Monday, April 12, 2021

Save the Children or Save the Teachers' Unions

How badly have schoolchildren been hurt? The question keeps coming up in the media, as it rightly should. We do not know whether the damage the teachers’ unions have inflicted on American schoolchildren will ever be reversed.

We do have some measure of the costs of online learning. The Wall Street Journal editorializes this morning, reporting a study performed by a group called Great Public Schools Now:

During the 2020-2021 school year, 37% of Los Angeles kindergartners exhibited basic literacy skills, compared to 57% a year before. A fall 2020 assessment showed that only one in three middle- and high-school students displayed grade-level reading and math skills.

As we know, poor and minority children are suffering the most. As should be obvious, the teachers’ unions and their Democratic Party enablers do not care:

The learning losses are especially acute among poor and minority students. The report raises alarms about “a surge in the percentage of students receiving Ds and Fs in fall 2020, with students of color and students from low-income houses experiencing the highest number of failing grades.”

Among kindergarten through fifth graders, 43% of blacks and 44% of Latinos met reading benchmarks in the 2020-2021 school year, compared to 70% of whites. Only 16% of foster children and homeless youth had grade-level math skills.

And, as has been widely reported, the school closures have hurt the children’s mental health:

The prolonged school closures have also taken a toll on students’ mental health. L.A.-specific data is scarce, but a survey conducted by the school district last fall showed that only 30% of high schoolers felt connected with their peers. The report also cites nationwide surveys that found 84% of high schoolers studying remotely have suffered from stress-related ailments including exhaustion and insomnia, while 42% of teens said they were lonelier since schools locked down.

What are the long term consequences? The Journal suggests that the learning difficulties produced by school shutdowns may never be overcome.

The refusal by union teachers to do their jobs in class has created learning disparities that may never be overcome. Parents should be furious, and unions should be stripped of their public school monopoly.

Needless to say, there is another side to this story. The teachers’ unions are claiming that these deficiencies are merely temporary blips. They insist that resilient children will naturally bounce back from a wasted year.

Of course, the New York Times, an international disgrace and a propaganda rag, is siding with the unions. It has found a journalist named Judith Warner to explain that there is no real problem. Or better, that the only problem is the bad attitude of parents.

Warner does not say a word about the damage the unions have inflicted on children. She thinks that parents should stop calling it a crisis, because, by the workings of her mini mind, the only problem is that parents think it’s a problem.

For the record, this is therapy culture dogma. Thinking makes it so. If we think differently, we can change the world. 

Here Warner attacks parents for being worried:

But mothers and fathers of middle schoolers — the parenting cohort long known to researchers as the most angst-ridden and unhappy — are connecting now in a specific sort of common misery: the pressing fear that their children, at a vital inflection point in their academic and social lives, have tripped over some key developmental milestones and may never quite find their footing again.

Even Warner sees that school closings have hurt children:

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has taken a major toll on many adolescents’ emotional well-being. According to a much-cited report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the proportion of emergency room visits that were mental health-related for 12 to 17 year olds increased by 31 percent from April to October 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. And there’s no question that witnessing their loneliness, difficulties with online learning and seemingly endless hours on social media has been enormously stressful for the adults who care about them the most.

But, she quickly qualifies, the problem lies with panicky parents, the ones who are worried about their children. One might suggest that parents know their children best and that normally if they are finding cause to panic, there is cause to panic. Of course, if the parents are right the leaders of the teachers’ unions belong in jail for child abuse, so we must disparage the parents and explain that they do not know their own children.

Yet, as the nation begins to pivot from trauma to recovery, many mental-health experts and educators are trying to spread the message that parents, too, need a reset. If adults want to guide their children toward resilience, these experts say, then they need to get their own minds out of crisis mode. That challenge is likely to be especially tough for the parents of young adolescents, whose emotions run high and whose ability to put feelings into words tends to be limited. But it’s also one that parents of middle schoolers in particular really need to try to meet.

Stop panicking. The experts know best. And the experts are saying that we must revise the narrative. It is the expert solution to all problems-- tell a different story. It is slightly disconcerting to see supposedly scientific authorities suggest that we can change reality by telling a different story.

Despite all of this, Ms. Fagell, much like the dozen-plus other experts in adolescent development who were interviewed for this article, was adamant that parents should not panic — and that, furthermore, the spread of the “lost year” narrative needed to stop. Getting a full picture of what’s going on with middle schoolers — and being ready to help them — they agreed, requires holding two seemingly contradictory ideas simultaneously in mind: The past year has been terrible. And most middle schoolers will be fine.

Don’t worry. Be happy. You do not know your own children. The experts do. The experts believe that adolescent brains are flexible and plastic, adaptable and resilient:

They reason they’ll be fine is built right into the biology of early adolescence, explained Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and the author of “Age of Opportunity,” the influential 2014 book on adolescent brain science. The fact that middle schoolers are going through a “critical period” of heightened brain flexibility, instability and plasticity, he said, means that they are hypersensitive and ultra-vulnerable — and also extra-primed for adaptability and resilience.

Dr. Steinberg says that the damage is not likely to be permanent. We might have asked whether we have ever seen a situation where large groups of children have been systematically denied access to their schools and to their friends and to their socialization for an extended period of time. We have not asked such questions, and Dr. Steinberg does not seem to care, because he advised parents not to worry, but to be happy.

“Do kids need certain kinds of experiences at this point in their lives in order to be able to develop normally? Yes, but there’s no reason to think an interruption like this is going to cause permanent damage,” Dr. Steinberg said in a phone interview. “The plasticity afforded by the adolescent brain at this age allows for recovery.”

How much time will it take and what is required for recovery? We do not know. 

But, the Times message, channeled through Warner, is that the problem is parental distress. Keep in mind that the therapy world has been telling people to be in touch with their feelings, to trust their feelings, to understand that if they are anxious they probably have good reason to be anxious. Now, Warner’s experts tell us, parental anguish is the problem:

What they’ve found is that children’s perceptions that their parents are dissatisfied with them (as when parents point out all of the ways that their children are falling behind), along with poor parent mood are the strongest predictors of depression and anxiety in teenagers. The effects are strong, Dr. Luthar suggested in an interview, because during the pandemic, adolescents are getting an unadulterated dose of parent distress.

“The safety nets we could have had if you have a difficult parent — a teacher, sports, friends — all that’s taken away in one fell swoop,” she said.

So, parents need to learn better ways to communicate. When dealing with their distressed, depressed and anxious children they should not think that their children have lost something. They should imagine that their children are reacting to parental distress and getting distressed themselves.

But they can still help their children come out of this period feeling whole; they just have to be smarter about the way that they communicate. Painting this last year as a crucible of loss, for instance, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And of course, it will all be better if we learn how to tell better stories about ourselves. Your children who missed out on science or math, will naturally do better if you fold their distress into a new story. It’s story hour, fans.

That’s not just a matter of a pat on the back. How we tell ourselves the story of ourselves — particularly after high-impact emotional experiences and especially in the critical period of early adolescence — is actually etched into our brain, explains Dr. Prinstein, author of the 2017 book “Popular.”

That’s why,” he said, “we need to link this period to praise about how our kids were able to develop adaptive skills — to give them a positive sense of self.”

If this were all it takes to excel in math, America’s children would be math wizards. And yet, as the story fails to mention, America’s children have been world class laggards. They are seriously behind their peers around the world. If we remove the Asian children from the mix, the children whose parents seem immune to this kind of psychobabble, the scores would be worse.

But, hand it to Judith Warner. Not a word about the damage that the teachers’ unions are inflicting on children. After all, we are now in the Biden era and the news must always been good and encouraging. During the Trump era the news was always bad and discourage. As for Warner, good little apparatchik she.


markedup2 said...

Dr. Steinberg says that the damage is not likely to be permanent.

If that's the case, why not remove a grade from the system, permanently? Let's say sixth grade. If one can miss a year of learning and it's not a permanent problem, why do we have it in curriculum in the first place?

Sam L. said...

I've been out of town. As I see it, the Teacher's Union needs to be defenestrated (tossed out a window--I looked it up), and the teachers to be hired one by one by one...