In the United States, some school districts have already started the new school year and the rest will follow over the next couple of weeks.
In many places, the situation is fraught.
First, an organizational primer for those outside the US. The United States, unlike many countries, does not have a national education system. The various states exercise control over the curriculum and policies to greater or lesser degrees, depending on the state. The greatest degree of control usually rests with local school boards.
It’s a mixed blessing.
In some districts, the local school boards have bought into the notion that something as simple as having a book that includes a gay character in the library is akin to “grooming” students to be gay. Or that it isn’t permissible to discuss racism because it might make white students feel bad or guilty. This puts teachers in the uncomfortable position of being afraid to teach history, civics, literature, science, etc. in the way that they were trained to do as educators.
Some of these issues are even more pronounced when they become a state policy. The most prominent example of this at the moment is Florida. This school year marks the beginning of enforcement of the Parental Rights in Education Act, informally known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The most prominent provision of the law is that there must be no classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The reasoning is that these topics should be totally controlled by (heterosexual) parents.
But, here’s the thing. We use gendered language ALL THE TIME. Some of the first sight words that children learn – mother, father, boy, girl, man, woman, he, she – are all gendered terms. Are teachers supposed to use gender-neutral words at all times, referring to students, parents, and siblings rather than using such common terms as boys and girls, moms and dads, and brothers and sisters? What if a student asks why the family picture a classmate drew has two moms or two dads? Will the teacher be sued if they say anything beyond “ask your parents”?
Florida is also facing what has been termed a “critical teacher shortage.” It’s hard to say how much is due to curriculum concerns versus low pay, lack of administrative support, large class sizes, contract provisions, etc. Teacher shortages are fairly common in the United States, especially in math and science. To fill gaps, some states allow people to teach subjects in which they are not certified or even allow people to teach who are not certified at all.
Meanwhile, teachers and schools are under COVID-related pressures. Although almost all students, teachers, and staff are eligible, many remain unvaccinated, raising the risk of illness. During the pandemic, some students fell far behind academically during the period of remote instruction and need highly qualified teachers and extra tutoring to help them catch up to grade level. Teachers are also struggling with the mental health and developmental needs of students who faced fear, uncertainty, and isolation for months and now struggle with inattention, misbehavior, and lack of age-appropriate social skills. Some teachers are opting to retire as soon as they are eligible rather than continue under these stresses.
In some areas, schools are dealing with church/state issues, as well. Because of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the government may not establish a religion. However, a couple of recent decisions by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court have poked holes in what had been termed the wall of separation between church and state. Both cases benefit the expression of Christianity; I wonder if the decisions would have been the same if they had been about public prayer by Muslims, for example. In some localities or states, there are even instances of (white) Christian nationalism creeping into school curricula, such as teaching that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, which it was not, and downplaying the role of enslavement and indigenous land theft/genocide in our national history.
A lot of this is supposedly done in the name of parental rights, that is, that parents are the ones who should determine what their children learn in public school. I don’t agree with that. I look upon public education as a public good. I want free, high-quality education for every student so they can grow into responsible, mature members of our communities. They need to learn wide-ranging skills in communication, quantitative and scientific skills, technology, social studies and civics, and the arts. Having a broad base helps to develop critical and creative thinking and to identify where a student’s interests lie. Learning in community teaches how to work together and solve problems in a civil way. That was my expectation when I chose to send my children to public school. If my priority had been to control what they were exposed to, I would have opted to home school them. If I wanted them to have learn through a faith-based approach, I would have sent them to a religious school.
I don’t believe that a subgroup of parents should be able to dictate the learning environment of all children in our public schools. If a parent thinks that a certain assignment is inappropriate for their child, the vast majority of schools have a mechanism to assign an alternative. However, that parent should not have the power to say that the other students can’t undertake the original assignment. If those parents don’t understand that in terms of community values, they should at least understand that the parents of the other students have the same right to direct their child’s education as they do. If a parent thinks that all/most of the assignments are inappropriate for their child, it’s time to either homeschool or send their child to a private or religious school that meets their needs.
With my daughters in their thirties and my grandchildren abroad, I admit that I am grateful to have been spared the personal pressures of education during the pandemic. There is a lot of ground to make up for students in the US. Let’s concentrate on that for the good of their future and our country.