Who even remembers? After all, it happened in ancient times. November 9, 2016, to be exact, at newly elected president Donald Trump's victory rally, when he so memorably said, "We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports. We're going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none." During that campaign he had similarly sworn that he would deliver a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending over the decade to come. And when he finally unveiled his vaunted plan, in February 2018, for no less than $1.5 trillion dollars, it promptly disappeared without a trace in a Congress his party still controlled. In its wake, the only infrastructure left obsessively on the president's mind or on anybody's table was that "great, great wall" of his (which won't get built either).
In this, the president is following in a distinctly twenty-first-century tradition of disinvestment, one that would have been a mystery to my parents and other members of that World War II and Cold War generation. They would have thought it un-American that, in 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers , issuing its latest "report card," gave the country's infrastructure -- from roads to dams, levees to bridges, rail lines to drinking water -- an overall grade of D+. Among the categories that received its own special D+ were America's schools: "the nation continues to underinvest in school facilities, leaving an estimated $38 billion annual gap. As a result, 24% of public school buildings were rated as being in fair or poor condition." And the literal state of those buildings is, as TomDispatch regular Belle Chesler makes clear today, just one facet of the underinvestment in and deteriorating conditions of the American public school system, itself part of the deteriorating infrastructure of American democracy. And when it comes to those public schools, Donald Trump and crew aren't even pretending that they might ever have a plan to invest in or rebuild them. Tom
Making American Schools Less Great Again A Lesson in Educational Nihilism on a Grand Scale
By Belle Chesler- Advertisement -
Three weeks ago, I sat in a cramped conference room in the large public high school where I teach in Beaverton, Oregon. I was listening to the principal deliver a scripted PowerPoint presentation on the $35-million-dollar budget deficit our district faces in the upcoming school year.
Teachers and staff members slumped in chairs. A thick funk of disappointment, resignation, hopelessness, and simmering anger clung to us. After all, we've been here before. We know the drill: expect layoffs, ballooning class sizes, diminished instructional time, and not enough resources. Accept that the teacher-student relationship -- one that has the potential to be productive and sometimes even transformative -- will become, at best, transactional. Bodies will be crammed into too-small spaces, resources will dwindle, and learning will suffer. These budgetary crises are by now cyclical and completely familiar. Yet the thought of weathering another of them is devastating.
This is the third time in my 14-year-career as a visual arts teacher that we've faced the upheaval, disruption, and chaos of just such a budget crisis. In 2012, the district experienced a massive shortfall that resulted in the firing of 344 teachers and bloated class sizes for those of us who were left. At one point, my Drawing I classroom studio -- built to fit a maximum of 35 students -- had more than 50 of them stuffed into it. We didn't have enough chairs, tables, or spaces to draw, so we worked in the halls.- Advertisement -
During that semester I taught six separate classes and was responsible for more than 250 students. Despite the pretense that real instruction was taking place, teachers like me were largely engaged in crowd management and little more. All of the meaningful parts of the job -- connecting with students, providing one-on-one support, helping struggling class members to make social and intellectual breakthroughs, not to speak of creating a healthy classroom community -- simply fell by the wayside.
I couldn't remember my students' names, was unable to keep up with the usual grading and assessments we're supposed to do, and was overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. Worst of all, I was unable to provide the emotional support I normally try to give my students. I couldn't listen because there wasn't time.
On the drive to work, I was paralyzed by dread; on the drive home, cowed by feelings of failure. The experience of that year was demoralizing and humiliating. My love for my students, my passion for the subjects I teach, and ultimately my professional identity were all stripped from me. And what was lost for the students? Quality instruction and adult mentorship, as well as access to vital resources -- not to mention a loss of faith in one of America's supposedly bedrock institutions, the public school.
And keep in mind that what's happening in my school and in Oregon's schools more generally is anything but unique. According to the American Federation of Teachers, divestment in education is occurring in every single state in the nation, with 25 states spending less on education than they did before the recession of 2008. The refusal of individual states to prioritize spending on education coupled with the Trump administration's proposed $7 billion in cuts to the Department of Education are already beginning to make the situation in our nation's public schools untenable -- for both students and teachers.
Sitting in that conference room, listening to my capable and dedicated boss describe our potential return to a distorted reality I remembered well made me recoil. Bracing myself for the soul-crushing grind of trying to convince students to buy into a system that will almost by definition fail to address, no less meet, their needs -- to get them to show up each day even though there aren't enough seats, supplies, or teachers to do the job -- is an exercise in futility.
The truth of the matter is that a society that refuses to adequately invest in the education of its children is refusing to invest in the future. Think of it as nihilism on a grand scale.- Advertisement -
Teachers as First Responders
Schools are loud, vital, chaotic places, unlike any other public space in America. Comprehensive public high schools reflect the socioeconomic, racial, religious, and cultural makeup of the population they serve. Each school has its own particular culture and ecosystem of rules, structures, core beliefs, and values. Each also has its own set of problems, specific to the population that walks through its doors each day. Coping with the complexity and magnitude of those problems makes the job of creating a thriving, equitable, and productive space for learning something akin to magical thinking.
The reflexive blame now regularly heaped on schools, teachers, and students in this country is a misrepresentation of reality. The real reason we are being left behind our global peers when it comes to student achievement has to do with so much more than the failure to perform well on standardized tests. Our kids are struggling not because we've forgotten how to teach them or they've forgotten how to learn, but because the adults who run this society have largely decided that their collective future is not a priority. In reality, the tattered and rapidly deteriorating infrastructure of our national system of social services leaves schools and teachers as front-line first responders in what I'd call a national crisis of the soul.