So the latest nonsense argument about education is Critical Race Theory. What is that? Which is either looking at history with an understanding that race has been a motivating factor in the creation of many government laws and systems which may have outlived the original racist creators (which is just common sense) or a vicious progressive plan to teach all white children that they are evil just for being white. It depends on who you ask. Also, there seem to be people who are claiming it’s every single possible point in between those two extreme points.
Before we get into an argument about what it is, let’s remember that this is the latest in a long line of education issues where both sides take ridiculous positions…1776 project…1619 project…Common Core…New Math..No Child Left Behind…hell, the first of these arguments I remember is from my teens when rage against Ebonics was all the rage.
No matter what the argument is, they are based on this idea that any of these ideas or practices have infiltrated the entire education establishment. The people in charge (either school boards and their Teacher’s Union masters or the corrupt legislators beholden to big business depending on who is doing the irrational screaming) have given orders on high about this or that trend, and principals tell their teachers what the new policy is, teachers go to in-service training, and then every teacher in the school is suddenly teaching that America is always racist or that Shakespeare is irrelevant or that math is entirely new…and of course, every student will hear these unique pieces of propaganda and mindlessly imbibe them going forth for all time repeating the lies of the progress or populist about the evils of capitalism or socialism and forever work for social justice warrior or corporate shills. Again, it depends on who is telling this story…and they seem to switch with almost the regularity of the tides.
The problem is that this has absolutely nothing to do with reality.
And I say that as a veteran of two decades in education, having worked in public school, charter school, special needs schools, and online schools. I have taught almost every high school subject to nearly every grade and education level (from tutor to substitute to AP to Special Education ELL students.) And every place, I have been successful and promoted until there were ethical lines I wouldn’t cross and had to leave—thus I would say I would say I’m an above-average teacher who has a good grasp of how the education system works.
And rather than this monolithic idea that ideas come from on high and are beamed directly into the brains of students, let me tell you exactly how this might go.
Let’s take the much-ballyhooed 1619 Project as a possible example.
A school board votes to adopt the 1619 Project as part of the district standards. If the district has three high schools, one principle will be gung-ho about it; one will care about it only to the limit of the fact he doesn’t want to make waves, one will hate it and try to figure out what is the bare minimum she has to do to make it look like she is following district policy. The school board will likely never check to see if anything is being done. They will tell their staff of the new policy based on how much they care themselves. From here, there will be a small segment of teachers who either really believe in it and are gung-ho as well; then there will the new teachers who think every idea is great and buy into it even though they have no idea what it is; there will be some who hate it and will start considering what information they can also include to undermine the 1619 Project at every turn while still appearing to follow the orders from on high; there will be the veterans who don’t give a fuck what the orders from on high are—they’re teachers, and they know what they will do. Finally, there will be a vast swath who will, as always, do the bare minimum because they have tenure, and they gave us caring about the kids decades ago. Then all the teachers and administrators will be forced to go to in-service training on the 1619 Project—even the people who are gung-ho will hate this because, in the history of teacher in-service training, there has never been a single relevant, important, or interesting said. EVER. Teacher in-service is a scam designed by an idiot to get taxpayers to have these idiots teach teachers irrelevant bullshit. You know what they say, those who can’t teach, teach teachers. (Side note, I have never seen so many hip flasks in my life as when I’m at a teacher in-service…and everyone knows who has the hip flask, and we all gather around them in the closest off-campus parking lot at every break). So then this broad spectrum of teachers, all of whom have learned less than nothing at the in-service, and they will try to teach the students. Now the worst that can be said here is that if a teacher has a gung-ho principle they will probably have to waste time making a show of doing this, but if they have not bought in they will never actually teach more than the key words that any kind of test that might be given out would require.
Now there is a spectrum of students as well. There are those who have been raised to be good little progressives or those who are rebelling against populist parents who will buy into the 1619 project —every word of it—not because of the teacher but because they already looked it up. And there will be good little populists and those rebelling against their progressive parents who will disagree with all of it. There will be the students who want to learn and hear whatever their teacher says for or against and do their own research (maybe with the help of a teacher who cares about a balanced education), but they won’t just buy what the teacher said. These three groups will, at best, make up 10% of the student body. Then you will have another 10% who have mastered not drooling on themselves, not having a consistent thought in their heads, and sitting in their seat—these students when they graduate will become known as swing voters—but like their later stage, these larval forms of idiots don’t retain a single piece of information between each time they blink their eyes. A worst, this will also make up 10% of the student body. Finally, you will have the mass bulk of the student body. They will memorize whatever their teacher says only as long as they need to get the B or C on the test their parents want and then will forget everything that isn’t related to what they think they want to do in the future. None of them plan to be historians so that they will remember exactly nothing of the 1619 Project five minutes after the test.
And what do you end up with, exactly the same number of students who believed in the 1619 Project after the school board’s orders as would have considered in it if the school did nothing.
That is the deplorable state of education.
Teachers have almost no effect on students. Intelligent students are going to learn no matter what. Students who don’t care aren’t going to care until life forces them to learn something. Students who parrot ideas will parrot ideas.
This is a sad statement, but despite the fact that I have probably worked with somewhere around 2,000 students in my career, I can probably count the number of students whose life I have changed on the one hand. I introduced hundreds of smart students to a lot of new ideas…but I probably only hastened what they would have found on their own. Maybe in subtle ways, I’ve improved the lives of hundreds…but in the sense of taking a student who was doomed to never go to college or doomed to be a loser and brought them up to being a fulfilled human being, less than six. And I cherish those few students.
And I think I’ve probably done more than most teachers. But we don’t have that much of an impact on the lives of students–and we certainly can’t change the way students think.
Lots of people look back on this or that teacher as being important because they were there for them or they introduced them to this book or that idea…but the fact of the matter is most of those students who have positive visions of teacher are looking through the exaggerated rose-colored glasses of nostalgia with information gathered by the idiot brain of a teenager (and even the genius teenagers are idiots…because they’re teenagers.). They would have still been successful in life even if that teacher had not been there for them. Study after study after study shows that the values and habits that make for a successful student are set before a child sets foot in pre-school. That’s sad, but it’s true. Yeah, if a school system has a really good series of teachers that from pre-K to 12th, they might be able to change the lives of students. But the fact is that every school system is, in reality, a mishmash of inept, apathetic, competent, and great teachers. Next to no student gets a consistent line of great teachers. (There are a few charter schools that have famously been able to be the exception, but the fact is that they’ll never be able to expand their success to an entire nation.)
And then, of course, there is the problem that all of this is making mountains out of molehills. The 1619 Project has been around for a few years, but I still have not seen a single news article that can point to a school that is using the 1619 Project as the basis for their history curriculum. I’m sure there is a handful out there. And I’m sure this a smattering of idiot teachers who have adopted it on their own…but like all screaming about this or that idea in education, the most you can show is a dozen or so teachers in the whole country who are doing anything for or against. You have an easier job herding cats than finding any consistency in education policy. The Department of Education declared that through scientific research, Phonics is better than Whole Language almost 20 years ago…go into any elementary school in America today and you’ll still anywhere from a third to two-thirds of the teachers still using Whole Language. There is no plan or consistency; it’s just teachers doing whatever the hell they want.
So when people scream to the heavens about Critical Race Theory, I have to laugh. It doesn’t matter. I’m sure some dumb teachers will teach it in its worst form, and some will teach a knee-jerk, equally bad version against it. But on the whole smart students will do their own reading and the ones who don’t care won’t care.
Until you want to switch to an entirely voucher-based system until you want to enforce higher standards for teachers and set basic standards for every school until you want to destroy the Teacher’s Union (along with all public unions) until you want to do a dozen other more important reforms no educational movement (for good or for ill) that the media wants to focus on is very irrelevant because it has no chance of actually becoming an effective policy anywhere.