Home > Uncategorized > Can We Teach Our Way Out of Polarization? The Answer is “Yes” IF Public Schools Get Some Help from President Biden

Can We Teach Our Way Out of Polarization? The Answer is “Yes” IF Public Schools Get Some Help from President Biden

February 4, 2021

My response to the question posed in the title of recent Hechinger Report–“Can We Blame Schools for Increasing Political Extremism?“— is a resounding NO!  The response was especially resounding after the Trump administration’s 11th hour effort to recast history instruction into a series of dates and profiles lionizing white men and mythologies that gloss over the racism and sexism that existed for generations before ours. But the question DOES illustrate that the storming of the Capitol by a small group of extremists has created a teachable moment for our country, or, as writer Andrea Gabor called it, “a Sputnik moment for teaching civics and news literacy“.

The Hechinger Report gives a series of ways schools MIGHT help address the extremism and polarization that exists now, but virtually every idea was followed with a “yes but” rejoinder. The article did include one paragraph that summarizes the root cause of slippage in time devoted to civics education:

Jinnie Spiegler, director of curriculum and training for the Anti-Defamation League’s education program, said an overemphasis on reading, writing and math because of high-stakes testing put social studies on the backburner. “I think we’re seeing that frankly,” she said of the Capitol attacks and the political extremism that led to them. “It’s hard to prove a cause-and-effect relationship — the lack of civics, lack of civil discourse and the lack of understanding how government works, because there are other factors there,” she said. “But it definitely doesn’t help that people don’t understand it.”

The article also made the common sense argument against schools being the ultimate solution:

Relying on teachers alone to do the work is also likely to exacerbate the divides that already exist. Trump directly criticized “critical race theory, the 1619 project and the crusade against American history” as “toxic propaganda, ideological poison that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together” earlier this year, as quoted by Politico, and quite a few members of the mob at the Capitol this month were teachers. Some are turning to the 1776 Unites curriculum, a conservative response to the 1619 Project focused on the personal agency and accomplishments of Black Americans. The curriculum launched the same month that the then-president formed the “1776 Commission” to create a more “patriotic” education to counter “left-wing indoctrination in our schools.”

What IS the best role schools can play and what can local, state, and the Federal government do to help? First and foremost, the USDOE should seize the opportunity the pandemic has provided to put an end to the use of standardized tests as the primary metric for determining “school success”. The total package of reforms schools should undertake now that the pandemic has unsettled the status quo will be outlined in future posts… but ALL of the reforms I would propose hinge on the abolishment of standardized achievement tests as the primary metric.

Next schools should ALL operate on the Democratic Schools model whereby representatives of the student body, faculty, and community play a role in the governance of each school. The best way to TEACH Democracy is to LIVE democracy, and the best way to LIVE it is to bake it into the governance of the school. As an elementary student at a progressive public elementary school in Oklahoma, I participated in what was called “Speech” class where students were expected to give a speech on topics of interest to them in accordance with a set of themes identified democratically by the officers the class elected each month. Programs like this at the elementary and middle school level would prepare students to share in the governance of the high school itself. For parents, Board members, teachers, and administrators who are skeptical of the ability of students to make wise decisions about school governance I offer one rejoinder: when the student reach the age of 18 their vote will count the same as a PH.D. in political science.

Finally, we should adopt a curriculum that challenges students to challenge every “fact” they are presented in history class— because virtually all facts beyond the memorization of names and dates can be viewed through different lenses. If students who believe in conspiracy theories were compelled to debate them with their peers in class everyone would benefit because everyone’s voice would be heard.

We CAN teach our way out of polarization IF we LIVE democracy in schools and listen to each other.

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