What We Don’t Know about School Is Killing Us

If someone is running toward a cliff, what should you do?  You might grab them.  You might yell at them to stop.  If you had time, you might build a wall to block them from certain death.  What would a school do?  Make available a brochure clearly describing the dangers of falling off cliffs.

It’s a stupid analogy and I’m sorry about that.  But it is not too far from the truth about school and the dunderheaded way we Americans tend to think about the relationship between school and education.  People tend to think school is a place where students line up and receive necessary information.  They think that making information mandatory in school means that they have successfully educated the populace.  That’s not really how it works and our society’s ignorance about it is literally a life-or-death problem.

Here’s the latest example: According to Politico, several states have passed new laws mandating education in public schools about the dangers of opioid addiction.  No one doubts the dangers of such drugs.  Nor do we dispute the notion that government can and should take action to help solve the problem.  We don’t even argue that schools can’t play a central role.

Too often, though, even in these sorts of life-and-death situations, government officials think they can solve problems by simply cramming new mandatory topics into school curriculums.  They think that by mandating school-based classes about opioid addiction, they have successfully educated children about it.

Consider the efforts in Michigan, for example.  Like people in a lot of states, Michiganders are rightly concerned with the dangers of opioid addiction, especially among young people.  State Senator Tonya Schuitmaker has proposed a bill to introduce information about opioids into the state’s required health curriculum.  As she puts it, “Our youth, they need to become educated upon the addictive nature of opioids.”

Fair enough.  But Senator Schuitmaker and others like her seem to be stubbornly resistant to the depressing truth.  Putting information into mandatory school curriculums does not equal education.  Just passing a law requiring schools to deliver certain information does not mean that young people have been educated about it.

That’s just not how it works.

The evidence is obvious and irrefutable for anyone who bothers to look.

Consider the case from the world of sex education.  As Jonathan Zimmerman argued in his terrific recent book Too Hot to Handle, the AIDS crisis in the 1980s prompted a uniquely American response.  In Scandinavia, governments embarked on a broad program to encourage condom usage and discourage risky sexual behaviors.  In the United States, in contrast, governments mandated information about HIV be included in school health classes. zimmerman too hot to handle

It didn’t work.  And it won’t, because in spite of what so many of us think, school curriculums are not the same thing as education.  Where do people learn about sex?  Not—NOT—from their fifth-grade Gym teacher.  No matter how comprehensive a sex-education curriculum is, no matter how carefully a state legislature insists that sex-ed classes must include true information about HIV, most young people will learn far more about sex and HIV from other sources.

We could give more examples if we needed to.  As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found when it came to teaching evolution in public schools, mandating evolution in state curriculums was not the most helpful factor.  Rather, teachers tended to teach what their community believed, no matter what the state-mandated curriculum included.

Evolution Creationism Berkman Plutzer

The same is true with the equally desperate problem of opioid addiction.  Simply cramming mandatory information about the dangers of opioids into health curriculums will not do anything to address the real problem.  It is the equivalent to the stupid analogy I started with: printing up brochures about the dangers of cliffs when someone is running straight toward one.  Mandating that those brochures be made available to every student in every public school.

This does not mean that schools cannot play a vital role in real education about the dangers of opioids.  Consider the much smarter example of West Virginia.  In that state, school-reform efforts take a much wiser view.  How are Mountaineer schools responding to the dangers of opioid abuse?  For one thing, they are paying for programs that will educate more drug counselors and encourage them to stay and work in West Virginia.  They are funding programs that help addicts deal with the full complexity of their addictions.  They are even rehabbing old schools and turning them into comprehensive treatment centers.

Such programs are much more expensive than simply mandating “coverage” of opioid information in public-school health classes.  But unlike fast-and-dirty curricular solutions, such programs actually stand a chance of helping addicts and potential addicts.

When it comes to life-and-death problems such as opioid addiction, simply insisting that schools add new curriculum is a cowardly and ineffective approach.  It only serves to let lawmakers brag that they have addressed the issue, when in fact they have done nothing at all.

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