There’s No Such Thing as Safe Schools

I’d been feeling pretty optimistic about schools and education when I wrote last week’s post about creating hospitable spaces. The feedback I received was mostly positive, though the one that stuck with me was a message from a friend pointing out that I had avoided tackling the underlying issue – that schools aren’t safe spaces. Not safe for students or for teachers, my friend wrote, and provided a few examples.

The message was frustrating because it wasn’t wrong. And I knew it before my friend pointed it out. Case in point: I brought up Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education in class at least twice this week. Perhaps this post, in addition to being a response to my friend, should be read as an introduction to the post on hospitable spaces. If schools aren’t safe (or hospitable), why not? How can we make them safe? There’s always room to do better, whether in a blog post or in a school.

This blog post acknowledges that our world today is one of scarcity, and really the world has always been so. There are neither jobs for all who want them, nor affordable homes, nor seats in the top universities. There simply aren’t enough opportunities to go around and therefore we are in competition for them. If this were not the case, it would be enough to argue that schools today can and should do more to enhance students’ well-being.

But that isn’t enough.

The fact is that people are realizing they are running out of time, options, and possibilities. This is scary and this is what drives the need to do well in school today, to get into a good university tomorrow, to have the “edge” required to get ahead in a world where some people have always been behind. The United States in particular is at a crossroads – people who were previously doing okay have now been hit hard with the changing job market from the growth in technology and a greater need for highly educated workers. It is important to acknowledge this in order to consider why our schools are in their current state. Because of scarcity, we are in constant competition and the nature of this competition is such that schools cannot be safe places because without enough to go around, some people, many people, will lose.

What Education Does
In The Case Against Education, economist Bryan Caplan argues that the primary purpose of education is signaling, meaning that the idea of going through both secondary school and university is to indicate to the rest of the world that you have some sort of intelligence, are conscientious in your work ethic, and know how to conform in a structured environment, specifically the workplace. Why go to school? To prove you can so that employers will hire you.

Through extensive analysis of research and calculations of an individual’s earnings based on years in school, college majors, and likely job prospects resulting from those majors, Caplan concludes that going to school pays. Literally. People with college degrees are paid more, have better educated partners who are paid more, and establish themselves and their families with greater opportunities for financial success over a lifetime. In order to ensure the greatest payoff from education, Caplan details what should be cut from K-12 school curriculum (because no one remembers it and it doesn’t lead to majors that yield lucrative careers) and why vocational education should be included, instead.

Much of Caplan’s book made me cringe when I read it last year, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that he isn’t wrong. (It’s a thought-provoking read. Check it out.) From an economic perspective, which Caplan acknowledges is his lens, school as it is today is largely a waste of time and money. Okay, fine. But as I’ve written on this blog many times, there’s a lot more to school than making money, and while wealth doesn’t hold the same value for all people, wealth is the absence of scarcity, which is something we can all agree that we want.

Whether the idea of “being wealthy” appeals to one or not, it’s hard to imagine denying that financial security is important. Life is definitely easier if you have a salary that covers your living expenses and allows for entertainment and if you aren’t in debt. So in some senses, school is responsible for ensuring that students leave with the skills and knowledge they need to secure jobs in fields that allow them financial security. More and more jobs today require educated workers and this will only increase as automation increases. As a result, ever more people are at risk of losing their livelihood, their very lives, making this task one of critical importance. To ensure that students attain financial security, then, high schools need their students to score well enough on exams to get into good universities so that they can reap the benefits that come from tertiary education. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll leave it there; Caplan can walk you through which majors and careers actually pay.

To recap, high schools need to get students into good universities. Under our current education system, that means students need to score well on exams. And this is why school is not a safe place.

School for Students
A lot of my friends hated school. A lot of my students hate school. I loved school because my friends were there and I was good at it. For me, being “good at school” involved late nights, tears, learning from failure, seeking out challenges, and copious amounts of time. But I did those things because I could – because I was good at school. And I liked being good at school. I grew up in a household that paid great lip service to the idea that “trying your best is the most important thing” but in reality, excellence was the goal and anything else just didn’t quite cut it. I was intrinsically motivated but learned motivation from extrinsic sources.

Most students are not like I was. And for these students, school is hard. We politely say, “School’s just not her thing” but we’re worried. We’re worried because school needs to be her thing if she’s going to score well on exams and get into a good university. And she needs to do those things because that’s the easiest path to success. We can all point to stories of fabulously successful people who took non-traditional paths, but we all point to the same stories because they’re so rare. For the rest of us, there’s school.

We tell students, honestly, that exams don’t measure their worth as a person or their unique individual value. Exams don’t measure their deepest loves, hopes, and dreams. They don’t measure students’ hearts or souls. They can’t possibly measure a student’s humanity. Exams don’t measure these things, but they do measure the options that will be available in the future. And that is scary.

Because of this system, students spend their days completely powerless. Unlike adults, they cannot gravitate toward what they’re good at and ignore everything else. Their educational choices are mostly decided for them, an illusion of choice. They’re told when to be creative and when to just follow directions. They’re told what to wear, when to eat, when to use the washroom, and when they just need to sit quietly and listen. They adhere to the differing deadlines of seven or more discrete subjects and are left knowing that the next thing, which will likely give them as little pleasure as the first thing, is already upon them.

There is no safety there, no safety when even the smallest assignment can make a difference between the top mark and the next-to-top mark. And that mark, a literal single point in terms of exams, can make the difference between getting into a university program of their choice and being rejected.

There is no safety when the whims of the adults around them impact students’ daily lives as well as their future. There is no safety when students need those adults to recognize when they need help, be available when they need redirection or emotional support, and to write them letters of recommendation.

There is no safety when students are judged by their peers, their parents, their teachers, or themselves, and when future universities are lying in wait to do the same. There is no safety when students are bullied, when students are shamed, or when students are physically or emotionally attacked. We know schools aren’t safe, yet we require young people to attend.

Because they need to score well on exams to get into good universities. To be financially stable. To make life easier.

Schools for Teachers
I’ve written at length about what I love about teaching. Part of the reason I do that is because it helps me remain optimistic that I’m doing something useful and meaningful. (One of the privileges of being an adult is that I am able to seek out something that gives me personal validation and a sense of well-being.) But there are many things I do not like and circumstances in which neither my job nor my dignity are safe.

Like students, teachers are judged on performance – that of their students. The scores students earn on their exams are published and shared with the rest of the school community. The pressure from school administration is clear and teachers are tasked with making sure their students pass and do well, which means they’re responsible for countless factors outside of their control. In many cases, teachers’ course assignments are made without their input, which means teachers are left wondering why they’re no longer teaching a certain class or why they’ve been asked to teach something new – what does that say about their performance? What have they done wrong? Or right?

Once or twice a year, administrators come into classrooms and write up an evaluation. That evaluation is sometimes shared and sometimes just filed away. Everyone has a file that no one has ever seen. What are those files used for? What’s in them? If teachers ask for letters of reference, are the contents of those files considered? When it comes time to renew contracts, are the contents of those files taken into account? Teachers are told, “Thank you for all you do” and then asked to do more. Teachers are told, “You’re here for the students and we’re here for you” and then there are whispers of meetings with parents, performance plans are instituted, contracts are not renewed, and teachers are left wondering what type of support they were supposed to have received. And what would it have said about them if they’d asked?

So in that sense, though I think the safety concerns for students are more important, schools are also not safe places for teachers. Teachers are degraded, attacked, and vilified for not being able to make magic. No teacher I know has ever pretended to be a magician. But teachers, just like everyone else, need their jobs. They need to live, eat, pay off their car, pay off their mortgage, afford healthcare, and send their own children to good schools so they’ll get into good universities. So they play along, too, in a school system that is neither safe for them nor for the children they’re supposed to protect.

Making Schools Safe
I generally aim for optimism in my blog posts because I’m a believer in language and in taking your cues from what’s around you – the more good things you hear, the easier it is to think of other good things. The more good things you think about, the more good you want to do and the more change can take place.

And that’s the point. We can change all of this. We can change the way our education system operates. That’s what much of my education writing is about – what we can change and how we can do it. But I’ve neglected to acknowledge what’s in front of me, which is what specifically causes harm in schools. So here it is.

But as you know, I believe we can do better. I believe we must do better. So this is a call to action. A call to better the lives of our students, as well as ourselves. The world doesn’t need to work like this simply because this is how it works. We can live differently. We can choose to live differently. But until we do, we also need to admit that we don’t create safe spaces. We can if we want to, but that’s not where we are right now.

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