How the pandemic exposed the failures of the American education system
Frida Berrigan, Investing in the Pentagon, Not Our Children
The United States is a war state of the strangest sort. Your taxes go to war — in this century, losing wars — in ever more extravagant amounts. There’s simply no end to it. In fact, it’s safe to say that investing yet greater sums in the military-industrial complex is about the only subject on which congressional Republicans and Democrats seem capable of agreement (though even there, the Republicans are demanding more, much more!).
Meanwhile, as TomDispatch has recorded over all these years, this is a country that seems to be coming apart at — okay, I’m an editor, but I still can’t resist using the same-sounding word twice in this sentence — yes, the seams. If you don’t believe me, ask Trump appointee Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, the Florida District Court “judge” (and I put that word in quotes because she’s hardly more of a judge than I am) who lifted the national travel mask mandate, once again splitting this country in fervent disagreement and, it being in the Trump tradition, undoubtedly killing some of us in the process.
So here we are, more than two years into a pandemic estimated to have done in up to 15 million people globally, with cases and hospitalizations once again on the rise in the United States. In response, the country’s letting down its guard. What else is new? I have the feeling that what this society needs is attention from someone like the husband of today’s author and TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan. He’s a “wellness interventionist” — a term I had never heard before — in our public schools, which, as she tells us (and she’s not alone at TomDispatch in that), are an increasing mess. Who could be surprised in a country that would never invest in public education, as she makes all too clear, the way it does in its military. Of course, given this country’s record at war in this century, perhaps that’s a good thing. Who knows anymore? Not me! Tom
A School System Goes to Hell and Back Again – A Pandemic Year of Hope, Trauma, and Tragedy, Up Close and Personal
A kid spat on my husband Patrick yesterday. That sentence just keeps running through my head. The student was up on a windowsill at school and, when instructed to come down, he spat.
It’s part of Patrick’s job not to take that — the most personal of insults and an almost universal expression of disrespect — personally. He knew enough about that boy and his sad story to see the truth of the maxim “hurt people hurt.” In this case, it was also a matter of “disrespected kids disrespect.” So, he handled it and his emotional response to the grossness of being spit on, too. He got that kid down and back into class. Then he cleaned himself up and went on with his day.
This is not the first time he’s been spit on this year and it probably won’t be the last. It isn’t even the worst. Once, he was so covered in spittle he had to go home in the middle of the day to shower and change clothes. And mind you, this is all happening during the coronavirus pandemic and the mandatory mask-wearing that is supposed to keep his school safe (at least from the virus).
Taking the Time
My husband’s official job title — and I’ll bet you didn’t even know such a job existed — is Wellness Interventionist. (Another school calls his position the Feelings Teacher). He works at one of our Connecticut town’s four public elementary schools, trying to keep things from getting overheated. He attempts to intervene in conflicts between kids before they come to a head. He leads class-circle discussions about emotional health, and helps students find more complex and nuanced ways than just anger or derision to express their feelings. They are supposed to seek him out for help navigating conflicts and repairing relationships.
There’s a jargonistic term for what he does: “restorative practices and social-emotional learning.” Because he works in a bureaucracy, you won’t be surprised to know that these terms have been reduced to the acronyms RP and SEL. However fast those may be to say, though, the work itself takes time, lots and lots of time, and time is the one thing my husband seldom has in his fast-moving school days with almost 500 kids needing attention.
He’ll sit down with two kids at odds with each another and just as they get to the crux of the matter, a call comes in over his walkie talkie that a student has “eloped” (the term of art for escaping the building) and is running towards the road. He’ll be about to connect with a youngster struggling with too many grown-up-sized problems at home, when a teacher urgently calls him to a classroom to help manage a fourth grader’s water-bottle-throwing tantrum.
What choice does he have? In that case, he promised the student with the home problems that he’d continue their conversation at lunch and sprinted for the classroom. Patrick entered the room with a smile on his face. In a calm voice he said, “Okay, friends, we are going to give X some space now, so please go with your teacher to the library.” He helped her usher the boy’s fearful, dumbstruck classmates out of the room. “See you in a little bit,” he said in his most reassuring voice, before turning to that flailing, furious youngster.
With the rest of the students gone, the temper tantrum was no longer a performance and so the two of them ended up working for almost an hour cleaning up the mess. As they set tables upright, wiped up spilled water, and taped torn posters back on walls, Patrick got the kid talking about the problems that had all too literally exploded out of his small body. No, my husband couldn’t fix them, but he offered a little perspective and some tools for managing anger more constructively. He then reached out to the school’s psychiatrist and social worker, while offering support to the family.
And yes, I may not be the most objective witness, but Patrick is really good at his job — patient, friendly, and ready to help. When he needs to restrain kids intent on hurting themselves or others, he does so with a sense of moderation and equanimity right out of the “safety care” training manual.
His problem, though, is time in a school and a system that, during the pandemic, hasn’t had enough teachers or para-educators or aides — and, all too typically, is losing more of them. The school’s psychiatrist just left for a better (less dangerous) job and the principal recently announced that she’s leaving at the end of the school year. There are a dozen teachers looking for new jobs or planning on early retirement. And yes, there are other staff trained to deal with aspects of his job, but it’s hard because too many of them aren’t fully capable of dealing with the physical demands of the job. He has colleagues who are pregnant, smaller than some of the fourth graders, or older enough not to want to risk an injured back or knee from chasing or restraining kids.
A Failure for Sure — But Whose?
All too often these days, my husband comes home sad, tired, and dispirited. Unfortunately, his feelings and experiences are just one person’s tale in the sweeping epic of a failing and floundering school system. Or maybe it’s not just that system, but our whole society.
You probably won’t be surprised to know that public schools have been in perpetual crisis for a long time. Fill in the blank for the calamity of your choice: from once-upon-a-time segregated schools and federal agents escorting Black youngsters to school to today’s fights over which bathroom kids should use and who plays on what volleyball team. Schools have long been the culture war’s battlefield of choice.
Why is there public education and what is its purpose? If the original system was built and funded at public expense to prepare the next generation of factory workers, today’s system is there so that parents can work. Covid-19 revealed that sad truth. When schools shut down, so does part of the economy. These days, they also provide a whole array of social support for families badly in need, often including food, clothes, health care, and access to technology.
The pandemic shutdowns revealed failures and weaknesses in a threadbare social system, but it did allow certain strengths to shine through as well. For one thing, the commitment of so many teachers, para-educators, and support staff, often under remarkably difficult circumstances, should be considered a marvel. Our educators are the under-appreciated, underpaid, undervalued superheroes of the Covid era. They transitioned to a new medium of education, the virtual classroom, and figured out how to mobilize the sort of resources that students and their families need just to keep going. School buses delivered computers, lunches, and dinners. Teachers made themselves available after hours to walk families through the new technology of schooling, even though they often had kids of their own and elders to care for as well. And they did it all for far too long amid the Trump administration’s dismal culture wars!
They worked on an emergency, pedal-to-the-metal footing for three semesters before going back to in-person instruction in the fall of 2021, with masks, plexiglass barriers, and the constant threat of shutdowns. They started the school year stressed and tired, and now, in April 2022, they’re exhausted.
Rage or Gratitude (or Both?)
You would think all of this would make a deep impression on my own children, one in second grade and the other in fourth, who can sometimes see their father in the hallways of their school. When it comes to school, though, our two kids are in their own world — one of new books and good friends. At dinner, when we say grace, they’re forever praising their teachers. As far as they know, school is going great. I wouldn’t have it any other way, so out of their earshot, Patrick and I try to talk through his hard days.
In the face of it all, I feel both inchoate rage and extravagant gratitude. The rage is easier. Patrick is dealing with many layers of trauma and tragedy all at once in the minds and bodies of five to 12-year-olds. It should surprise no one that, after 18 months of virtual “learning” and social isolation, kids are having a hard time reacclimating.
Educators don’t know everything that happened to every kid between March 2020 and September 2021, but they know enough to be sure that it was often bleak: many had family members who lost jobs or even died. Some moved into far smaller living spaces with more people or found themselves left alone for long periods of time with just the Internet and all its dark corners for company.
I was so relieved when our kids went back to school, but I wished that more time had been spent on reconnection, community rebuilding, and healing. Of course, I wasn’t in charge and had to watch helplessly as, in September 2021, they instantly went back to standardized testing.
I blame the school system for charging full steam ahead over the minds and bodies of the youngest, most vulnerable members of our community. Yet I’m grateful as well. It’s so confusing! In spite of everything, my kids are so happy to be back and I find myself surprised, impressed, and moved by what they bring home to share.
Time Is Money
Everyone has ideas about how to improve our schools and can point a finger at those they blame for the failures in that system: absent or omnipresent parents, video games and social media, cops in schools (as symbols of public safety or emblems of the “school-to-prison” pipeline), and that’s just to begin down an endless list.
Wherever you want to lay the blame, the solution isn’t hard to find, it’s just expensive.
An administrator told Patrick that the way to fix our schools would be to have each teacher and aide deal with a class of just 12 students, with plenty of time for exercise, recess, and the arts. Indeed, that would undoubtedly fix many of the problems Patrick faces daily, because so much of his work involves putting out fires long after they’ve broken out. In a class of 12, a teacher would be able to give any smoldering kid attention — and some choices.
However, we already do invest a lot of money in our schools with anything but the greatest results. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the United States spent $14,100 per elementary and secondary student in 2017 — 37% more than the average of $10,300 paid by member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of 38 “highly developed” wealthy nations. On that list, only Luxembourg, Austria, and Norway seem to spend more than the U.S. does, but the academic performance numbers of many of those countries are so much better than ours.
Why? To explore the all-too-complicated answer to that question, you would undoubtedly have to dive into this country’s brutal history of the transatlantic slave trade and racism, Calvinist notions of who deserves to succeed, and so many other factors. But given my own background, I tend to think about it in terms of Washington’s military budget — in terms, that is, of how poorly we invest staggering sums of our taxpayer dollars. After all, it’s not just how much you spend, it’s how you spend it! In our case, prodigiously on war and preparations for more of it, rather than on our children.
The United States spends so much more on its military than any other country (more than the next 11 countries combined, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) and we still aren’t safer, not faintly so. When we “invest” more than $800 billion annually in the military-industrial complex, as President Joe Biden proposes to do in 2023, there are a lot of things we can’t afford that would actually make us safer. Money wasted on the military doesn’t get spent on mental health — unsurprisingly, the man who attacked that Brooklyn subway car, injuring 23 people, suffered from mental illness — and it doesn’t get spent on gun-safety measures either. According to the Gun Violence Archive, more than 12,000 people have been killed by guns so far this year alone in this disastrously over-armed nation of ours. How can we even say that we’re a nation at peace, given the endless violence and mass killings that embroil us?
And guns aren’t the only thing killing us either. While we spend so much on military infrastructure, we don’t repair the rest of our infrastructure adequately. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives that civil infrastructure (roads, bridges, parks, water systems, etc.) a C-minus grade and estimates the spending needed there at $2.59 trillion. Finally, military spending hampers our ability to respond to genuine threats to safety and security like the coronavirus pandemic, which has already killed nearly a million Americans (and likely many more than that).
Education suffers, too. While the U.S. toolbox may be full of hammers, kids aren’t nails. And while federal education spending is relatively high, it’s spent all too politically instead of going where it’s most needed. Take New London, Connecticut, where I live, for example. I looked up what we get per student per year and it was more than I thought: $16,498 (with $1,210 coming from the federal government and the rest from the state and local taxes).
Nonetheless, we’re a poor community. The median income for a household in New London is about $47,000, well below the national average, and we have a homeownership rate of less than 40%. So many families in our school district qualify for free or reduced lunch that they just give every kid free lunch (and breakfast and a snack, too) without any paperwork. A lot of the students in our public schools are “English Language Learners” (ELL), meaning they speak another language at home and need additional support to learn the material in math or social studies as they are also learning English. Many of them also have “Individualized Education Plans” (IEPs) indicating that, with an attention deficit or learning disability, they need extra support and accommodation to learn. A not-so-small minority of students are ELL with IEPs. All that adds up to a lot of need and a lot of extra expense.
We should get more resources because our needs are high, but perversely enough, the needier a school district is, the fewer resources it gets, because in so many parts of the country education spending is pegged to property taxes. Chester, Connecticut, is just 20 miles away from here, but it might as well be in another world. Their schools spend $24,492 per student and have very few English-language learners in that very white small community.
In our town, until the pandemic shut down the schools, one of the elementary schools did double duty as a food pantry once a month. The food line would then snake around the building, including parents, grandparents, and people coming straight from work (among them, custodians, cooks, and teachers from that very building). No one got paid enough to turn down a free box of food toward the end of the month.
I helped out there sometimes and one thing struck me: the news media never showed up. Not a single reporter. That line of 200 or more people who needed food badly enough to spend a few hours there at the end of a workday just wasn’t a big enough deal. If doctors had lined up around the hospital in a similar fashion, or engineers and scientists employed at our local weapons manufacturer, General Dynamics, maybe that would have been news. But poor schools, poor people… nothing new there.
It’s Not Fair
With his limited resources, Patrick is part social worker, part social connector, part bouncer, part enforcer, and part small-group facilitator. An administrator who makes three times his salary saw him in action recently and said, “We should have five of you!” And she was right. That school does need more people like him. Her tone, though, was wistful, as if she were hoping for a unicorn for Christmas. Of course, having the resources to pay people who are going to help create the conditions under which children will learn in an optimal fashion shouldn’t be a fairy tale.
That kid on the windowsill probably needed more than any school could give him. He probably needed a grief counselor and a psychiatrist, a safe place to live and a good night’s sleep, glasses, shoes that fit, and a warmer jacket, too. And the one thing he knew for sure was that he wouldn’t get what he needed and it pissed him off. In that moment, I suspect school stuff was far from his mind. He undoubtedly wasn’t worrying about his math scores or his reading level. My best guess is that he wasn’t thinking about the consequences of his actions either, like being sent to the principal’s office or getting suspended. From what Patrick said afterward, it sounded like the kid was enraged, suffering, deeply sad, over-stimulated, out of options, and couldn’t believe that any adult would listen to him express his problems with words alone.
Schools can’t solve all of this society’s problems. But every day, my kids’ teachers show up and try, just as Patrick does. It’s not fair, it’s not working particularly well, but it does make a difference and that’s better than the alternative.
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