, nor from the accurate teaching of US racial history, nor the respecting of children's gender identities. The broader crises of climate, economy, and health present particular dangers and challenges for young people and their teachers, and the solutions are not AI, privatization, or censorship, but solidarity, democracy, and clearing the air. Frann Michel explains it all in more back-to-school commentary.

Photo by Brian J Matis and licensed under Creative Commons:


text/transcript (scroll down for audio):

Schools can be great places--not only providing opportunities for learning and discovery and growth, with gifted and dedicated teachers, and chances for students to form relationships with each other across all sorts of differences of culture and background, but also offering hubs for material resources, like food  and healthcare.  Public schools, especially, with unionized teachers, can help create broader community connections and foster egalitarian civic values.

But schools can also be dangerous places, and I'm not even going to go into the danger of gun violence, addressed by Sharon Grant in this episode of the Old Mole Variety Hour.

Schools are of course not isolated from the wider social problems of violence and policing, of economic inequality and precarity, of climate collapse, or of the continuing pandemic; they are an arena of struggle over the kind of world we want. 

Public education is under attack, with legislative assaults on accurate teaching of racial history in the US, on the dignity and rights of queer people, and on teacher autonomy.

Oregon has been spared some of this trouble.  The state still requires a diverse social studies curriculum, and has not gone the way of Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, or other states  that are banning books or adopting curriculum from PragerU.

Despite its misleading name, Prager is not an accredited university but a right wing foundation with funding from a long list of right wing allies.

Their purportedly educational videos include shorts  comparing climate change denialism to the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis; a cartoon Fredrick Douglass praising the Founding Fathers and calling the constitution a "glorious liberty document"; and a video advising young women to make themselves "pretty,” “embrace the idea of being a wife and a mother,” and “try smiling.”

Meanwhile, seventeen states have new anti-lgbtq education laws, including rules banning trans students from playing on teams or using bathrooms that align with their gender identities, requiring pronouns to align with sex assigned at birth, or restricting classroom discussion of lgbtq issues or sex education.

Even without or beyond such laws, the effect has been chilling, with teachers worried about sanctions from administrators and complaints from parents.  And certainly queer and nonbinary students and students of color have felt  the effects of this movement in hate speech and harassment.   

In Oregon, none of the anti-LGBTQ measures proposed in the state legislature this year have succeeded, so young people  can still hope that teachers will respect their identities and provide them an accurate version of history.

Anecdotal reports suggest that more people are moving to Oregon to escape states where over 80 new anti-LGBTQ+ laws have passed, not only affecting education, but also  blocking funding for gender-affirming care, and limiting people from updating gender information on IDs and records.

But of course that doesn't mean everyone in Oregon or its schools is queer positive and antiracist, or that kids and teachers won’t be harassed, bullied or otherwise harmed.

The Oregon Department of Education has a Student Success Plan for students who are  Lesbian, Gay, Transgender/non-binary, Queer/Questioning, Two-Spirit, Intersex,  Asexual, and those with myriad other gender identities & sexual orientations, though the 2020 policy review acknowledges that “Implementation of current anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies on their own do not create safe and affirming school spaces for LGBTQ2SIA+ students”; that  inclusive curriculum needs to be expanded and integrated into other initiatives; and that state guidance on these issues "may not be well known among educators." 

Educators will presumably be made aware of a new state law  that did pass, requiring High School students to take a half credit in "financial literacy,"  though they may not learn that, as reported in Rethinking Schools, such curricula tend to rest on the neoclassical economic paradigm that centers individual choices in the market, and often "ultimately blame individuals for systemic problems, reinforcing an assumption that our capitalist political economy is a meritocracy, and that people exploited and oppressed must have a deficit of knowledge, intelligence, morality, or discipline — as if people become millionaires by skipping lattes to invest in stocks."

The capitalist interests promoting so-called financial literacy share some ground with those promoting panic about American history and about the complexity of gender and sexuality (not to mention those promoting denial of climate crisis and the ongoing pandemic).

Sinclair Broadcasting, the right-wing conglomerate that owns hundreds of television stations around the United States, has a "national K-12 education franchise" called "Crisis in the Classroom,"  airing on 73 local news stations, including Portland's KATU, helping to foster concern about wokeness and to promote school vouchers that undermine funding for public schools.

But according to a recent commentary from the Brookings Institution, it is not true that COVID-19 led to a mass exodus from public schools.  Despite what you might have read in the New York Times, there was little impact on public school enrollments, and polls showed most families were satisfied with how public schools handled the pandemic.

Families in some Oregon school districts might be a little less happy now, since "Portland Public Schools and the Beaverton School District are both using [new] guidelines from the Oregon Health Authority over those recommended by the CDC. This means students can now go to school if they test positive for COVID but are asymptomatic.  CDC guidelines still recommend that people stay home and isolate for at least five days after testing positive" and that people continue to wear a mask for another five days. 

But since the new guidelines mean that students who are actively infectious can now exhale freely into the air shared by their classmates and teachers, we can expect more cases of COVID.  And since repeat cases, even asymptomatic or mild cases, increase the risk of bodily damage and Long Covid, we can expect more illness and early death

Many Oregon schools have been provided with new HEPA air filters through a federal program, but the filters have reportedly not always been distributed to classrooms, or, when they are in classrooms, they have not always been turned on.  (Here’s a tip to parents, teachers, and students:  actually running a HEPA  air filter and wearing a close-fitting, high filtration mask both reduce your risk of contracting Covid).     

The decision to bring even infectious kids back to the classroom may result from the US Department of Education's concern about declining attendance, and perhaps the grant funding made available for increasing attendance.   The USDOE acknowledges that student attendance is significantly impacted by things like "students’ physical and mental health" and "housing instability"--though unfortunately  this doesn't seem to be leading to federal support for wearing respirator masks or guaranteed secure housing.  

As for young people's mental health, the value of activism as "an antidote to climate related anxiety" suggests they might benefit more from participating in a Youth Climate Strike than from attending another school day.  

With respect to the pandemic, although illness, death, and the loss of caregivers are obviously traumatic, and have disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities, some studies have shown that remote schooling improved adolescent mental health, with reductions in suicide attempts, self-harm, and overdoses--perhaps because they were freed from the harassment and bullying they faced at school. 

So when the Portland Public Schools HR director  worries about "learning loss," comparing the effect of a potential teachers' strike to the effect of the pandemic, it's worth pausing to consider what's involved. 

Portland teachers have been working almost a year without a contract, and bargaining with the district reached an impasse earlier this month.  Teachers need compensation adequate to afford stable housing for themselves; they need time to prepare their lessons and respond to student work; and–since  years of research demonstrate that kids learn better in classes half the size they are in some Portland schools–students need smaller class sizes.

As  Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has noted,

“A real plan for recovery from the devastation of the pandemic in public education can be found in the strikes initiated by teachers and their unions. Their demands—for smaller class sizes, better conditions within school buildings, more resources to attend to students’ mental health, and higher pay for teachers and teacher assistants—have created a map for how to boost learning achievement.”

The Chicago Teacher's Union won gains in 2019 with their model of bargaining for the public good, and that dedication to community solidarity--across all our issues and all our crises--exemplifies some of the promise and power of public education in our work together for a better world. 

For the Old Mole Variety Hour, this has been Frann Michel.



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