American Public Education Is Beyond Crisis Mode

More than half a century ago, philosopher and historian Ivan Illich famously warned against the growing bureaucratization of state-sponsored schools. Education, he wrote, “converts a good that people might autonomously cultivate into a scarce commodity accessible only through an institution.” What has since transpired, at least in American schools at every level, has more than vindicated that warning.

The bureaucratization of American education originated in the 1840s under the guidance of Horace Mann.  While Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, he advocated the Prussian approach—essentially a militaristic model that transformed community-organized schools that were then primarily home or church schools, into factories for the mass production of well-behaved future citizens of the burgeoning American nation.

The egalitarian thrust of this transformation became far more pernicious, however, during the Great Society reforms of the 1960s, which brought a massive expansion of bureaucratic control and interference from both federal and state agencies over local public schools. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) galvanized the move to authorize federal intervention in local schools to enforce equality of access. Multiple ESEA amendments in subsequent years extended the act’s bureaucratic reach and complexity, while, in 2002, “No Child Left Behind,” enacted by President George W. Bush, made schools follow a regime of excessive test preparation to avoid federally mandated sanctions. Not to be outdone, President Barack Obama launched the “Race to the Top” program, another ESEA spin-off, which sought to fully nationalize the K-12 curriculum—a goal first imagined by Horace Mann—via the implementation of the so-called “Common Core.”

Little surprise, then, that between 1950 and 2015, according to the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice, the “number of public school administrators and nonteaching staff has grown seven times as fast as student enrollment” and three times faster than the number of new teachers. As reported by the Heartland Institute, Benjamin Scafidi, an economist for the Friedman Foundation has found little or no evidence that student testing scores improve as a result of this monstrous bureaucratic bloat. “Nonteaching staff” typically includes curriculum specialists, guidance counselors, social workers, and school psychologists who have scant accountability to school principals or parents. National Review reporters Martha Bradley-Dorsey and Robert Maranto summarize the problem: “Both students and staff are chewed up by a bureaucratic machine that favors ever larger budgets, not to mention fads from self-esteem building to personalized learning that are adopted and then discarded on a regular basis.”

Among the most insidious of the programs introduced in recent years is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), a mode of “instruction” pioneered largely by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Perusing the CASEL Guide for Teachers, its goals seem, on the surface, anodyne enough: raising student self-awareness and promoting empathy for others. Self-awareness, in this case, includes “identity” awareness and sensitivity to the identities of others. According to its “Signature Practices Playbook,” CASEL urges teachers to transform classrooms into “safe spaces” where our society’s pervasive inequities can be addressed—inequities that are “rooted in race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social class, home language, one’s region of the country, etc.”

CASEL goes on to inform us that these inequities, “undermine opportunities to learn in deep and meaningful ways and the chance for every person to achieve excellence in school, career, and other life pursuits.” On its SELSpace page, gender identity is defined as “Each person’s internal and individual experience of gender. It is a person’s sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum. A person’s gender identity may be the same as or different from their birth assigned sex.” Nowhere does the SEL literature acknowledge that this kind of soft coercion might be in conflict with the moral instruction students receive in the home.

While it is true that CASEL does not explicitly endorse, for instance, transgenderism or other transgressive sexualities, it certainly does so by default in placing such identities on a “spectrum” of lifestyle “choices.” The implication is that all choices are equal and deserving of empathy and respect.

Among CASEL’s more well-known supporting organizations is ACT (American College Testing). Known for being one of the gatekeepers for college admissions, ACT has declared on its website its endorsement of SEL programs, and that website also includes a link for an organization called “The Trevor Project.” Trevoris a nonprofit consortium ostensibly designed to combat LGBTQ teen suicides. The Project offers confidential counseling via text, chat, or phone, and a video roundtable series called “Sharing Space.” The most current roundtable features “transgender, intersex, queer, and nonbinary young people who join Nova Bright-Williams, Head of Internal Training, Learning, and Development at Trevor, to talk about their experiences with gender euphoria, stigma, and acceptance.” For the uninitiated, “gender euphoria” is a term mobilized by LBGTQ activists to counteract the negative connotations of “gender dysphoria.” According to a study of gender euphoria posted on the National Institutes of Health website, the latter coinage is used “to describe the powerfully positive emotions that can come from one’s gender/sex.”

Given the close linkage between CASEL, ACT, and organizations like Trevor, we can be sure that middle and high school guidance counselors across America are routinely passing along the Trevor “hotline” to gender confused students, and doing so without the consent of parents. So what are parents to do? To refer to the current situation in America’s public schools as a “crisis” is, by now, laughable. The situation is beyond dire, and for concerned parents the alternatives are few. As I argued at Chronicles in February, charter schools offer only superficial solution, since despite exercising greater control over curriculum and academic emphases, they remain subject to local, state, and federal bureaucratic intervention.

According to Megan Alwine, one of the founders of the Highlands Latin School in Charleston, South Carolina (a “cottage” school based on the Highlands classical model out of Kentucky), charter schools suffer from two further deficiencies: First, their admissions are typically based on a lottery system (to ensure equal access) and thus it is difficult for such schools to maintain high academic standards. Second, even if a charter school’s aims are rooted in a traditional classical and/or Christian model, parental involvement will likely be less than ideal.

Alwine explains: “One problem with charter schools … is that everyone is desperate to get their kids into anything except a neighborhood school, both because the neighborhood schools are mostly bad and because there’s a stigma attached to sending your kids to your zoned school…. The idea that charter and magnet schools draw people interested in a particular area of study or pedagogical approach doesn’t apply.”  Charter schools that emphasize classical learning “may have a few students whose parents are eager for their kids to get a classical education, but most won’t care a bit about Latin. Classical education is hard. It won’t work if students go home to parents who think that learning Latin is a waste of time.”

In short, the road ahead for concerned parents lies either with private schools, especially those grounded in a religious affiliation, or homeschooling, preferably combined with the cottage school option, which entails face-to-face interaction with teachers in a traditional classroom setting for at least two days a week. Of course, private schools can be expensive, and the homeschooling alternative can be an enormous challenge for parents, requiring a serious sacrifice of time and energy. But the failure to make that sacrifice may mean that one’s children will be forced to wander, defenseless, through the miasma of the therapeutic culture that today is part of every aspect of public education.

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