The "Mundane Malaise" of Public Education
Rethinking Schools in the DeVos Era
Betsy Devos’s “Rethinking School” tour can feel like a mission to dismantle the whole system, public schools first. Choice, charters and change are DeVos’s keynotes, along with a call for more and more crushing competition. We wondered if this this just another race to the top that will ultimately leave most children behind, or if something new is happening.
According to DeVos, her plan might be the only thing new thing in the last century of education history. On her school tour she likes to say schools haven’t changed in the last 100 years:
For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that. That means your parents’ parents’ parents .. It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures.
We’re trying to offer a counter to DeVos’s vision of public education and it’s discontents. We got schooled on an alternative set of solutions by some educators we like a lot.
Jack Schneider gets us started. He’s a school parent in Somerville, and professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He’s on his own mission to “rethink schools,” particularly the metrics we use to measure their worth. He highlights Somerville High School as a case study: a diverse, working-class school thriving despite the odds, but still coming up short in the tests.
Jennifer Berkshire—who, along with Jack, co-hosts the education podcast Have You Heard?—gives us the close-up on DeVos. In her reporting, she’s profiled DeVos as one of the leading crusaders in the “holy war against the welfare state” . But she still sees hope in the rising, grassroots resistance to DeVos’s program, which is now one of the most unpopular parts of the Trump platform, even in the red states.
Malcolm Harris, the 29-year-old author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, accounts for the new pressures placed on the millennial generation of students. “We are poorer, more medicated, and more precariously employed than our parents, grandparents, even our great grandparents,” he writes. The disease, he says, is neoliberalism and unfettered capitalism. It’s a deeper rot that cannot be solved simply through social democratic reform or technocratic tweaks, and it still needs something more than a political revolution to create real change.
Finally, Charles Petersen, an editor for N+1 and PhD candidate in the American Studies program at Harvard University, outlines a deeper history of competition in American education. His ideological frame is not neoliberalism, per se, but the myth of meritocracy itself.
historian of education at Holy Cross, co-host of the Have You Heard? podcast, and author of Beyond Test Scores: Better Way to Measure School Quality
senior editor at N+1 and PhD candidate in the American Studies department at Harvard University