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If Biden Is Serious About Healing the Country, He Must Change Education Policy

It’s time to address the many mental health crises brought on marginalized students by the U.S. education system.

A student is seen as New York City elementary schools are opened after COVID-19 measures on December 7, 2020.

We hope that our schools are safe and nurturing places where children build the intellectual and emotional skills they need to grow into healthy adults. Unfortunately, for many children in the U.S., the reality falls far short of this aspiration. In fact, according to psychologist and education scholar, Lee-Anne Gray, Psy.D., the American school system is nothing short of traumatic for many Black students and other students of color. In her book, Educational Trauma: Examples From Testing to the School-to-Prison Pipeline, she exposes how schooling in the U.S. routinely undermines students’ mental health, limits their potential, and, in the worst cases, causes lifelong harm.

As a new administration is poised to take the reins of government, Gray says it is time to demand both widespread changes to the U.S. education system and public measures to address the mental health crisis facing many marginalized students. She urges Joe Biden to start by re-examining Race to the Top, an Obama-era education program that ties funding to performance, and instead begin cultivating compassionate alternatives that promote learning and well-being.

Peter Handel: Across the political spectrum we hear a lot of criticism of the American school system. Many on the left condemn excessive testing, the slashing of arts programs and tying school funding to test scores. Yet, few would claim that the education in the U.S. actively traumatizes students. In your book, Educational Trauma, you write, “Schools are places where trauma is carried out in the name of education.” Tell us how you came to this view.

Lee-Anne Gray: As a clinical psychologist, certified in treating trauma, I observed blatant and overt traumas in the youth presenting for care in California. It was especially evident to me when the prevalence rate of ADD/ADHD rose to the point that teachers were identifying it and referring students to psychiatrists for prescriptions. I saw that schools in America perpetrated little t traumas every day, everywhere. Francine Shapiro, the creator of EMDR, a trauma treatment, indicated that shame, slights, humiliation, embarrassments and failures are smaller traumas that can accumulate to critical symptoms. The rate of bullying and the negative effects of testing are riddled with little t traumas. Standard education protocol in the U.S., with its emphasis on testing, intense competition and conformity, is a breeding ground for little t trauma. This is particularly problematic in low-income schools where students are dehumanized and often face multiple oppressions before entering the classroom.

Finally, I knew I was seeing trauma when I stumbled across psychologist Alice Miller’s concept of “poisonous pedagogy,” which describes how harmful practices are perpetuated in the name of education. From high-stakes testing to harsh discipline to inadequate mental health support, poisonous pedagogy is rife in U.S. schools.

How has education policy in the last few decades contributed to educational trauma?

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT) are two federal reward programs offering schools extra funds for higher test scores. They essentially use a market demand model to demonstrate that students are learning, when, in fact, learning cannot be measured in this way. Testing is a very flawed measure of student success. Moreover, the model used to evaluate school scores is even more flawed in that teachers’ careers depend on the scores of students they’ve never taught. Ultimately, these two federal incentive funding programs bind teachers’ hands so that they aren’t able to employ their professional expertise.

Who has been harmed the most by some of these policies and in what ways?

Scholars, social justice advocates, and some educators have recognized that parts of the educational system lead Black, Latinx and LGBTQ+ youth into the prison-industrial complex by way of the school-to-prison pipeline. This suggests that schools are a fundamental part of the carceral system, and that sending Black, Latinx and LGBTQ+ youth to school involves a real risk that they won’t be educated and receive a diploma, and instead end up with a criminal record. Black and Latinx students from lower-income communities typically go to schools that are under-resourced. They are further deprived by the punitive nature of NCLB and RTTT. It’s a vicious circle of poor performance due to poverty and poor pedagogy, sustained by lack of resources. It is further complicated by the denial of bonus federal funding. Teachers and schools are not equipped to deal with the effects of poverty on students and an educational model that is fixated on testing as the only measure of success will never lead to good outcomes.

What do you think the Biden/Harris administration should do to change education policy for the better?

President-elect Joe Biden has indicated that it’s time for the nation to heal, and that it can heal. This assertion is premised on the fact that the citizens of our country are traumatized. This has been true for quite some time, and must be fully recognized. For students, it is largely because schools ensure that maladaptive patterns of educating children continue despite the fact that research demonstrates the consequences. For example, schools typically deprive students of movement and activities we know are necessary for healthy brain development. Schools suppress the natural gifts and talents of youth by over controlling learning and stressing rote memorization over critical thinking. The incoming administration is well-advised to lean into this truth and begin by offering more funding and resources to the communities most in need. Furthermore, putting an end to NCLB and RTTT will return classroom time to teachers so they can creatively meet the needs of the students in their classes. Biden supported RTTT, an Obama-era education program. Now is his opportunity to replace it with something that truly serves students and families. By acknowledging that we need to change course, he can both make students’ lives better and set an example of how a leader can admit and correct a mistake.

We must also make a public commitment to education and stop the trend toward making schools a for-profit endeavor. NCLB and RTTT have been disastrous and it is long past time that we move from a model that obsesses over testing to one that encourages critical thinking, problem solving and the development of skills that will make for adults fully capable of participating in a democracy.

Finally, the Biden administration should appoint a Mental Health Secretary — or better yet, a Mental Health Department — that can address the trauma of students and others. This person or body would recognize the extent that learning is impacted by trauma and how trauma and inequality are linked. A reasonably resourced arm of government would be both practical and innovative when a country is in crisis to the extent that ours is. Schools do not exist apart from society and trauma doesn’t magically disappear in the classroom. We need leadership that takes mental health seriously and is willing to make it a priority.

You say that COVID-19 is the largest educational trauma in history. What do you mean and how should the new administration address it?

The pandemic has brought social and economic disparities into sharp focus. Because everyone has been affected in some way by COVID-19, it is a trauma that takes place outside of schools but affects schools greatly, the kind that I call ex-situ Educational Trauma. This type of trauma is an organic moment when structural problems in education can be reversed and ameliorated, essentially beginning the healing of the educational system and all who interact with it. In 2014-15, I experimented with democratic models of education combined with Design Thinking to assess how to mitigate and treat Educational Trauma. Design Thinking encourages students to creatively and cooperatively solve problems. It was obvious that traumatized individuals need a lot less instruction and assignments, and a lot more social-emotional learning. Since all the data and information people need are available online, it is no longer necessary for students to memorize and learn esoteric bits of knowledge. Instead, they need skills for critical thinking, research, and most importantly in a pandemic, the ability to care for themselves. Empathic Education for a Compassionate Nation is the model I developed to deliver these most relevant aspects of modern education.

Empathic Education for a Compassionate Nation is a fluid model that adapts to student, family and community circumstances. It relies on democratic principles to fully engage students in their educational program, while cultivating citizens capable of participating in democracy. For traumatized students, it may include play and other forms of recreation to heal the negative effects of sustained trauma. For others, it may involve highly creative and inventive methods of learning. Design Thinking has been used in K-12 education for some time now, and is disseminated among teachers by Stanford University’s, as well as the Henry Ford Learning Institute. It offers the structure required to meet students where they are and build highly relevant problem-solving skills.

What should the new administration do to restore respect and power to teachers?

By dismantling NCLB and RTTT, funding would be decoupled from test scores. That would begin the process of empowering educators to creatively and compassionately teach. Notably, one of the architects of NCLB, Diane Ravitch, has loudly opposed it, in recent years. Teachers often burnout because they are not given the support and respect they need to do the job effectively. They are expected to single-handedly address problems that are out of their control, and when they fail to do so, are blamed. Too many talented and dedicated people are leaving the profession or avoiding it because they don’t want to be part of a system that dehumanizes both students and teachers. Paulo Freire, education scholar, described how we educate our children as “the banking model of education,” which casts students as passive receptacles of knowledge that is deposited by teachers. This model doesn’t educate and is totally unsuitable for producing adults capable of participating in democracy and solving the complex problems we now face. It is also a total waste of teacher expertise and discourages the very qualities that make for good teaching. Making U.S. schools places of real education and empowerment is going to be a long process, but we can begin by stopping the scapegoating of teachers for systemic problems and according them and their profession due respect. One way to do this is by increasing the prevalence and accessibility of democratic education models, long used the world over. It’s necessary now more than ever because American democracy has been threatened.

You write that much of the testing and sorting of students is rooted in white supremacist ideology and in eugenics. Can you explain?

Standardized testing relies on the Bell Curve. As a method of assessing people, it originated in eugenics, the study of identifying which groups of people have the most desirable traits, and which do not, and therefore whom we should invest in and encourage to reproduce. Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, initiated the field of eugenics for the purpose of identifying superior qualities in people, compared to undesirable traits. It was destructive, unscientific and an indication of the racism of its exponents. Unfortunately, it gained traction in the 20th century as a method of improving the human race and therefore, social conditions. It reached its most horrific application when the Nazis came to power. While eugenics has been soundly discredited, its legacy lives on.

Ultimately, these ideas are the foundation of standardized testing in American education. Testing sorts the “superior” students from the “inferior” students. It sets the former up for advanced education and the latter for prison and permanent disadvantage. Routine testing in all schools is linked to the disproportionate imprisonment of marginalized students. These are genocidal practices that serve white supremacy.

What are some alternative models of education and how do you think we can work toward them in the U.S.?

There are many models that have potential to serve student, family and community needs. The diversity in educational models is most commonly seen in homeschooling families who have practiced alternative models on a small scale for decades. There are community schools, Free Schools and Sudbury Valley Schools that offer youth freedom and power in their education. Design Thinking was used in a democratic setting with mixed-age students at The Connect Group School in 2014-15, a school I founded, to find a solution to the human-centered problem educating students for the 21st century. We found that democratic approaches combined with rich course offerings is a good initial balance to start with, understanding that the model would need to fluctuate with the needs of the changing student body and communities where they reside.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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