Around this time last year, I took a big swing at tons of ideas for what I think needs to change for public schools to thrive. While I stand by those thoughts, headed into my fifth year as a public school parent, I’m starting to get better at serenity-prayer-ing my experience. Part of this has involved changing my mindset away from being a customer and instead seeing myself as a community member. My realism about the state of public education is balanced with faint flutters of hope: Our son’s school has an enthusiastic new principal and appears to be fully staffed (!) after serious teacher shortages there for the last two years. I'm allowing myself some cautious optimism.
In the general spirit of realism and acceptance, I decided to talk to one of my favorite clear-eyed journalists and observers of public education, Anya Kamenetz. Anya covered education for NPR for years and is a champion of giving families and students a voice about the difficulties they faced during COVID school closures. Her book, The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives and Where We Go Now, is a vivid and necessary document of a period of our history we need our leaders to never forget. She is now writing a wonderful new newsletter, The Golden Hour, which is about thriving and caring for others on a rapidly changing planet. Part of her work also focuses on finding joy in the face of what she calls the “polycrisis,” those thorny, interlocking large-scale problems we are faced with all too often. It’s a really creative beat with tons of interesting insights, so I hope you’ll subscribe.
Talking to Anya actually made me feel a lot better about my personal choices around staying committed to our public school, and I think you’ll enjoy her non-judgmental perspective and very practical advice about not getting overwhelmed by large-scale problems.
What to hear it all? If you’d like to enjoy an audio version of this very lively and fascinating conversation where Anya also discusses what she didn’t see coming about the fallout of the COVID crisis. Become a member of The Double Shift. You get members-only audio newsletters and an extended version of this conversation. Plus, you make this work possible!
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Katherine Goldstein: As a parent and observer, I would say public schools as an institution is facing its own “polycrisis.” For example, teacher and administrator shortages, lower enrollment numbers, and state legislatures funding private school alternatives, which mostly will benefit wealthy families. Plus, there’s the book banning and the ideological wars, and then of course, learning loss and mental health crises from students.
I would say most public schools are facing some or all of these crises. So, I think a lot of parents, myself included, are realizing this is the new normal. So how do we start to untangle this polycrisis without getting overwhelmed?
Anya Kamenetz: Yeah. That's a great question. And yes, I think you have it exactly right.
From what I've seen, the level of commitment and hard work and joy that happens every day at public schools is still there. In other words, it's easy to get spiraled out when you think about what's happening at the city level or the state level or the district level.
But when it comes to individual classrooms and individual teachers and students and parents, there's still quite a lot of goodwill and there's still quite a lot of strong relationships. So, there's something to be said for focusing on that micro and focusing on what you can get done and how you can stand up and make the experience a little bit better for your kid's teacher, and the kids that your kid goes to school with.
And that's where I would really suggest that people focus on; in joining with other parents with the shared goal of making our kids' experiences a little bit better and letting teachers know, because they hear from the unhappy parents. And so being there to deliver that positive message and really make their day can mean so much.
Katherine Goldstein: That's great. I think ideas around resource hoarding and the complexity of trying to do best by your own children versus what's best in a community context has gotten even more complex since the pandemic. So I would love to hear, how are you thinking about this these days?
Anya Kamenetz: Yeah, it's a major question. It doesn't go away for me. So, it’s important to realize that you've made one really big choice with the neighborhood that you live in and the zip code that you live in.
And that is the fundamental choice that you make. Then from there you're going to have limited options as far as how much diversity is in the schools that your kids are able to attend and then what's right for your individual kid. I have two different kids and they need different things and I definitely support people looking for any school option that's the best school option for your kid and what they particularly need.
You can still be a public-school advocate or an advocate for equity without necessarily making your kid the tip of the spear of your activism. You have to think about the needs of everybody in the family when you make these kinds of decisions. I certainly know plenty of people who went through very elite schools and emerged as true allies and true advocates. The opposite is true as well.
The way that I try to advise parents who are thinking about this is, first of all, the home environment is the most important factor in people's educational outcomes. So, you've already loaded the dice for your kid, hopefully in a really good way with what you're giving them at home.
We're so conditioned to be so anxious and treat everything like a demolition derby in terms of getting our kid into the right school. But it actually doesn't matter as much as we think it does. And so removing the pressure is gonna be so helpful for you and for your kid.
While private schools, for example, might feel like they're offering more in terms of the environment or the facilities, it's not born out in the research. Private school teachers are not as well paid. They're not unionized and they're not as well-trained on average. You might not be getting the educational edge that you think you're paying for, and it does cost a huge amount of money. What you are getting is an environment of people that are gonna be much less reflective of the community and the country and the world that your kids are gonna be living in.
Katherine Goldstein: I think that's really interesting. The community around the school has a huge impact on how your kid is going to grow up because that's who they're going to be friends with.
I was talking to someone recently who teaches at a private school and sends her kids to public school. She pointed out that private schools are not only expensive, but everything around them is expensive.... The ski trips and the horseback riding lessons and the summer houses and all this stuff that is just culturally very elite, and you need to think about what environment you want your kid to think is normal. If you can get a scholarship or can pay for the private school, do you want to and can you afford to be part of that social set?
Anya Kamenetz: I totally agree with that. We can't perfectly curate our kids' social environment by any means. But this is an overlooked factor to consider when you're agonizing between these choices.
Katherine Goldstein: Part of the difficulty around public education is that we have to make these deeply personal choices in the face of systemic failures. Do you have frameworks or questions parents should ask themselves when making education choices?
Anya Kamenetz: For me, it goes into the direction of really clarifying your values individually and your values as a family. When it comes to understanding what your values are it can just make these tough decisions a whole lot easier because, honestly, I think some blogger once said this in the nineties: “priorities are like hands. If you say you have more than two, you're either lying or you're crazy.”
You really have to figure out what you're gonna place some emphasis on. Equity and diversity, you're gonna lean into that. If your kid has unique disability or ability or if they're twice exceptional, for example, and they're really not thriving, then the first thing you have to prioritize is your kids' wellbeing and their safety, their interest, and love of school. Are they enjoying school? That would be the thing I would prioritize above all else.
But everyone is different. And it's really about thinking, what you care about the most, knowing you can't have everything.
Katherine Goldstein: Yup, when it comes to education, there's no such thing as having it all.
Tell me a bit about how you decided to start focusing on this idea of “polycrisis,” and let’s bring climate into this.
Anya Kamenetz: So I'd been a sustainability reporter before I was a fully education reporter.
The pandemic obviously affected people of all ages and so does the climate crisis, but there's unique impacts on people because of their generational position with climate crisis.
So, depending on whether you're born in 1950, 1980 or 2010 or beyond, it's going to be radically different. Young people are becoming aware of that, and they're very upset about it. This is really a convergence of my interest, as I've always been into kind of big picture thinking and thinking about big global forces and issues as they intersect with young people.
Katherine Goldstein: It's interesting because I think the climate crisis and the public education crises actually have some intersections. I'd love to hear your thoughts on how and on how those different crises overlap.
Anya Kamenetz: I've been working with as a senior advisor to the Aspen Institute and they have been looking at schools as an asset in the climate crisis in two really important ways. One is the physical infrastructure of our public schools. So a hundred thousand buildings. The largest private bus fleet in the country, and the largest food program in the country.
All of these are really important levers, and the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act provides billions of dollars to decarbonize our physical schools. So, this is a huge opportunity. And then the other really big part that schools can play is obviously teaching, right? Teaching about the climate crisis, empowering students to act, giving them tools to deal with the mental health impacts of this very fast changing world. The environmental justice implications of that are huge because of the equity concerns in our public schools.
Also, the way that schools can be a leveling force for social inequities and part of a big part of that is helping students understand kind of the impact that it has on them and how that differs by race, how it differs by class, and empowering them to be, again, part of the solution. So I'm really excited about what role public schools can play.
In the school districts that are getting it done and have robust climate action plans, there's a really cool synergy going on because, most often it's student-led action. Their students are bringing these plans and then they're being joined by teachers, by administrators, by community members, and even by staff.
So, some people hadn't really thought about the role that bus drivers and food service workers and custodians, all these overlooked lower wage workers, play in our kids' education. But when it comes to decarbonization, their roles are totally essential. All of a sudden, those barriers are being broken.
So, I see schools as an exciting agent of change in the climate system, even as they're subject to the same breakdown and the same forces that are assaulting everything else in our society. And they are getting some new resources to do it. It's a really fascinating time.
I hope this conversation was the right mix of realism, optimism, and pragmatism as we enter the next school year. And now I want to hear from you! Double Shift members, tomorrow’s prompt will be, “how are YOU feeling going into the new school year?” Check your inboxes and I look forward to your comments.
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What I’m listening to: I’m listening to two great podcasts, The Retrievals, which is about Yale’s IVF clinic where a nurse was diverting fentanyl and how institutions listen to (or ignore) women's pain. This is not an easy listen, and I might not recommend it if you are undergoing or considering reproductive treatments, but it’s a powerful story.
I’m also loving The Pill Plot, where I’m learning about the eccentric philanthropist and “father of abortion” who went to great lengths to give American women access to medical abortions. Super interesting to better understand our country’s more recent reproductive history.
A Great Novel: I recently read and loved Olga Dies Dreaming, which combines dishy New York rich people stories with a fascinating family melodrama about Puerto Rican radicals. I was sad when it was over.
My New Go-To: I’ve recently become obsessed with labneh, a middle eastern cultured yogurt cheese I get at my local halal market, but some regular grocery stories also carry it. My new party trick appetizer is taking some labneh and adding in zaatar and sumac, (available at the same middle eastern market) and drizzle a little olive oil and salt on top and serve it with pita chips. It takes literally 20 seconds to make and tastes very impressive.