Educating for Democracy: The Age of Social Insecurity

As an educator I have long believed, especially over the last fifteen years, that hidden within the public education policies of the Bush and Obama administrations is the proverb: "Insanity Is the New Normal." I feel that this is an appropriate phrase which accounts for the introduction, spread and dominance of the bizarre idea that constantly testing students, often on subjects and materials not covered in their classes, would improve their education Now, a dozen years into this so-called "education reform," the poor performance of first-year college students should give these "reformers" pause. As a Washington Times report observed a decade after the No Child Left Behind was made into law:

For many students, getting a high school diploma doesn't mark the end of a high school education. Three out of four graduates aren't fully prepared for college and likely need to take at least one remedial class, according to the latest annual survey from the nonprofit testing organization ACT, which measured half of the nation's high school seniors in English, math, reading and science proficiency.

Only 25 percent cleared all of ACT's college preparedness benchmarks, while 75 percent likely will spend part of their freshman year brushing up on high-school-level course work. . . . Although the results are slightly better than last year -- 24 percent of the 2010 graduating class met ACT's four thresholds -- the report highlights a glaring disconnect between finishing high school and being ready for the academic challenges of college.

In a blog I posted this summer, on "The Numbers Game," I insisted that there is no reason to believe that the more recent reports of the"success" of the 85% national high school graduation rate is anything more than smoke and mirrors. Numbers can very easily lie. But there is now mounting evidence that these reform programs are not only cheating many students out of a good education, but having a serious affect on their emotional well being.

In a recently republished article which originally appeared in "Psychology Today," the author, Peter Grey, reported that the rising atmosphere of anxiety on young learners leads to depression. He sees this as a result of the current "reform" policies that emphasize -- from early childhood -- mastery of subject matter over recognizing the need for very young children just to be able to "play."

Rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past fifty to seventy years. Today, by at least some estimates, five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and an anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago. This increased psychopathology is not the result of changed diagnostic criteria; it holds even when the measures and criteria are constant.

The most recent evidence for the sharp generational rise in young people's depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders comes from a just-released study headed by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University The results are consistent with other studies, using a variety of indices, which also point to dramatic increases in anxiety and depression -- in children as well as in adolescents and young adults -- over the last five or more decades.

Grey attributes this increase in anxiety to the "decline in young people's sense of personal control over their fate. . . People who believe that they are in charge of their own fate are less likely to get anxious and depressed than those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control." I think that the trend toward an increase in anxiety is being made worse for young learners with the emphasis on high stakes testing throughout their grade school experiences.

The word "security" in the retirement program intentionally named "Social Security" established eighty years ago was to give working people the hope that if they worked hard, were honest, and effective in their working years they would not spend their old age in poverty. This need for "security" was further recognized in the establishment of Medicaid and Medicare fifty years ago. This sense of some confidence in the future can no longer be taken for granted. Family life and culture are among the most significant influences on young learners. If they feel insecure about their own family's economic stability, this fear can be intensified by the way they are taught in school.

The most recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 4, 2015) illustrates the results of ten years of "education reform" which now begins with testing even before kindergarten:

- 58% of campuses in their survey have seen a rise in anxiety disorders;
- 89% of campuses have seen a rise in clinical depression;
- 33% of campuses have no psychiatrists available;
- 31% of campus counseling centers have waiting lists;
- 8% of (college) students in the past twelve months have seriously considered suicide.

These warning signs manifested by young adults are now being exposed in our youngest and most vulnerable learners. They are responding to an increasingly emotionally dysfunctional culture in good part the result of the transformation of our economic system from a "share the wealth" democracy to a "hoard the wealth" oligarchy.

According to the study I cited concerning depression, the general population was less depressed going through the Second World War and Vietnam than today. I believe this was due to the sense of security people felt after the War: that if you are honest and effective in your job, you would have the security of knowing that you would never have to find another unless it was your own fault or choice. This is no longer true:. corporations decide that even their long-time loyal employees are no longer "cost effective" and can be easily replaced with younger, cheaper workers. This is what I call the "toilet paper" approach to employees: "Overuse them, abuse them, dispose of them, and get another roll."

As long as "maximizing profitability" is the mantra of the corporate world, there is no security for anyone who is not rich. "At will" employment, temporary part-time work, free lancing will be increasingly the "new normal" and the anxieties and uncertainties that are being shoved down students' throats, will intensify their feeling of helplessness when they get into the workforce: debt-ridden and jobless.. Even if a significant number of young learners in a particular school do well on these tests, an overall unsatisfactory result due to less-motivated students could end with all of them "losing" their school. It could result in their going away from their neighborhood to a place that is unfamiliar and can certainly increase anxiety. And their parents could reflect and intensify that sense of helplessness in a globalized economy in which humane values can always be Trumped by "the bottom line."

The one encouraging sign I can see in this "selective chaos" is the "opt out" movement in which standardized testing is rejected as a way of measuring students' progress. I am hopeful that this is a sign that false educational reform is on the way out and perhaps one day our educational and economic system might return to the Old Normal: giving us a sense of security through community and compassion.