Eric Stinton: 'Failing' Schools Make An Easy Political Target But The Reality Is Far More Complex - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.

Opinion article badgeLast month, Tulsi Gabbard posted a video on Twitter about Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, commonly referred to as the “don’t say gay” bill. She didn’t just applaud the bill for “prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels” – who knows what could happen if kids learned that gay and trans people exist in the world – she accused public schools of “indoctrinating” students with “woke sexual values.”

“The reality we’re facing in this country is our schools are failing,” Gabbard said, claiming one in four high school graduates are “functionally illiterate.”

She continued: “I’m confident that if our schools focused on educating our kids, teaching them the fundamentals … we would see our literacy rates improve … This is what our public schools should focus on.”

The idea that public schools are not focusing on teaching fundamentals came as a surprise to those of us who actually spend time in public schools.

Though statistics vary, she’s generally correct that a significant number of students graduate with low reading ability. Reading is a fundamental skill for living a good life and participating in society. It is genuinely alarming to see adult illiteracy rates as high as they are in the richest country in the history of the world. This is a serious issue; I’m sure Gabbard cares about it deeply and has spent a lot of time addressing it.

But why are so many high school graduates illiterate? According to Gabbard, it’s because schools have failed. That’s a serious accusation, and one that demands to be proven. The problem is, if she were to try to prove it, she’d have to spend time with public school teachers and students. Even worse, she’d find out she’s wrong.

Illiteracy is not merely a statistic to me. There are real people who have real reasons for not being able to read. I know this because I’ve taught them.

The oldest students I’ve taught who couldn’t read were in 8th and 9th grade. Without exception, they came from unstable, low-income home environments. Many of them grew up in a home where English wasn’t spoken and parents were gone working multiple minimum wage jobs. Some had parents who were addicts, in prison or homeless. A lot of them had been abused throughout childhood.

I wonder if Gabbard knows the illiteracy statistics for wealthy kids, or kids who grew up with parents who read to them. Gabbard claims that parents, not schools, “are responsible for raising their kids,” but she seems to think that providing fundamental life skills like reading is solely the job of schools.

When we actually know the students who comprise the statistic Gabbard employs, we can understand the problem and implement real solutions. As far as I can tell, Gabbard’s investment in this issue is to use it to score some social media points. If she really cared, she’d get involved; and if she got involved, she wouldn’t say that illiteracy is merely a consequence of failing schools.

Maui Baldwin HS
Many students who struggle with literacy come from difficult home environments. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

A common response is that if students can’t read, they shouldn’t pass on to the next grade. This seems intuitive, but study after study shows when students are held back in middle or high school, the likelihood of them dropping out of school altogether spikes dramatically.

Even Gabbard would admit that kids have a way better chance of learning to read in a classroom than on the streets. If we want kids to read, then we want to keep them in school.

Unfortunately, Gabbard is not alone in her ignorance. A few days after she posted that video, state Senate candidate Brenton Awa posted an image of himself holding a sign that reads “Require the DOE Teach Students Financial Literacy.”

This is a good idea – so good, in fact, that most schools already incorporate financial skills in multiple content areas. I asked him in the comments if his idea was simply to add more curriculum requirements for schools, or if he had a substantive plan for how schools should teach financial literacy.

Though Awa presents himself as a political outsider, his response was what you’d expect from career politicians: “There can be no more excuses. The system is failing these kids.”

I asked him why he thinks the system is failing, and if “the system” referred only to schools. Since this is a topic he’s definitely thought through, he opted not to answer.

Since January, Awa has been substituting at his alma mater, Kahuku High and Intermediate School. This is admirable, and hopefully it gives him a better perspective on these issues than his social media posts suggest.

If the entire education system is failing, as Awa says, does he really think adding financial literacy classes will change things? If you’re worried about how healthy a deep-fried cheeseburger is, is the solution to add a side of baby carrots?

Gabbard and Awa are not the same. Gabbard is a career politician who, as far as I can tell, only cares about Hawaii insofar as she can benefit from identifying with it. I believe Awa is naive on this issue, but I also think he is genuinely concerned about local people.

Despite their differences in experience and motivation, they still end up saying similar, uninformed things about education, which then get repeated uncritically by their fans and supporters. How we talk about education matters.

If our plans are to only require schools to change and nothing else, our efforts will inevitably fail, and we will continue to mistakenly think that schools are the reason for our failures, when in reality it is usually us who are failing schools.

Leaders are supposed to guide us toward solutions, but they can’t do that if they mislead us on why our problems exist in the first place. Saying “schools are failing” might make for a good social media post, but a lack of good social media posts is not the problem with local politics. A lack of informed action is.

If you sincerely care about these issues – and by “these issues” I mean “our kids” – then you need to demonstrate that care by diving into the nuances and coming up with detailed plans.

If you are worried about literacy rates, you need to also worry about poverty, hunger, and the forces preventing families from being involved with their kids’ education.

If you’re worried that kids lack appropriate understanding of how to save and budget money, you need to also worry about the cost of living and the job environment that students graduate into.

If you say you want to send your kids to private schools for “better opportunities,” you need to be specific about what those opportunities are, and why they don’t exist in public schools.

These issues are multifaceted, inextricable from one another. If our plans are to only require schools to change and nothing else, our efforts will inevitably fail, and we will continue to mistakenly think that schools are the reason for our failures, when in reality it is usually us who are failing schools.


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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

The "don't say gay" bill is not relevant to Hawaii. Yes, Ron DeSantis is horrible. But Hawaii has a problem being too far left instead. The only state still forcing kids to wear masks despite CDC guidance saying its unnecessary. Kids can't read? Nor can they lip read. Nor escape the oppressive ignorance in extreme administrators. Hawaii has one of the highest per student expenditures in the country, and lowest performance ratings. So on one hand we need to cut the bureaucracy and give teachers freedom (except the ones who can't teach--teaching to the test is better than nothing), on the other hand support after school, weekend, and meal programs that help underprivileged kids who aren't learning good things at home.

DuDaMath · 3 months ago

A bit dishonest to say that Brenton Awa didn't say what he specifically supports regrading teaching financial literacy. In the caption of the post it states the bill (SB 1004).

Weasel101808 · 3 months ago

Tulsi is no longer relevant. We shouldn't value any of her opinions.

wantoknow · 3 months ago

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