"Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That's my position. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet."
-- Sam Seaborn, The West Wing
One major theme from my first term of classes at the Stanford Graduate School of Education is that the United States has long treated education as a panacea, the silver bullet to fix all of our social and political ills. Sam Seaborn's monologue above, written by Aaron Sorkin, captures more eloquently the view of many on the left.
Education can cure economic inequality. And poverty. And racism and sexism and homophobia. And it can bolster our national security. And improve the economy. And it can strengthen our moral fabric. And save our democracy.
In the words of Seaborn: "Education is everything."
Education reformers and politicians have long fed the narrative that education can do it all. Policy proposal, campaign promises, lofty legislative mandates and executive orders -- many have started with the best of intentions and boundless optimism. Most attempts at reform, though, have negligible impacts on the actual teaching and learning occurring in the classroom. Thus, they die, get overturned or abandoned, or some new reform makes them irrelevant. Most attempts at education reform, particularly those reforms aimed at changing some larger social problem, don't work.
We are asking too much of a school system that's long been underfunded and under-supported. We ask schools do to the extraordinary and give them the resources to do the ordinary -- and while the extraordinary happens regularly in American classrooms, most of our overall outcomes do not reflect the excellence we aim for. Graduation and college matriculation rates, standardized test scores, civic participation, economic productivity, individual and collective happiness -- few policymakers are satisfied with the outcomes associated with different metrics for evaluating schools.
Why is that? Why do we assume education can do the impossible and solve our greatest problems, despite ample evidence that education alone is not enough?
Part of the reason is convenience and political expediency. It's a lot easier, for example, to charge schools with the responsibility of getting rid of poverty (and then blaming the education system for its inevitable failure) than it is to build and pay for a social safety net and economic infrastructure to actually deal with the roots of problem. Increasing funding to the education budget, while no easy lift, is a lot easier than, say, passing the New Deal.
The same is true in other areas: if we mandate culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy, then racism will go away. If we require civics classes for all students, democratic participation will increase. If we fully fund outdoor school, we can prevent further degradation of the environment.
My still-developing theory is this: education plays a key role in addressing social problems, but it cannot address them on their own. Culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy are important, but so is dealing with criminal justice reform. Civics classes should be required for high school students, but if you want to improve democratic participation directly, pass automatic voter registration and vote by mail. Outdoor school can help show kids the value of nature, but incoherent land use policies and rolling back environmental protection laws send the opposite signal.