This week it was reported that Democratic Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill suspending proficiency exams for three years. These exams were taken by students in order to prove that students had reached basic levels of reading, writing and math proficiency before graduating high school.
A spokesman for the governor sent out an email to members of the media explaining it would help “Black, Latino, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color.”
Help? Is this for real?
By now the storyline is familiar. New York City decided to phase out its gifted and talented education program. The University of California system halted the use of standardized test scores in the admissions process. In California, there is a movement to “de-track” math classes so that students of all levels of ability are put into the same classroom.
Every week a new school board, mayor or governor decides it is in the best interests of their students to relax standards, lower the bar and ask the bare minimum of students. I think I speak for an overwhelming majority of Americans from all racial and economic backgrounds when I passionately and adamantly say: STOP HELPING US!
Stop it. Just stop.
You aren’t helping anyone. Not the parents who want thirteen years of school to actually add up to at least a basic dollop of skills and knowledge. Not the taxpayers who expect schools not only to stay open, but to actually take part in the arduous but essential process of asking our young children to learn how to do things they often don’t want to do: show up, pay attention, learn how to exist and thrive in a community with rules.
Most of all, you aren’t helping the kids. You are engaging in a colossal dereliction of duty. You are perpetuating a world view whose utopian assumptions lead policymakers to believe decriminalizing laws will lead to better behavior, defunding the police will somehow lower violence in the streets and now want us to believe that bestowing a hollow diploma to everyone regardless of how poorly they have performed in school somehow means everyone is now equally educated.
All of this is being done under the chic banner of “equity” by people who believe it is stealth oppression to have any expectations at all, who believe egregious behavior is just a youthful mode of communication, who think the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of teaching and education were really just a cudgel for perpetuating hierarchies.
What the average American citizen does not fully grasp is the extent to which these policies distort, pervert and colossally undermine the fundamental assumptions of the American project itself. Jefferson, Horace Mann and countless others wrote prolifically about the intimate link between an enlightened citizenry and the maintenance of a democratic order. A democratic society, however, is only as good as the demos itself. It is impossible to have a free society that is wholly disassociated with any patina of virtue and any modicum of wisdom. How can the nation be governed when people cannot govern themselves? This is what American education used to aspire to.
Here is what everyone is forgetting: education, when it is peeled back and stripped to its ultimate essence, is not about the five-paragraph essay, geometry proofs or knowing the difference between centripetal and centrifugal forces. It is about imbuing young Americans with the knowledge and capacities to use their individual freedom to maximize their God-given potential. It is about ameliorating their sensibilities, widening their sense of life’s vastness and understanding that any meaningful life requires a certain level of self-mastery, no matter one’s background.
The American school system used to be a central fixture for inculcating these habits and values. We used to understand that freedom is more than indulgence, liberty is not licentiousness, and true justice, justice that should really be capitalized — Justice! — is not a top-down diktat from woke school boards requiring all students from all backgrounds to always have the same outcomes.
True Justice prevails when liberty is freely exercised in accordance with one’s most cherished hopes and sacred beliefs.
Instead of encouraging positive liberty — Isiah Berlin’s concept in which people can do whatever they want because they have the skill set and capacity to do so — we have fetishized compassion, empathy and tolerance to the point that we have no adoration in our schools of excellence, fortitude and prodigiousness. We think excusing the inexcusable is kindness. We think pressuring teachers to pass students with a 40% is benevolence. We think we are cutting edge, avant-garde and innovative when our response to widespread failing grades is to “re-design” a “fairer” and more “modern” form of giving grades.
How about we get the kids to work harder, be more responsible and know more instead?
We readily understand when a student has a lack of food security the school should become a backstop. In the realm of athletics, we have no problem when coaches demand high standards, individual responsibility and personal accountability. The social science and scholarly literature is clear about what facilitates academic achievement: involved parents, high literacy rates, consistent academic rigor supported by robust systems of intervention and assistance. There is absolutely no contradiction between providing robust services to at-risk populations and simultaneously insisting on specific outcomes for all students.
Stop telling poor kids they can’t learn. They can. Thousands of heroic American teachers witness it every day. We enter the classroom because we believe in the romantic aspiration of widening the doors to American success. But those doors will remain shut if the school becomes nothing more than an enclave of gauging social-emotional health and entertaining students with meaningless projects and open book tests — what Robert Pondiscio labels, “the unexamined rise of therapeutic education.”
So stop. Just stop.
Don’t hire more consultants. Don’t read the latest ideas coming out of schools of education. Don’t ask a 23-year old teacher how wrong American education has been for the past two-hundred years. Let American teachers do the hard work of educating another human being.
We can do it. If you would just let us.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released book, “Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation.” He has taught high school and college civics for over two decades in Bakersfield, California.