The Futility of School Reform

American schools are hardly noted for their academic excellence, but post-COVID data have fueled a near panic. Statistics from the well-regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress showed historic declines in reading and math scores. Similar bad news comes from civic literacy tests. One analyst calls these sorrowful numbers a “wakeup call.”

With billions available to miracle workers and tempting opportunities for ideological indoctrination, reform proposals have proliferated. As the saying goes, never let a crisis go to waste, and our recent educational tribulations are windfalls for reformers.  Among the best funded, is the Educating for American Democracy (EAD) project that enjoys generous government support and involved some 300 diverse scholars and practitioners with links to prestige universities. Predictably, its message is both alarmist -- we now risk losing our democracy -- and very left wing.  The Hillsdale College 1776 Curriculum project by contrast offers K-12 lesson plans stressing America’s traditional virtues and accomplishment. And the list of magic bullets goes on and on.

Unfortunately, all these nostrums will be enshrined in a future Museum of Educational Failures alongside such disasters as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and countless other expensive, now forgotten gimmicks.

Why the inevitable failure? All these proposed nostrums focus entirely on content, and any experienced teacher knows that if children refuse to learn and schools refuse to discipline classroom disruptors, all well-funded schemes fail. It matters little what is in the books if students refuse to read them.

Ironically, everybody, save perhaps Ivory Tower experts, knows this unspeakable truth about how chaotic classrooms impede learning. Don’t believe the fantasies about miracle workers transforming disorderly ghetto schools thanks to their heroic idealism. Actual accounts by experienced teachers in such schools tell of their endless frustrations with unruly students, unending school violence, and a widespread disdain for studying. Critically, these grim first-hand reports detail teachers being hindered from imposing classroom order. Breaking up a fight invites legal punishment for the teacher while honestly reporting school violence risks being fired or school closures. Keeping the peace means social promotions, even faking the data, and tolerating failure.  

Tales of out-of-control schools regularly surface.  A report from the D.C. Policy Center tells how the Washington D.C.’s often violent public school system has been boosting graduation rates while measured student academic achievement fell. Horror stories from majority Black school systems in cities like Baltimore tell of illiterates graduating in the top of their class.  Nearly everyone knows why Whites flee schools as Black enrollment increases. Ironically, when professional educators finally confront these educational dystopias, everything adheres to the Black victimization narrative -- yes, Blacks are routinely disproportionately punished, but this punishment just reflects society’s inherent racism.

Imposing the order vital for learning is not rocket science. Schools, especially Catholic schools, with sizable Black enrollments have long succeeded in this task. The formula entails forcing students to sit still and pay attention, delay gratification, speak grammatically correct English, never curse, respect authority, obey teachers who employ non-violent punishment such as humiliation, hold parents accountable for their child’s misconduct, promote only the qualified. demand everyone be prepared and similar “old-fashioned” virtues. In short, assume that the school’s first task is to civilize youngsters, even those initially disinclined to master book learning. Without civilizing discipline, nothing works.

The paradox is that the leftist ideological indoctrination also depends on effective schools. No teacher can successfully impart Critical Race Theory or the 1619 Project if students are busy fighting in the hallways or clowning around. Regardless of ideology, everyone benefits in getting kids to learn. Or it would seem so.

Unfortunately, racial ideologues reject this pro-discipline message. Even broaching it is the Third Rail of today’s education reform industry. Imagine if a believer in school discipline were appointed Secretary of Education and then demanded that schools impose order or be defunded. To this end, national inspectors would cease ferreting out gender discrimination and instead, unannounced, visit schools to observe actual classrooms to determine if they facilitate learning.

The reaction would be outrage, especially among those embracing the Critical Race Agenda. Forget about pleading that poor black kids are most in need of effective schools that teach economically relevant skills such as punctuality, proper speech, controlling anger, and perseverance. For these racial radicals, this message is nonsense since “we all know” that America’s schools fail because they are underfunded, racist, and segregated, while the dismal test scores are “really” due to poverty, capitalism, and economic inequality.

If anything, “educational reform” for racial activists condemns what facilitates learning. Policies such as dispensing discipline according to racial proportions or replacing punishment with restorative justice will only exacerbate existing disorder.  Ditto for hiring teachers by race versus those knowing how to manage a classroom. In some instances violence in largely Black schools is blithely dismissed as merely a reaction to historic injustices.

This discipline-centered reform will be attacked as White supremacy that imposes White standards on people of color. Woke educators will explain that the reform will reverse decades of struggle to decolonialize the curriculum and foster environments that do not marginalize the oppressed. Dreadful test scores, moreover, are irrelevant in the march to racial and social justice. 

Nor will it matter that tolerating chaotic schools for Blacks widen academic gaps and thus promotes economic inequality. Given a choice, some racial activists may find awful academic outcomes preferable to “acting White,” and where Black activists exercise political influence, this destructive view may well prevail. Indeed, the very idea of an orderly classroom where obedient students quietly study may be condemned as “White” and therefore unacceptable.  

America struggles with a deep divide in defining education. A small percentage, disproportionately Whites, Asians, Indians, plus many recent Black immigrants, view education as the great escalator to economic mobility. Diligence in orderly schools is the necessary price to pay for advancement. For others, including many educationally indifferent Whites, school is inherently unpleasant, something to be tolerated and escaped from as quickly as possible.  

Today’s education reform project is part of the culture wars, not a universally shared quest for academic excellence. Proponents of excellence must recognize the awkward reality that not everyone is willing to pay the necessary price. Most educational reformers refuse to accept this stubborn fact and insist that their reform proposals will be hailed as the Messiah.

Those anxious about America’s future may nevertheless find some good news here. Teachers embracing the radical racial agenda for their Black pupils may well confront students unwilling to learn anything. While these ideologues prattle on about America’s evil racist past, their students will be fixated on their iPhones and picking fights. In an odd way, out-of-control schools may be our best defense against those who insist upon teaching dangerous nonsense.

Image: Library of Congress

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