The War On Education

Howard Gross
Communicating Complexity
8 min readApr 26, 2023


3D Eye

Growing complexity, the pace of change, and ensuing uncertainty are becoming ever more disruptive, whether in the guise of national and global conflicts, economic inequality, disinformation, climate change, or seemingly unrestrained advances in technology. Adequately surviving, let alone succeeding, under these conditions necessitate new ways of thinking, which in turn warrant more suitable systems of learning. To that end, educators have identified the four C’s of 21st century learning skills. Critical thinking is the capacity to approach problems with genuine curiosity, and the courage to challenge conventional wisdom. Creativity requires seeing beyond the obvious in the search for possible solutions. Collaboration means entertaining multiple perspectives, plus a willingness to possibly change one’s own mind. Communication entails exchanging information and ideas such that others can understand them.

Yet education today is too often at odds with these objectives, sometimes the result of circumstances and other times quite deliberately.

Same Old, Same Old

American schools operate largely the same way they have for generations by preparing young people for what were once the rigid demands of the industrial age. Critics call this the factory model, whereby students sit in organized rows while their teachers deliver content in a conforming, mechanized manner to be memorized and recalled. They are sorted into grades based on age rather than acumen. Their school days start as early as 7 AM, when it is still dark and research has shown their brains are not fully awake. And they lose considerable knowledge during summer breaks, themselves a vestige of an agricultural era. Yet barely one-in-ten Americans still work in factories, and fewer will in the future.

Higher education too, has failed to keep up with the times. The labor market over the past few decades has seen an increase in demand for college educated workers. But there is a disconnect between the knowledge students acquire and what they need to succeed in a new economy. A March 2017 survey by the Rockefeller Foundation noted that half of college graduates were not applying the skills they learned once they entered the workforce, and more than 80 percent developed the appropriate mastery outside of school. Four years later, research by Cengage Group, an American educational services company, found that one in five grads still said their colleges didn’t provide them with job ready competence, and nearly two in five (38 percent) only occasionally used what skills they did learn. Subsequently, a tight labor market is prompting more employers to eliminate college degrees for positions that are better served by aptitude and experience.

Education Interruptus

Many of these problems have only deepened since the pandemic. During two years of lock downs the quality of education plunged. Lost instructional time, high rates of absenteeism, and staff shortages plagued schools that were forced to grapple with the chaos of rolling closures. Students, teachers, and parents also struggled with mental health challenges from isolation and frustration. Socioeconomic disparities made matters even worse. According to a 2021 Pew study, 25 percent of lower-income parents said their children were, at times, unable to complete schoolwork because they couldn’t access a computer at home. The same was true for only two percent of upper-income families. Consequently, national assessment results in reading and math indicate Covid 19 erased as much as two decades of academic gains. Average grade school reading scores between 2020 and 2022 were down five points, the largest descent since 1990. Math scores sank eight points, the first decline ever.

College enrollment, which had already begun receding in 2010, principally in regions experiencing below-average birth rates and out-migration, fell for three consecutive school years to about 1.5 million fewer students in 2022 than before the pandemic. Racial and ethnic distinctions were evident as well. Enrollment among Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians ebbed while those among Whites rose. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that the wage gap between college and high school alum hit a record high in 2021, amounting to a difference of nearly one million dollars in lifetime earnings. The gap was most striking with Ivy League institutions where record low shares of applicants were admitted.

States’ Rights and Wrongs

Yet no sooner had students reentered classrooms than their education became ammunition for a relentless culture war. Terms like woke, an acronym for “Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees”, have become weapons for politicians promoting laws that limit what educators can say about contentious topics.

One key reason for this discord is that education is primarily a state and local responsibility. States control how public schools are funded; how instructors are licensed to teach; what students should learn, how and by when; and requirements for enrollment and graduation. These monies and mandates are handed down to a patchwork of some 14,000 districts governed by boards with their own power over what is permissible in classrooms and libraries.

Conservatives have long used schools as battlegrounds for such wars. In the 1960s and 70s, they fought sex education, with some claiming it was a communist plot. Beginning in the 1990s, creationists resurrected the bogeyman of evolution to advocate a fallacy known as intelligent design, and since 2000, Republicans at the state level have introduced more than 100 bills allowing teachers to question established scientific facts.

These days, a popular target is race. Over the past two years more than 30 states have proposed or passed legislation regulating how schools can talk about racial history and racism in the United States. Under the rubric of “parental rights,” state legislators are also barring instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity. So far this year, 218 education-related anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced — more than twice the number proposed last year.

The Sunless State

The center of gravity for much of this is Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis’ not as of yet presidential campaign appears to be stumbling under the weight of its extremism. Covering a number of bases, DeSantis has advocated and launched legislation that limits how schools handle provocative subjects. His so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill (HB 1557) — which has been upgraded from third graders all the way to high school seniors — prohibits teaching about sex and gender in a manner “that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Nowhere, however, does the bill clearly articulate what such taboo lessons entail.

Florida’s equally vague and possibly unconstitutional Stop W.O.K.E. Act (HB7) criminalizes Critical Race Theory (CRT) in grades K-12, which DeSantis claims indoctrinates kids “to hate our country or to hate each other” — even though CRT is not part of the public school curriculum. And while it is taught at post-secondary institutions, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently maintained a preliminary injunction blocking the law from being enforced there.

Undaunted, DeSantis has endorsed two more measures directed at higher education — SB 266 and HB 999 — that would severely restrict faculty hiring, restrain what majors and minors schools can offer, and regulate what programs or activities a campus could support. They would also block spending on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs and eliminate gender studies. Alas, the governor is not alone. The Chronicle of Higher Education has identified at least 17 other states with comparable bills that check what professors can teach and students can learn. Yet such antics may be a bridge too far. The Florida statutes are currently stalled in legislative session where Republican lawmakers are concerned that anti-DEI language might cause schools to lose accreditation.

Strangely, one rationale for these laws is to spare students the discomfort of having to consider historical and contemporary controversies. Albeit many of the same states are unwilling to do anything to alleviate students’ fears of being shot dead in their classrooms. To the contrary, Tennessee state senators have proposed a bill overruling a ban on carrying guns and other weapons on campus. Kentucky is considering prohibiting colleges and universities from regulating the possession of firearms on school grounds. The West Virginia senate voted to allow campus concealed carry.

Fighting Back

In many instances, the goal of these education policies is less to legislate than to intimidate. When the College Board introduced its first ever Advanced Placement (AP) course in African American studies, DeSantis denounced its focus on systemic racism and took credit for pressuring the organization to sanitize the curriculum before approving its use in his state. Only after being castigated by educators everywhere did the Board send an open letter to the governor branding his objections as a “PR stunt;” apologize for not striking back sooner; and suggest revising the initial changes in the near future.

DeSantis has also faced resistance at the K-12 level. In January, the superintendent staff of Pinellas County school board banned the novel The Bluest Eyes by the Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning writer Toni Morrison after a lone parent objected to its “sexually explicit” content. Ignoring its normal complaint process during which a book stays in circulation until the matter is resolved, the board immediately removed it. But in April, after a committee of seven district media specialists reviewed the decision, the work has returned to the shelves.

As with issues like abortion, gun control, and voting rights, Republican lawmakers are out of step with much of the public on education. In a poll published by Wall Street Journal-NORC, 61 percent of respondents said they were more concerned about schools censoring books or ideas that are “educationally important” than the possibility they might offend students or parents. Research by University of Southern California’s School of Education and its Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research found that a majority Democrats and unaffiliated voters support teaching high school students about gay and trans rights, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Moreover, according to the Pew Research Center, Republican and Democratic parents are equally likely to say they are extremely or very satisfied with the quality of their children’s education, and that teachers and administrators share values similar to their own.

Across the country, voters are acting on these sentiments. In recent school board elections in Illinois and Wisconsin, candidates waging culture war campaigns took a beating. In fact, of the nearly 1,800 such contests nationwide since 2021, contenders who opposed discussions of race and gender or mask requirements in classrooms won just 30 percent of races, according to Ballotpedia, a site that tracks U.S. elections.

New Directions?

Sadly though, that is not likely to stop reactionary officials from pushing their agendas. They thrive by exploiting the worst fears of their constituents, and by gaming the legal system so that their majorities and super-majorities allow them to act with impunity. And their actions are especially cruel because they prey on children and seek to keep those who are marginalized in place. But ultimately, they hurt all the citizens they are elected to represent. Not surprisingly, many of the states that wittingly inhibit education sit at the bottom of the nation’s rankings, while those at the top champion erudition.

Perhaps then, technology will achieve what politics will not. Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI), particularly in the form of ChatGPT, hold out the possibility to advance 21st century learning by expanding access to new information and ideas; generating individualized instruction guided by students’ interests and understanding; and identifying patterns in learning that are not readily apparent. To be sure, AI can also exacerbate current troubles by proliferating misinformation and reinforcing biases and stereotypes. But the genie is out of the bottle and it may well move education in one direction or the other.



Howard Gross
Communicating Complexity

Making complex ideas easier to access, understand, and use