If you’ve ever been tempted to read Freddie deBoer’s book The Cult of Smart, I have some good news for you: you don’t have to! America’s favorite Twitter-drydrunk has summarized the most important bits of his book in this essay, entitled “Education Doesn’t Work.”
It’s long and detailed, but the most salient points are below, followed by some of my comments:
Educational aptitude is mostly inherent, unchangeable, and unequal. If you sort kids by ability in kindergarten or third grade, you get the same stratification that reappears in middle or high school or the rest of their lives. There is nothing — no teacher quality, no technology, no program, and certainly no amount of funding, grit, or corporal punishment — that will make a bunch of kids who aren’t good at school into kids who are good at school.
Of course education does work: it gives everybody some mixture of knowledge and skills that they will (hopefully) use for the rest of their lives. How much of each is very child-dependent, though. Regardless of socioeconomic status, in any school you’re going to have kids who will succeed in that environment, others who will do okay, and others who will not do well. This is not the result of injustice, this is just the way people are. (This is one of the reasons why I’m pretty pro-homeschooling and not very anti-charter school: the more options and flexibility there is, the more likely it is that any given kid will find the strategy that best helps them to learn.)
Differences in educational ability vary more within groups than between them. Imagine, deBoer suggests, that people who jumped higher made more money in our society. You would see a natural distribution of jumping ability among people. Some rich people might have extra-springy shoes that helped them and people from certain races and classes might have weight belts, but that would only throw off the averages. Across the spectrum, for most people the real determinant of their success would be their inherent ability. This is exactly what we see for educational ability and schooling!
More education or better education will not solve the problems of poverty. It’s unfair and cruel to tell everyone that if they just worked harder in school, they could get a good job and succeed in life. That simply isn’t true, and it punishes people who can’t overcome their inherent lack of aptitude. Banking on education reform to fix poverty is just wishful thinking. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars per student each year (and many places do!), but that won’t fix the problem. You can take away middle school algebra, but that only hurts poor kids who have the natural ability to do so. You can fire teachers who can’t make their kids pass certain tests, but that only screws over the teachers.
Rather than relying on school performance to determine economic security, we should do something different. Freddie’s a Marxist, so he’s of course in favor of just giving everyone what they need. My own views are more complicated than that, but at the very least I’m in favor of letting kids split off into vocational training tracks at younger ages and in greater numbers, untying health insurance from one’s job, and a child allowance. Poverty does really make everything worse for kids, not just education, so we should be working to reduce child poverty the same way that (as deBoer points out) we reduced poverty among the elderly.
The one thing in the book that’s not in the post is the fact that other things — for example, the absence of a father in the home — have a far greater impact on one’s life than how well-funded one’s school is or virtually any other educational intervention. (Follow the science, people!) Many schools find themselves in the difficult position of trying to help children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or more parents compensate for what they’ve suffered or continue to suffer in their homes. Many of these children also live in neighborhoods or towns where there is pervasive violence, substance abuse, and poverty that traumatizes kids, sometimes on a daily basis. The causes of these awful home and local environments encompass a wide range of social, cultural, political, and economic causes that I won’t explore in this post, but I write about this kind of stuff often enough that I trust you can find your way through the archives to learn more of my opinions about them.
Despite the fact that school can be the safest place for a child where they feel the most love and care, this is not what schools are meant to do or be. Many teachers, tutors, principals, guidance counselors, mentors, etc. do a wonderful job at being the one adult in a kid’s life who shows them love and respect, but it’s unfair to expect that they can do so in a meaningful way for a wide swath of children. Accordingly, teachers and other school employees struggle to do this work of compensating for other factors in a kid’s life (especially in large numbers or with kids who have adapted to their life stressors by developing a hostile approach to others). Even if we were to shift the purpose of schools from the current make-good-little-drones-for-capitalism ideology to something more like “forming virtuous and educated citizens” (my personal ideal, obviously), we’d still have a lot of kids who have adapted quite poorly to their life stressors that schools would be stuck trying to manage.
deBoer mostly just shrugs his shoulders at this problem because it’s not really anything his worldview has any solution for. I suppose there are folks who believe that under #FullCommunism there wouldn’t be dysfunctional homes, but I doubt Freddie is that deluded. I’m sanguine about the possibility that poverty reduction will reduce addiction, abandonment, abuse, etc. but there’s a lot more that poverty reduction won’t fix. In theory, Christianity has a lot of answers but in practice it’s really, really difficult to deal with cycles of violence or lack of love. I’ve written some of my own thoughts about these problems and how to respond to them.
In the end, though, I think it is really important that we think about the two separate problems when it comes to “failing schools” and failing American children:
Problem #1: A significant percentage of children are just not good at school and they should have other paths to meaningful work and economic security besides trying harder to go to college. These problems are mostly amenable to policy changes, with some need for cultural shifts around idealizing the benefits of a college education and fantasizing that all children could enjoy these benefits if we just did things differently.
Problem #2: A significant percentage of children are suffering because of their terrible home environments, which primarily manifests in problems at school because school is the most likely place where children will encounter functional adults who want to help them. These problems may be helped by some policy changes, but for the most part there is a lot that will need to be done by other sectors of society to see meaningful change.