The future of American education

7 minute read

When we talk about “reimagining education,” in some ways it feels like an overly ambitious and even mutinous attempt to awaken a sleeping beast. For an institution, ideal, and value that is built into the core of our society, at the most foundational level, education is very rarely questioned. Despite the heavy reliance on education systems to build and prepare the future adult population, we find so little time and space to talk about what’s really going on here. And, although Americans seem to be in constant conversation and debate over the rest of society and sectors like healthcare, business, and science, education never seems to make the docket.

As students begin to re-enter classrooms and conversations about education reform, in the wake of a harrowing yet powerful year, come to a head, many have begun to realize that education’s future is one worth fighting for. Debate about critical race theory in school curriculum and subsequent state bans are among the latest headlines. 

However, in order to argue for the future of education in an ‘educated’ way, we must start by understanding the present. This starts with a simple question: 

What are our youth learning in school?

Although it feels like a complicated question, it is actually more likely something that many of us could begin mapping out quite easily, as it is likely a very similar, if not exact, iteration of the map that we followed years ago and that our parents followed years before that. It is the map of a curriculum that for decades has positioned itself as one of intrinsic value. And the static state of our textbooks, literature requirements and more, is often defended by the idea of a “proven track record” (i.e. ‘If it worked then then it works now;’ ‘We must be held to the same standards as those that came before us and before them.’). Tradition here has always felt key.

The problem is that what was once defined as ‘common’ — middle class, white, cisgender people — is no longer the reality in our country.

Jill Anderson, “Hooked on Classics”, Harvard Ed Magazine

So if “what worked then, works now” we must ask ourselves, did our education prepare us for the conversations we find ourselves having outside of the classroom and in the real world today? What and who do these “traditions” really serve? Should their intrinsic goodness just be assumed?

A 2018 study from New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, analyzed the curricula and book lists of prominent New York City public elementary schools and concluded with the following findings: “White authors are massively over-represented and authors of color are virtually absent”; “The authors of curriculum materials are also overwhelmingly White”; “The cover images of books (which was used as a proxy for the central character), had greater representation of Black characters but White characters are still vastly over-represented, and Latinx and Asian characters are still virtually absent.”

This experience is not unique to elementary school or New York City. “The canon [of high school literature requirements] has long been revered in public education as representing the ‘depth and breadth of our national common experience,’” wrote Jill Anderson, in a Harvard Ed. Magazine article based on discussion with Harvard Senior Lecturer Pamela Mason. However, it has been a long time since the protagonists of Romeo and Juliet or Lord of the Flies were truly representative of our growingly diverse national population and specifically the youth in our school systems. “The problem is that what was once defined as ‘common’ — middle class, white, cisgender people — is no longer the reality in our country,” Anderson wrote.

Further, when we do experience instances of diversity in curriculum, it is often by way of a supporting character in a novel or the brief history of an event or figure that is meant to “check the representation box.” These instances of tokenism  come up approximately once a year as we learn diverse history in bite size chunks and one-off digestible chapters. 

Meg Honey, Director of Professional Learning Content at Savvas Learning Co. and Co-Founder at Rise Up Against Racism (listen to her episode on The Reimagined Podcast) is committed to pursuing a more representative curriculum. Honey believes there is a simple and direct correlation between “curriculum that is representative of many experiences and solving these massive problems of inequity and racism in society.” 

“As simply as I can make it, if young people see themselves and see others in our historical story — good, bad, challenging — in many different, multifaceted ways [and] if our young people are presented with a nuanced history that is full of many different people, groups and perspectives, they are going to then be that much better equipped to go out into the world honoring and affirming the identities of everybody that they come into contact with,” Honey said. “They are going to have a much easier time finding connections and similarities between many different groups of people.”

It seems logical, that as a society in the pursuit of great change, the curriculum and the classroom experience in our primary and secondary schools is the perfect place to start. We have set up education as a compulsory common ground, yet we often don’t use this opportunity to its full potential. 

Chandra Ingram, a member of the Teach for America Corps 2020 currently teaching special education at an East Oakland middle school, recognizes the difference it makes in student engagement when real world connections are prioritized in the classroom. “The conventional idea about school is, ‘ You come here, you memorize, you learn skills like math and how to write.’ But, that’s just so not true. Education is so much more. You’re really building an entire holistic person,” she said.

Educators, researchers, and students around the country have sounded a rallying cry for a more relevant and inclusive education going forward. And many educators on a classroom, department or district level have begun to take the reimagination of their students’ experience into their own hands.

English teacher Jenny Padgett from Cupertino High School has always been passionate about representation and equality in the classroom. She was selected as the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Lighthouse Guild and her twitter bio reads, “A GenX teacher learning [a] lot from GenZ!”   

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and ongoing protests around the country, Padgett said that teachers in her department came together to have discussions about the curriculum and required literature, something she called “a nice thorough house cleaning.” 

[My students are] hungry for relevance, for things to matter, to help explain the world they live in. How do we go from a civil rights movement but still end up with a George Floyd in the summer of 2020? Where is the progress that we hear about?

Jenny Padgett

“[There are] books that we’ve just always taken for granted as these seminal texts in these time periods, and [we want] to replace them with books that are more representative of our student population, with people of color represented but not just represented,” Padgett said. “For example, [we are] being careful to represent Black literature that moves beyond the monolith of ‘Oh, enslaved person who was treated badly’ [and] that the books we read also depict very round depictions of characters of color where they’re not just stereotypes or sidekicks.”

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is an example of a novel often automatically built into curriculum, but whose long standing intrinsic relevance is no longer as convincing. Although once hailed as progressive literature, many question why this narrative, grounded in a white narrator experience and with its heavy use of racial slurs, is still the de-facto book many schools use to teach about race. This, and other “classics,” are among the “rights of passage” being held to the light in discussions across the country, as well as in Padgett’s department. 

However the reimagination and reconstruction of the student experience is by no means an overnight undertaking, and the long process of curriculum change can be detrimental to morale and momentum. So, teachers who are eager to get real and relevant with their students as soon as possible must get creative in the meantime which can start with changing the experiences that students are having with texts that, for now, they “must” read. 

“We’ve reconstructed prompts to [ask]: ‘To what extent should this book be considered a classic novel?’ In other words, giving the students permission and teaching them how to question a text,” Padgett said, describing her modified approach to teaching To Kill A Mockingbird. “It’s really been wonderful to watch freshmen rise to that and have permission to push back against a text,” she said. “I’m at least grateful that we get [to] teach some critical thinking and a kind of argumentative writing, using evidence from the book to prove that it’s maybe time to put it on the shelf.”

Beyond changing the way things are taught, culturally relevant teaching does not always need to be curriculum centered or even tangible in some cases. Ingram notes that teacher-led ‘check-ins’ and discussions about current events, alone, have often turned into some of the most powerful learning experiences for her students over the past year.  “Let’s have these conversations with our students and educate them about what’s going on because in this day in age every student has social media, they’re watching the news, [and] they’re hearing these things, but we want to make sure they actually have the tools to understand what they’re hearing and also sort through misinformation and be able to have the conversational tools to talk about these issues,” she said. “A lot of [this] is really personal, and there is a lot of social emotional learning that is involved in teaching, too.”

And in describing her hope for the future of education reform, Padgett also emphasized the intangibles, beyond updated literature requirements or history textbooks. “I think for so long there was this idea of objectivity — that as teachers we stand up and we present and we remain objectively detached from weighing in. I think we’ve done a disservice to students in a way,” she said. Instead, Padgett questions this idea that objectivity reigns supreme, and instead makes a case for an “overlay of moral clarity,” in the classroom. She originally credits this perspective to a journalist applying the concept to objectivity in journalism ethics, however the argument easily translates from the way we educate our adults in newspapers, to the way we educate our children in schools. 

“There are things in this world that aren’t just a ‘two-sided story’— things like racism,” Padgett said. “If you’re thinking on the level of textbook or nation-wide pedagogical change, I would want to see it be that we as educators come in with some really clear, humane understandings of humanity and that we don’t make room for what looks like a tolerance of some really vile behaviors. I think my students are really hungry for that. They want to talk about these issues. They want a history of this country that explains how we got here that doesn’t offer some kind of strange arch of progress that they don’t see playing out in their day to day lives and in the news. They’re hungry for relevance, for things to matter, to help explain the world they live in. How do we go from a civil rights movement but still end up with a George Floyd in the summer of 2020? Where is the progress that we hear about?”

Today, a student’s experience outside the classroom is a noisy one, full of unlimited information and misinformation. Without much choice involved, they are interacting with this high volume of information and attempting to digest what they hear, read and see every single day. They are talking to their peers, family members and publicly or privately online about what is happening in our world. Education now, and going forward, must learn to adapt with the students it intends to serve; And the classroom, more than ever before, must become a place for students to discover their own values based on a shared humanity.