During the late 1940s and 1950s, Americans feared nuclear war. As a result, children practiced air raid drills and in the Renton School District where I grew up, there were rumors about black limousines taking us to safety in case of a nuclear attack. Where that place of safety was, we were never told. Where all the black limousines would come from also was a mystery.
Since that time, American schools have become the focus of society to solve the nation’s problems both internally and externally. Schools have proved to be only partially successful in curing those societal ills.
In the 1950s, race became the issue in the South, but the whole nation was transfixed by black-and-white TV pictures of black demonstrators being beaten by police and arrested, of “freedom buses” burning, of desegregation in the South and busing of students in the North.
With the launch of the Soviet Sputnik in 1957, the American government went crazy trying to catch up with the Russians. “New Math” was imposed to create more scientists and college-ready students. All it did was create confusion and frustration.
Because of New Math geometry, I gave up taking math altogether.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, during the Vietnam War and race riots, the Supreme Court made the mistake of giving minor students their constitutional rights, when they were too immature to handle them. Supreme Court decisions about freedom of speech and protest and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures roiled public schools and disrupted the educational process through the 1990s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, HIV and AIDS became the concern of the nation. Social studies teachers like me had to be trained to teach students about the dangers of unprotected sex and needle use. The expectation was that teens were “doing it” and public education needed to protect them, not only from unwanted pregnancies, but also from sickness and a horrible death. Parents were too ignorant, too busy, or too embarrassed to teach their own children. The job fell to the schools.
In the 2000s came the federal “No Child Left Behind.” State testing became the focus of public education. Less time was spent on curriculum and more time was spent on “teaching to the test.”
Toward the mid-2000s, dropout rates became the focus. The answer was to teach students conflict resolution through peer mediation and to build communities through peer mentoring – giving connections to students who weren’t getting their social/emotional needs met at home.
School security personnel and additional vice principals were added to deal with increasing behavioral disruptions. The cost of public school continued to rise due to having to shoulder ever-greater burdens from rising poverty and family breakdown.
In the last few years, the concern became bullying and protecting gays and students who are LGBT and dealing with transgender restrooms. That battle is yet to be fought out in the courts.
Why have public schools become the dumping grounds for society’s ills? Part of the problem not discussed, “the elephant in the room,” is the breakdown of the American family. Both parents working, high divorce rates, single-parent families, poverty, the influence of drugs and changing cultural attitudes about premarital sex brought about by the development of the birth control pill in the 1960s, have all found their supposed solutions in the public schools.
Unfortunately, schools are not equipped during a six- or seven-hour school day nine months of the year to deal with all these social problems. Yet, it is easier and more expedient to expect schools to fix the nation’s ills than it is to face reality and deal head-on with family breakdown and poverty.
Schools are not equipped to handle all these problems, even though recent programs called “wraparound services” and “whole child education” have been created to teach our nation’s children the social skills they are not getting at home. It will not be enough.
Public schools were originally designed to teach academics so students could become productive workers and civically minded citizens needed for a flourishing democracy.
It is time we Americans face reality about public education. We are demanding too much of our schools while we continue to ignore the real causes for our nation’s ills. Repeating our mistakes over and over again in hopes of a different result is the definition of insanity. We need shock therapy to stop this vicious cycle begun in the 1950s of expecting schools to solve societal problems.
The elephant in the room of every public school classroom is the breakdown of the American family and the increase in poverty.