The Kids (and Schools) are Not Alright

Two things are becoming clearer by the day when it comes to our children and our schools.

First, our kids are under duress. The latest survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that 70% of 13-17 year olds see anxiety and depression as a major problem among people their age in the community they live.

Second, schools in their current iteration are not working for our students. The same survey showed 61% of teens report feeling “a lot of pressure to get good grades,” twice as many as said looking good or fitting in socially. Further, only 26% of our kids say they “get excited by something they study at school” every day.

If you’re an educator, how can you read those statistics and not feel more than concern? How can you not feel like we indeed have a crisis on our hands?

And, honestly, how can you not feel anger?

My anger stems from the fact that we know better. It stems from the fact that we refuse to make common sense changes that serve our students instead of clinging to legacy practice because we think it’s what others (read parents and provosts and policy makers) want. It stems from our lack of capacity or courage or commitment to look at the current landscape, to listen to our kids and say “ENOUGH!”

And so our kids suffer.

If you read my post about David Gleason a year ago, or if you listened to the podcast we did with him around the same time, you’ll know my frustration is not new. David’s book articulates “the bind” that we’re in with amazing clarity, the one that pits our kids’ mental well-being against our own self-regard. His summation from At What Cost? is worth reposting:

Behold the bind. For years and years, we have been encouraging parents to send their young adolescent children to rigorous and high-achieving secondary schools. Once they’re admitted, we instill our students with hope, and we promise them challenging academics, close student-teacher relationships, and a nurturing and supportive environment—and we mean it. Further, with their admission, we extend a seemingly equitable opportunity for a diploma, itself an implied “passport to a better life.” This is the parents’ and students’ aspiration, and it’s the aspiration for which we, as overseers of these schools, have pledged our support and have dedicated our careers. However, when our young students actually enroll, against our best intentions but driven by our own fears, we overschedule, overwork, and sometimes overwhelm them. We set them up for frustration and failure when we expect them to think and act like adults long before they have actually developed those capacities. We reward high achievement over effort, and most of all, we overfocus on the college process almost from the moment they arrive (38-39).

In other words, we honor our commitments to ourselves more than we honor our commitments to our kids.

It’s About Self-Preservation

Read that again. Seriously, how many decisions that we make are grounded in a sincere ethic of care for children as opposed to self-preservation? Imagine our reputations if we shifted our emphasis on rigor and ranking and achievement to instead, as bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress, caring for the souls of our students, which “is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin” (13).

To be sure, this crisis is no doubt caused by more than just school. Our kids know that our world is at serious risk of climate disaster within their lifetimes. Our media assaults all of us by appealing to our worst fears about literally everything (even though in many ways the world has never been better off.) We are in the crux of political and economic upheaval with very few anchors. It’s not just grades.

Regardless, it’s still our obligation as educators to treat the causes we can treat. Most continue not to do that.

Some, finally, have developed the moral spine to make some serious change happen, as in eliminating grades from the school experience for one. I’ve quoted Scott Looney of the Mastery Consortium many times in my travels who said on one of our podcasts that “There is zero research in the world that supports letter grading. None. It has never existed. Other than a terrible idea that has been corrupted, it’s fine.” To eliminate the emphasis and effect of grades as they currently define “student achievement” and “success” is the obvious right thing to do, and the hundreds of schools that have committed to doing that should be a beacon for “doing the right thing” in schools.

Yet few in education will fight that battle or any others, for that matter. Most would rather use flowery language and corporate  buzzwords to convince others that small tweaks in practice or philosophy are really bold changes. (See: “voice and choice” for instance.)

But the realities of the world today require bold change. Do we not have an obligation to make sure that our students have the coping skills to deal with what the changes in climate that are coming? Is it not on us that they develop the ability to parse and develop healthy habits around the new media channels and cultures that surround them? And isn’t it our job to make sure they develop the participation skills and literacies that now required if we are to hold on to democracy both here in the US and abroad?

Yet it’s kinda stunning how few in education will go there. Climate change is too controversial. We adults don’t really do well with new media. And to wade into the turbulent political waters is just too dangerous.

And, by the way, none of that is on the test. So really, why do it?

Time to “Go There”

I’m sorry, but we can’t give cover any longer to those who won’t “go there.” Does anyone not believe that our kids are in crisis? And whether we in education want to hear it or not, whether we’ll admit it or not, we are contributors to that crisis because we are unwilling to stop doing things that we know we shouldn’t be doing.

We know that grades are a horrible measure of learning, but we keep using them.

We know that ranking and sorting kids based on class grades or test scores borders on abuse, but we keep doing that.

We know that most of what we ask kids to learn in the service of a time worn curriculum bores them to tears and is quickly forgotten after the class is over, but we keep pretending otherwise. (If you don’t believe that, ask them.)

We know that we’re not developing in our children the skills, literacies, and dispositions to thrive in a complex, fast-changing world, but we refuse to make that a priority.

We know that learning requires passion, the agency to pursue that passion, real purpose, relevance, extended periods of time and much more, but we are loathe to privilege those conditions in our classrooms.

We know all those things and much more, but we choose (and it is a choice) to continue down a path that our kids are telling us and and our brains are telling us is not working.

I wonder, what more evidence we need to choose differently.

I wonder who will lead.


3 thoughts on “The Kids (and Schools) are Not Alright”

  1. This article highlights what my school, Mount Vernon School in Atlanta, Georgia, is already doing to “be the change”. I’m proud of the work we do and the mission we are grounded in.

    1. Lyn Hilt

      Hi, Jennifer, thanks for reading. We appreciate all that the Mount Vernon School community is doing in the world of modern learning! Continue to inspire!

  2. This is an awesome post Will!!! Personally; when I read it, it ignites so much passion and inspiration in me, it quickens my blood. At the same time, it fills me with an aching that makes me want to cry. Honestly, I want to do it!! I just don’t know how!

    Standing in this place; the unknown, is frustrating and a little lonely but I do believe I have to be here, because while it is dark and scary sometimes, it is also a cave of treasures.

    Thanks so much for your constant inspiration, you guys are definitely taking incredible action in a world that is so often lost in words.

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