How American Education is Failing Us
Recently I read an article in the Washington Post about the reactions of some Trump supporters to his loss in the 2020 general election. It’s mainly what you’d expect: while most Americans, whatever their political persuasion, accept the outcome, a fair share of those most devoted to the outgoing president claim—without any evidence whatsoever—that the election was stolen. Also unsurprising is where these ardent supporters get their information. In nearly every case, those interviewed came to their beliefs by “reading things from the Internet.” Not from a vetted mainstream media outlet, which they distrust, just “from the Internet.”
It’s the common thread connecting these last five years. Lies, extremist ideas, and conspiracy theory hooked straight into the American cerebral cortex via social media platforms, Facebook being the most notorious, creating a media bubble that gins up its followers providing them not only false narratives, but also “alternative facts” to support them.
Climate change is a Chinese hoax. Coronavirus is a deep state conspiracy. The election was rigged. Such things are more than cynical talking points for tens of millions of Americans, they are absolute, observable, and verifiable reality, even while objectively all such claims can be proven false.
Propaganda is common and every institution/political party/media outlet wields it to some extent. The issue is not disinformation in itself—although its abundance and reach in the modern era are alarming—the real problem is that most Americans are not equipped to either identify or resist it.
And the fault for this lies with our antiquated/outdated and underfunded education system.
At the heart of the problem is how we teach. While much lip service is paid to hierarchies of learning and teaching skills such as critical or creative thinking, the reality is American schools teach to test.
Many critics will point to 2001’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its 2015 update the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) as the major cause for this obsession with testing, but these laws simply further incentivized a trend that had been growing for decades. Since at least 1965, following the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ever greater emphasis has been placed on testing, specifically of reading and math, as a way to ascertain both student and school success.
No other country in the world tests students as much as the United States.
And because we test so much, the quality of American tests tend to be lower than those of other countries. Singapore, for instance, which outperforms the United States on nearly all international metrics, only tests their students three times throughout their entire education, with tests filled with skill checks so that students can demonstrate not only retention but understanding and mastery.
The other problem is that because so much pressure is placed on schools, administrators, and teachers to perform well on standardized tests (underperforming schools face funding cuts or even closures) reading and math get ever more emphasis over other subject areas such as social studies or civics. And while schools do spend more time on reading and math the quality of test prep is increasingly low. As Harvard professor Daniel Koretz, author of The Testing Charade, points out in a 2018 interview, “Bad test prep is test prep that is designed to raise scores on the particular test rather than give kids the underlying knowledge and skills that the test is supposed to capture.”
It should come as no surprise that under both NCLB and ESSA, reading and math scores either remained the same or dropped. What’s more, due to the fact that school funding is directly tied to testing outcomes some school districts have opted to cheat, resulting in huge scandals.
Education is essential to a functioning democracy.
It was the reason public education came into existence in the first place. The advocates of public education, including Thomas Jefferson, believed that schools would train people into how to be free-thinking, critical citizens, and would bring all kinds of people together to forge a national identity. Nations are imagined communities, if we stop believing in our imagined community the nation ceases to exist.
In a nutshell, schools were never meant to prepare kids for their careers. They were built as incubators for good citizenship.
But our schools have not emphasized civics in decades and critical thinking was sacrificed on the altar of testing long ago. For generations, and even more so in the last twenty years, we have raised tens of millions of children with no understanding of how their government works, why its institutions are essential, and most importantly, how to examine the world critically. And this is why today, an untold number of Americans are ready to dismantle democracy because of something they saw on Facebook.
Until we overhaul our education system and reconsider not only how we’re teaching but what we’re teaching, we will continue to see disinformation spread without challenge, and democracy weaken to the point of collapse.