Amid the coronavirus lockdown, many are understandably getting anxious for children to return to school. But let’s not forget the challenges that many students faced within the public school system as it existed before the coronavirus.
Recently, I put terms such as “school,” “high school,” and “my school” into the search engine of TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and other social media sites. The results were alarming, with videos and articles of teenagers recounting all the reasons why they hated school. They described in detail every place they’d rather be than school.
On TikTok, students challenged one another to come up with an acronym, and here are some of the reader-appropriate items they wrote: “School: Six Cruel Hours Of Our Lives” and “Homework: Half Of My Energy Wasted On Random Knowledge.”
It didn’t stop there. This year’s #ILovePublicSchools Twitter campaign took an unintended turn when students and parents gave open and honest responses about their frustrations with the public school system, citing incidences related to bullying, depression, school safety, and overall contempt.
We simply cannot deny that millions of our students believe it’s normal to associate bad experiences with their school. Federal data from 2016 show that over 20% of students in public schools reported that they were bullied. A number of studies correlated the peaks in teenagers’ suicidal thoughts and self-harm attempts with the school calendar.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). The Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text messages to people in crisis when they text to 741741.
Vexingly, some defenders of the status quo assert that parents cannot be trusted to do what is best for their children. Maybe some optimists believe that violent or traumatic experiences in schools build character and resiliency. However, since the school system was not designed to foster such experiences in a positive fashion, we need only look at dropout rates, learning gaps between socioeconomic groups, and the broad lack of proficiency on national tests to become more pessimistic.
When suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teenagers 15-19, only behind traffic deaths, the pessimism can turn into outright despondency.
In recent years, stories of bullying have spurred headlines nationwide and stirred state lawmakers to act to protect students while in school. Just last year, the Department of Education concluded the Federal Commission on School Safety with a nearly 200-page report filled with recommendations to assist with preventing school violence.
In addition to the rising concerns about physical and emotional well-being, worries abound related to educational quality. Students have actually sued their district schools for not providing them with an adequate education or for educational malpractice. (See here and here).
Social media isn’t my only window into the challenges children have with school. By the time I reached the fifth grade, I, too, hated school. I failed the third grade twice. School became a place I had to go to keep my mother from going to jail due to truancy laws.
However, I loved middle school and high school. What changed? I received a tax-credit scholarship to attend a small private school that met my needs. I was given hope in my ability to learn. I believed in myself more, and so did my teachers. My math and reading scores improved. I even got to skip a grade. I was given educational freedom. I was empowered to choose the best path for my life.
I’ve interacted with hundreds of students who’ve had similar experiences: Walter Blanks Jr., Elijah Robinson, Gabby Chiodo, Nicole Serrato, and more. When given the opportunity to attend the school that addressed their needs, talents, and interests, they thrived.
While nobody would wish mandatory school closures on society writ large, there is no denying that many students and families have seen a silver lining. Consequently, many families may struggle to send their children back to places that make them unhappy. But their future is not devoid of hope. Indeed, there may be no better time to trust parents and reimagine the outdated, one-size-fits-all education delivery system to which we’ve become accustomed. With a reference to Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham, Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, said, “Children hate school because, in school, they are not free. Joyful learning requires freedom.”
Imagine a scenario in which all students are thriving. They learn in different environments, at different times, in ways that suit their interests and needs. They are excited to go to school, and they feel safe. Imagine a school system that is flexible and allows parents to be empowered and engaged.
It is time for us to rethink education once and for all.
Denisha Merriweather is the director of family engagement at the American Federation for Children.
Published at Wed, 20 May 2020 10:52:00 +0000