The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

A Positive Path Forward

Solving the daunting problems facing K-12 education.


We're at an inflection point in American K-12 education, brought on by decades of inaction as Ed schools became more militant and radicalized and classrooms subsequently became increasingly politicized. As additional instances of shocking and even unethical instruction come to light, dumbfounded and sideswiped citizens are shaking their heads, asking themselves how this all could have happened.

Both benign and malign actors, and many sins of omission and commission, brought us to this lamentable point, but now that so much intolerable pedagogy has been revealed and so many suspicions confirmed, we need to focus first on fixing the problem rather than assigning blame. There are innocent and impressionable children who are becoming collateral damage in this culture war, and for their sake, we must move swiftly and firmly to restore balance, integrity, quality, and legitimate, appropriate oversight to their classrooms.

As difficult as the problems facing American K-12 education are, they are far from unsolvable—particularly by determined people full of resolve. This is a multi-pronged problem, so solutions will need to come from multiple angles as well.

Parents and Students

Righteously angry parents are organizing and comparing notes. They're targeting wayward school board members for recalls and running for school board seats themselves. They're scrutinizing lesson plans and submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to find out which sorts of consultants their children's schools are hiring and how much they're being paid. They're showing up at public meetings and finding their voices, hopefully modeling for the next generation both how the democratic process works and how reasoned rhetoric, persuasive oratory, and passionate effort can be used to influence cultural direction and change the conversation.

Families must commit to ongoing participation in the democratic process governing our schools—from paying closer attention to candidates for local office to keeping up with the learning standards and ethical guidelines governing the practice of education where you live. (You can find these at your state's department of education website. You will also find procedures there for reporting recalcitrant or unscrupulous educators engaging in misconduct.)

As the battle for the direction of K-12 education heads to state legislatures, it's essential to know which bills are being proposed in your state and to be alert for and ready to oppose slanted legislation that treads on students' rights to think and learn freely, according to the dictates of their own consciences. You may not be used to paying such close attention to what's going on in your state capital, but these proposals will have far-reaching ramifications and require a great deal of public input and comment to ensure that they truly represent the will of the people and can command the consent of the governed. Now is not a time for complacency or blind trust in elected officials. Get involved!

Parents who remain concerned over the direction of K-12 education will need to develop enough of a working command of the current critical theories being promoted in education schools, and finding their way into American classrooms, in order to be able to properly prepare children and in order to interpret and respond to the philosophical underpinnings of proposed or imposed curricular changes.

This means you may need to supplement your children's lessons and debrief them after school, in order to ensure contextualization and to provide balance, when necessary. Even bad lessons can be good learning opportunities if students can be shown how to spot faulty or incomplete arguments and encouraged to undertake independent research in order to complete their understanding of complicated topics. Remember, too, that in most districts and schools you can request pre-notification of any lessons that delve into the realm of personal values or that might violate some family's religious beliefs, in order that you can request to opt your child out of such content. Parents remain the primary moral educators of their children, and no amount of critical pedagogy in the schools changes that prerogative or imperative.

Frustrated students have begun organizing, too, by forming groups and establishing clubs to interrogate and supplement their own education. They're developing their own reading lists, coordinating speakers, and meeting online to try to fill in the gaps that are being overlooked by their schools. And as today's K-12 students prepare to move into higher education, you can use FIRE's college free speech rankings to help you select higher education institutions wisely.

Teachers and Schools

Because sunlight is the best disinfectant, teachers and schools must engage in total transparency with parents and the community moving forward. There can be no more concealed motives, hidden agendas, or furtive attempts to influence minor children behind their parents' backs. The first step to repairing broken trust is restoring open, honest, and consistent lines of two-way communication.

American teacher education is long overdue for disruptive reform. (Bonnie, for instance, earned her teaching credentials via "Alternate Route" certification, bypassing traditional "ed school" channels altogether; these programs vary by state.) We're going to have to seriously consider bold, creative reforms such as permitting adjunct K-12 teachers, and even creating entirely new school formats altogether. Readily available technology can help pave the way. Hybrid models—a combination of traditional schooling with home or online classes—could provide a more flexible, satisfactory alternative for many families. The current dire problems seem a clarion call to return to the drawing board, scrapping all preexisting assumptions about how schooling is best delivered, received, or administered.

FIRE offers numerous additional resources to enrich traditional classrooms and supplement student understanding of the liberal norms that operate so well when implemented properly. We run an annual essay contest for high school juniors and seniors and have downloadable guides that clearly explain topics such as free speech, religious, and due process rights on campus.

Schools should also consider how they incorporate student feedback into their decision-making. Most school administrators will assert that everything they do is "for the children." And yet, the structure of most schools is rigidly top-down, with each layer carrying out the dictates of the supervisory layer above it. This framework treats students as the products of the educational system rather than active participants in it.

But students are not widgets, and structures that deny their agency are either viewed as nuisances to be endured or constraints to be broken, neither of which encourages a particularly effective learning mindset. Corporations have broken out of the top-down mold by finding alternative structures that encourage, rather than restrain, individual agency. Why has education not caught up?

The hour is late but it is not too late to restore competence, integrity, ethical operations, effective training, and academic quality to K-12 education. The will and the motivation exist to forge a positive path forward. Now, all that is needed is momentum.