What happens when public education has no relevance?

When our system of public education was founded in the mid-19th century, it had two goals: Prepare everyone with a baseline set of knowledge and skills in order to supply prepared workers to the growing number of factories, and to take citizens and immigrants from all over the world and turn them all into Americans: A single group with a shared identity.

Public education has long since abandoned both of those goals: A “college for all” mentality killed the first, and social identity campaigns killed the second. (Test this by asking a handful of people how they identify themselves, and see how many say “American” over an ethnic or racial identifier.)

Having abandoned its dual mandate, and having failed to install a new objective in its place, schools are the ultimate in form over function. And when there is no overarching goal, the administrators starting thinking about the success of the school – i.e., protecting their jobs – rather than the success of the students.

A case in point can be seen in the St. Paul (MN) schools (article by City Journal here), where soft-headed school leaders felt that black children couldn’t behave, so rather than correct them, they would just lower the standards for discipline as low as possible.

The result? While their incident numbers looked much better, their schools completely fell apart. One parent reports on her child’s second grade classroom:

My second-grader’s class is the most dysfunctional classroom I have ever witnessed with my own two eyes. I have never even heard of classrooms like Ms. [Tina] Woods’. She has maybe six extreme behavior students in one class. I’ve seen them punch her. I’ve seen them walk around the halls. I’ve seen her try to read to the class and it took her an hour and a half to read two pages. It’s too much.

Things were much worse at the high school level:

December 4, 2015, marked a turning point. That day, at Central High School, a 16-year-old student body-slammed and choked a teacher, John Ekblad, who was attempting to defuse a cafeteria fight. Ekblad was hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury. In the same fracas, an assistant principal was punched repeatedly in the chest and left with a grapefruit-size bruise on his neck. At a press conference the next day, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi branded rising student-on-staff violence “a public health crisis.” Assaults on St. Paul school staff reported to his office tripled in 2015, compared with 2014, and were up 36 percent over the previous four-year average. Attacks on teachers continued unabated in the months that followed. In March, for example, a Como Park High teacher was assaulted during a classroom invasion over a drug deal, suffered a concussion, and required staples to close a head wound.

If schools followed their old mandate, I doubt administrators would have let this happen. Rather than allowing students to run wild, they would have realized that they were preparing those students to succeed in the workforce, and made clear that this kind of behavior was unacceptable, and to hell with their public report cards as they worked to fix the problem. On the student side, if someone was clearly telling them they were doing this so the students could get good jobs, they would have seen the relevance and gotten with the program. (This assumes the curriculum was also relevant to that end, which in today’s case it certainly is not.)

Until we tie education to real-world outcomes, students will continue to realize that school is irrelevant, and administrators will continue to serve their own interests rather than those of the students.

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