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Little Frogs in Little Pots / Dan Russell

When I was a child, I spoke as a child. I was surrounded by talented and caring educators who wanted the best for me and my future. We learned the ABCs and our multiplication tables. We learned to diagram sentences, the periodic table, history, and civics. I did well until someone decided to insert letters into my arithmetic lessons. But all in all, I was a good student and enjoyed school. I knew and trusted my teachers and administrators, who cared about me. My parents trusted them, too.

That was twenty-five years ago.

Today, as an educator, I approach my work as my teachers did, with great care for my students. I love to talk to their parents about them. But, I have to tell you, it is not the same. Something has changed, and with it, the attitudes of my students and their parents.

Education is fickle. Every three years or so, we tend to find new and exciting ways to “better serve” students. This predilection for change is doing more harm than good. Changes come with consequences. The latent effects of shifts in pedagogy, instruction, and classroom management can do more harm than good.

Change also makes parents uneasy. It causes them to doubt public schools have the best interest of their child in mind. More and more now appear at school board meetings, voicing concerns about their children’s education. They come with valid fears their child may not be served in the best ways possible. Some meetings have turned violent.

Last year, public educators dealt with controversies surrounding gender fluidity, gender-neutral bathrooms, sex education, book bans, critical race theory, low staff numbers, and the continual threat of gun-related violence. Schools across the country were consumed by how to deal with them while facing down calls for “reform.” Sadly, most measures to alleviate these issues are tabled or ignored.

Public schools do the best they can with limited resources. They work to overcome obstacles that pop up from year to year. They face new mandates and protocols that hinder more than help their students' growth and ability to grasp key concepts. In the last decade, partisan politics and the media have whipped parents into a common core frenzy. Understandably, many have had enough.

There is a movement across the country to move away from public schools and focus on classical education. Many churches and family groups are starting new schools. These schools seek to return to the educational practices of the past. They want to return the focus to subjects they believe are missing from public schools: rhetoric, logic, and Western Civilization. These subjects were once taught with rigor in public schools. However, over time, their importance in curricula across the nation decreased. More extracurriculars and upper-level math and science offerings replaced them to better prepare graduates for rapidly changing career paths.

If one searches for education reform on Amazon, they will find titles decrying the death of public schools and the need to “reclaim the American mind.” These books advocate for smaller private schools promising focused learning with a traditional curriculum where students will find refuge from the indoctrination happening in public schools. The majority of these books are not written by educators. Most are written by pundits with a specific political agenda who want to return this nation to a point in its history when all was right and America was leading the world. They espouse “traditional values” and pride in “our heritage.” This should give one pause. We should ask what “values” and whose “heritage” these authors feel are missing from the public school curricula. The answer to that is simple: White folks.

There is a broad movement to re-establish American exceptionalism and white power structures in our schools. It masquerades as a Christian-based and morally focused movement to reform schools. It promises to restore a focus on the classical elements of education. It is out there and it is growing. Like a Big and Rich concert, it is coming to your city.

Scour the papers and do an internet search for “classical education.” Look at the curriculum. See if you think it will prepare your child for college or trade school. You will find the only thing this type of education provides is an echo chamber for white Christian nationalism. It exists to bring up a generation of students to see the nation as broken, corrupt, and hell-bent on subjecting them to socialist ideology.

These schools are not preparing our kids for tomorrow. They are not preparing them for college or trade-related careers. They are not serving students with disabilities. Many will not accept disabled students because they do not have the funding to deal with those types of “problems.” They do not exist to serve the many. They do not exist to meet all students where they are and teach them how to overcome obstacles. They do not provide free lunches to those who cannot afford to eat or transportation to those who cannot get to school on their own. They are exclusive and expensive. They are, to put it bluntly, segregation by another name. Train up the few, the evangelical, and the Caucasian to believe their heritage and traditions are under threat, and they will grow up to hate more than love. We should call these schools what they are: insular, prejudiced diploma mills and absolutely NOT what Jesus would do.

We must be careful. The movement is growing. It is a slow build. It has a hold on a generation of parents. Like frogs, these parents are in a cool pot of water, and the fire is being slowly increased to a boil.

These ideas are also creeping into statehouses across the country. Many legislators want to remake public schools and have them return to “traditional” and “classical” curriculums. They seek to rewrite curricula and remove books from school libraries and classrooms that do not honor America or American ideals. They want teachers to teach the “truth.”

Teachers will teach what they are told because they are too tired to fight it. They know any effort at education reform from within always fails. They will acquiesce because they have a mortgage and student loans, and no matter how much it goes against their convictions, they will teach what they are told. After all, that is “just how it is,” true or not.

The next twenty-five years will redefine what we know as public education. Factions exist that see it as their mission to reshape and remake education in this country. One side sees it as altruistic and holistic. The other seeks to foment old ideas proven over and again to be dated, simplistic, and out of touch.

"Love one another as I have loved you." Jesus said that. Whether you are a Christian or not, it is a good motto. Sadly, those who subscribe to it most apply it least. Divide and conquer would be more apt. That seems to be their ultimate goal. Jesus loved the little children. Today, I’m not sure anyone other than teachers share His sentiment. Children, it seems to those who want to consolidate their power, are the perfect weapon to enact political change. Unless they are murdered, then no one cares.


DAN RUSSELL is a writer. His work has appeared in The Arkansas Review, Cowboy Jamboree, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Tributary, Close to the Bone, Poverty House, and You Might Need to Hear This. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Concordia University-St. Paul and is the host of The Fair to Middlin' Podcast. He and his wife and family live in Arkansas atop Crowley’s Ridge. His debut novel, Poor Birds, will be published by Cowboy Jamboree Press in 2025.

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