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Schools should try to teach kids the basics
The New York Times opinion section put together a series of op-eds from different writers answering the question “What is school for?”
One answer, from Heather McGhee and Victor Ray, is that “School is for Making Citizens,” a thesis you could imagine going in a number of different directions. My guess is that a generation or two ago, a piece with that title would have talked about the need to instruct children in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and to remember the names and dates of various great historical personages and events. The point of citizenship education would have been to make people understand what America was fighting for in the Cold War against the Soviets. You could imagine a death rattle version of this reemerging twenty years ago in the wake of 9/11, when “they hate us because of our freedoms” was the piety of the day, and we would show them by teaching the beautiful story of American freedom.
But what McGhee and Ray mean by citizenship education today is that we should resist conservative legislative efforts to restrict presumptively left-wing teachings about race, gender, and sexuality, but especially race (Ray has a new book out about Critical Race Theory):
In our increasingly diverse nation, insulating students from lessons about racism will create a generation ill equipped to participate in a multiracial democracy. When partisan politicians ban the teaching of our country’s full history, children are purposely made ignorant of how American society works. And the costs of this ignorance to American democracy will be borne by us all.
The piece kind of rubbed me the wrong way, even though I wholeheartedly agree that partisan politicians should not censor which aspects of American history teachers are allowed to talk about. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was bothering me until I saw a later Ray tweet on a separate subject, learning loss during the pandemic.
It is, obviously, true that it is bad when children die. At the same time, we know that very, very few children have died from Covid-19. I don’t want to re-run the whole argument about school closures, just to observe that I think these two Ray takes are coming from the same place of underrating the importance of basic “three Rs” education. Citizenship is important, and it is one of the functions of the school system, but the best (and most realistic) way for K-12 schools to foster effective citizenship is to teach kids foundational literacy and math skills. Incorporating works about history or politics into the curriculum is a great idea insofar as it helps keep students engaged, but it’s best to make those core skills the North Star and try to avoid hubris and tons of polarized fights about tangential issues.
Reading is fundamental
While I didn’t agree with the op-ed, I thought McGhee’s recent book “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together” was insightful and full of powerful examples of the broad cost of divisiveness and the possibilities of shared prosperity through solidarity. The NYT published a long excerpt of the book in February 2021.
It’s a well-written, broadly accessible book, one that tries to deal seriously with important topics and discuss academic research without being a woolly, unreadable academic text. I put the NYT excerpt through a readability analyzer, and its scores ranged from grade level 10.86 on Fleisch-Kincaid to 13.43 years on the SMOG scale. This strikes me as appropriate for a book aimed at the lay public.
Unfortunately, the median American reads at something like a 5th or 6th grade level, based on representative samples tested by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Diving into the data does show that the foreign-born population brings the average down a bit, which doesn’t really reflect on the school system. The typical person born in the United States is probably at an 8th grade level rather than 6th. Still, that’s low. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Case for Reparations” scores as more readable than McGhee, but at a bit over 9th grade, is aove the reading level of the typical American. Richard Rothstein’s book, “The Color of Law,” is one of the best treatments of how systemic racism perpetrated through the housing market leaves very visible scars on the American landscape today. His NYT excerpt scores at a grade 14-16 level.
All of which is to say that improving the level of basic reading competency is basic citizenship education.
To read the books that progressives see as foundational to their understanding of race in American history, you need to be able to read better than the typical American can. And of course to really receive a well-rounded citizen-like education in these subjects, you also need to read good books written by people on the other side of some of these arguments. None of this is to defend weird gag orders that restrict what teachers can talk about, but to underscore that even within the parameters of a McGhee/Ray program, we really need to improve literacy education.
Basic math matters
These days there’s a lot of interest in math education as a foundation for jobs in engineering fields or writing code.
And that makes sense. Realistically, thinking about a path to higher living standards for underprivileged kids growing up in marginalized communities, “help students get good at math in K-12 so they can get well-paid technical jobs as adults” is a pretty good strategy. A lot of the big picture dynamics that Rothstein and McGhee talk about in their books manifest, concretely, as very unequal access to high-performing schools and to neighborhoods that facilitate upward mobility.
But beyond those aspects of math education, math turns out to be pretty important just as a basic life and citizenship skill.
The most obvious use is that a typical person going through life in the contemporary United States of America faces a lot of questions that relate to debt and investing. Should you get an auto loan to buy a car or should you insist on a car you can buy outright even if that means settling for a real beater? Most people get a mortgage at some point. Most people do at least some saving and investing in the stock market and have some access to tax-preferred retirement accounts. Most people use credit cards and at least sometimes carry credit card debt. Lots of people, it seems to me, imprudently over-indebt themselves in the early years of life. But a simple rule of thumb like “debt is bad” is also very wrong and misleading. Debt offered on attractive terms or in order to purchase investments of enduring value can be very good. I know people who are so fearful of getting into trouble with credit card debt that they don’t use credit cards, even though the economics of swipe fees and reward points means that far and away the cheapest way to buy things is to pay with a credit card and then pay off your bill.
Annamaria Lusardi, who does tons of research about financial literacy, has a really good paper showing that bad decision-making in personal finance is strongly related to just not knowing the relevant math. She gives an example of these three questions:
“If the chance of getting a disease is 10 percent, how many people out of 1,000 would be expected to get the disease?”
“If 5 people all have the winning number in the lottery and the prize is 2 million dollars, how much will each of them get?”
“Let’s say you have 200 dollars in a savings account. The account earns 10 percent interest per year. How much would you have in the account at the end of two years?”
It turns out 84 percent of people could answer the first question, 56 percent got the second right, and only 18 got the compound interest question correctly. And this is not a particularly difficult compound interest question. Nobody is trying to trick you or using weird jargon like APR. But the people in her survey mostly can’t do it. And so obviously people are not going to make great decisions with regard to credit and debt if they can’t figure out how interest works. They’re probably also not going to do a great job of thinking critically about policy issues.
Doing the work
Again, I don’t want to be a strawman who’s insisting that schools spend every hour of every day drilling kids on math and reading. It’s important for children to find school to be pleasant and engaging so incorporating other kinds of fun activities makes sense.
You also can’t teach reading without giving kids things to read. Children have diverse interests, and it’s also good to master reading a broad array of genres of writing. It’s important and appropriate to have classes on science and history and social studies, and doing this effectively requires more “woke” stuff than conservatives want to admit. At my kid’s school they have a hall with pictures of people pursuing various scientific careers, and the demographics of these young scientists are very tilted toward Black and Hispanic faces. One slightly cranky dad was rolling his eyes to me about this, but the school is mostly Black and Hispanic kids, so it seems totally reasonable to me.
“Culturally relevant pedagogy” where you try to make sure kids aren’t just reading books by white people with white characters or leaning history as a succession of things done by Important White People seems to work. And I think it’s actually pretty common sensical. There’d be nothing wrong, in principle, with American 9th graders spending the year studying the history of Thailand. But in practice, most of those kids would probably find it to be boring and irrelevant, they’d tune it out in high numbers, and it would be pedagogically counterproductive. But if we’re talking about a high school in Thailand, that’s obviously a whole different story.
In some kind of abstract ideal, perhaps everyone would have their own tutor and super-custom curriculum. In the real world, you need to make choices and target population averages. And in our increasingly diverse classrooms, there’s a strong case for teaching different stuff than schools taught a generation or two ago.
But fundamentally, these questions are secondary — the lodestar shouldn’t be “what history books are kids reading,” but “are the kids learning to read history books.” There was a recent story in Time about how Oakland Public Schools adopted a successful phonics-based curriculum, but teachers didn’t like it because they thought it was tedious. If you want to attract and retain good teachers as public school instructors, you do need to care about their preferences and quality of life. But fundamentally, we also need to use sound methods for teaching children to read, which is not what’s happening in many schools. The political system needs to focus on driving toward these basic goals and providing the financial resources needed to achieve them.
The indoctrination question
One thing that to me makes this whole citizenship push so misguided is that pretty much no matter what we do, the majority of the people working in the public school system are going to be on the left. At the same time, the population of parents if anything tilts to the right, because religious people have more kids.
So there are bound to be some concerns that school systems are indoctrinating children in ways their parents don’t approve of. And this is something we’ve been dealing with for a long time around, say, teaching evolution in biology classes. I think the sane way to navigate this is to try to reassure people that science class isn’t dunking on the Bible, even as you insist that teachers are going to teach science factually.
And in the higher education context, professors point to lots and lots of studies showing that even though a very large majority of professors are left-wing, they are not substantially changing their students’ political opinions. Which is to say they recognize, correctly, that the very left-wing tilt of academics raises suspicions in some people’s minds and that debunking those suspicions is important to making universities operate effectively and to trying to maintain a healthy degree of faculty autonomy.
But that’s exactly why it seems so perverse to me to dive into the K-12 zone, guns blazing, telling people that we want public schools to emulate SNCC Freedom Schools, where students “changed their state by organizing voter registration drives and civil rights protests and by charting a more equitable future in terms of housing, jobs and health care.” The historical SNCC was operating a volunteer campaign in the context of radical abrogation of electoral democracy in the Jim Crow south. Today, what we need to do is practice democratic politics to achieve excellent public education.
At the end of their piece, McGhee and Ray offer a diagnosis of the macropolitics that I think is correct — conservatives want to ride backlash to perceived leftist influence over public schools into dismantling the public school system, and that’s bad:
The people who resist an honest teaching of history have an economic agenda, too. They attack our children’s freedom to learn in order to create “universal public school distrust,” as Christopher Rufo, one of the leading architects of the effort to censor the teaching of race in the classroom and an advocate of school vouchers, put it. When white parents — and the tax dollars that often move with them — abandon public schools out of fear of integrated curriculums, it drains the pool of public resources from our schools. It is no surprise that some recent campaigns to pack school boards, sue districts and spread book bans are reportedly funded by some of the same secret money groups that espouse low-tax, small-government economics, while financially backing the nomination of conservative judges.
That’s completely correct. And insisting that K-12 schools need to center progressive citizenship ideals plays directly into Rufo’s hands. What you want to do is focus schools’ work on transparent and broadly acceptable curriculum goals like getting most students reading at grade level and competently solving the math problems of everyday life, while creating opportunities for the most talented students to go to competitive colleges, regardless of family background.
This is a big enough and hard enough job that we don’t need to saddle schools with tons of other expectations. Building durable consensus around investing the resources to make it happen is hard enough that we don’t need to incorporate tons of other fights. Pushing back against blunt censorship efforts makes a lot of sense to me, but part of the pushback should be assuring people that parents and educators are broadly aligned around non-ideological learning goals. And people convinced that their interpretation of historical and sociological facts about America are correct should have some faith that a literate, numerate public will be able to figure that out.