Opinion: The school issues we’re battling over aren’t the ones that matter

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Various banned books are displayed on a table in Weller Book Works in Trolley Square for Banned Book Week in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

A Florida school district, facing pressure about “nudity” in schools, removed from shelves a picture book that showed an illustration of a goblin’s bare bottom. Some students were saved from debauchery when school officials colored in a pair of pants on the goblin.

That’s a particularly nutty example, from the newsletter “Popular Information” (the school district didn’t want to discuss the issue), of a right-wing puritan drive in education that appalls liberals: Conservatives are banning materials that mention gay people, racism or sexuality, skewing the teaching of history and students’ understanding of society.

“The freedom to read is under assault in the United States — particularly in public schools,” PEN America warned in a report last year.

Listen to conservatives, and they argue that the crisis in American schools is the opposite: It’s about leftist teachers propagandizing on critical race theory and giving kids new pronouns while denying them safe bathrooms.

Donald Trump has promised to defund “any school that’s pushing critical race theory, transgender insanity and any other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content on our children.” He added: “This is what must be done to save our country from destruction.”

My sympathies in the censorship battles are with the liberal watchdogs, but to me both left and right are missing the point.

The peril for America’s children is not bare goblin buttocks, nor is it goblins being clothed. The central problem is simply that too many kids aren’t getting the education they need.

We get distracted by these culture wars, but what we should focus on is that only 32% of America’s fourth graders are proficient at reading, according to a national test referred to as “the nation’s report card.”

Likewise, American children’s math skills are dismal by global standards. In the PISA international math test for 15-year-olds, U.S. students rank far behind the leaders (Singapore, Macao, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea) and also well behind peer countries including Canada, the Netherlands, Britain and Poland.

If education is one of the best metrics to forecast where countries will be in 25 or 50 years, as I believe, then we are hurting our children.

“Any nation that out-educates us will outcompete us,” the first lady, Jill Biden, has noted.

My fellow liberals like to fulminate at conservatives for neglecting children and provoking culture wars for show, but the left also gets in the way of education. Especially on the West Coast, Democrats significantly harmed children with prolonged school closures during the pandemic.

Excessive school closures caused a huge educational setback. American children still have not nearly caught up in either reading or math, and children in poor districts suffered the most.

San Francisco is a window into progressivism that doesn’t actually result in educational progress. In 2021, instead of focusing on reopening schools, the city’s school board undertook an effort to rename 44 schools that carried the names of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and others who were considered tainted. The school board eventually backed off after widespread mockery.

In 2014, the San Francisco school board also barred the teaching of algebra in eighth grade. Officials worried that white and Asian students were disproportionately getting on the higher math track, so the school district decided to hold everyone back.

This policy made things worse. Affluent parents hired tutors for their kids, so the Black-white and Hispanic-white education gaps actually widened. After the policy was instituted, Black 11th graders performed on math tests roughly the same as typical fifth graders, according to the Harvard journal Education Next. That’s shameful — not for those kids, but for the San Francisco school district. (Just this week, voters in San Francisco overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding measure encouraging the school district to return algebra to the eighth grade.)

But Republicans shouldn’t gloat. The GOP pretends to protect children from threats (like “woke” teachers), yet it is the party of child poverty. Republicans blocked the extension of refundable child tax credits, thus sending millions of children into poverty in 2022. If you want to understand why America has scandalously high child poverty rates, today’s Republican Party is one reason.

The states that seem to do the best job teaching kids, based on test results, aren’t just liberal or just conservative ones. They include blue states like Massachusetts and New Jersey and red states like Florida and Utah.

The bipartisan education reform movement to try to help left-behind students galvanized presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama and inspired tech executives and documentary makers, but it has faded. The paradox is that even as the resolve has fizzled, the evidence has grown for how to help.

Dallas, for example, took a far smarter approach than San Francisco to boost kids in math: Instead of canceling eighth grade algebra, it made it opt-out instead of opt-in. The upshot was that the share of children taking algebra in eighth grade tripled, with particularly large gains for Black and Latino students.

I’ve written about the remarkable progress that Mississippi schools have made in reading and math alike. If Mississippi, which still hasn’t come close to fixing poverty or racism, manages to get kids reading, there’s no excuse for the rest of the country.

Some of the solutions to weak education are complicated, but some are simple. Tutoring makes a big difference for lagging kids. Many children need eyeglasses but don’t get them, or they have hearing difficulties that aren’t diagnosed.

Here’s a scandal that I wish got half as much attention as culture war battles: The graduation rate for Bureau of Indian Education high schools is only 53%. Fixing that would be a big step toward breaking cycles of poverty in Native communities.

We are setting up too many of our kids for failure — and instead of focusing on that crisis, we adults are screaming at one another over whether to ban books that, at this rate, far too many kids won’t even be able to read.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.