By Fiona Cavanagh, 8th Grade Math Teacher in the School District of Philadelphia
These are quotes from a video by teacher Marquis Bryant, who posted a 3-minute rant about student underperformance on TikTok on September 19. He describes a seemingly “unteachable” crop of students and asks why people are not talking about this phenomenon. Well, people are talking now. Bryant’s video garnered millions of views within days of being posted and was reshared across social media platforms. Several “stitches” – TikTok’s feature of responding to a video with a video – of Bryant’s video also went viral from exasperated teachers sharing their own similar testimonies. They speak about classrooms with wildly inconsistent levels and students who struggle to pay attention and follow directions. One said, “These kids can’t read. They can’t decode (words). They have no vocabulary, no background knowledge. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Math And Reading Nosedive
It’s not just anecdotal. Test scores and teacher surveys have shown dramatic decreases in students’ math, reading, and social skills. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as America’s “report card,” shows math scores for 13-year-olds now at their lowest levels since 1990, plunging by the largest margin ever recorded from 2020-2023. In a survey from last spring, 70% of educators said students are misbehaving more now compared with 2019, and 80% report that students are less motivated to do their work.
We can trace the crisis in education today to the corporate “Education Reform” agenda championed by both Democrats and Republicans over the last few decades, with disastrous results. This was composed of school choice, standardized tests, underfunding, and attacks on teachers and our unions. All of these strategies to “fix” public schools, especially in poor communities, were meant to purposefully starve out public education and make room for privatization and profit-making. Now we are seeing how virtual school and the return to in-person learning over the last three years have accelerated the problems from the neoliberal “reform” era.
Meanwhile, broader societal crises, from economic instability to gun violence, continue to play out in our schools. Public schools have also become a focal point of right-wing backlash: educators have long been under attack from the right on the basis of broader attacks on the public sector, but now the crusade against progressive ideas around gender, sexuality, and race pose acute threats to teachers’ job security while also exacerbating the youth mental health crisis.
The result of these conditions has been an exodus from teaching. In a study of eight states, teacher turnover was at its highest point in at least five years. Short-staffing schools creates a vicious cycle, putting even more pressure on remaining workers and destabilizing students’ education. Teachers have long been overworked and underpaid, but the stress is mounting and many feel that it is no longer a sustainable career.
Save Our Schools!
Today’s disillusioned teachers need a revival of the wave of educators’ organizing that began in 2018 in West Virginia. When teachers, students, and families feel so strained it can lead to isolation and even antagonism, but with strong fighting demands and a united movement, we can fight together for the schools our students need. We need fully funded public education paid for by taxing the rich. Schools need to hire more teachers, counselors, and other staff with proper training, access to high-quality teaching resources, and livable pay. With more staff, we will be able to have smaller class sizes, which provide better quality education and emotional support for students, and lighten the load for teachers. We have to take an offensive approach not just against attacks on education but for bold steps forward to adequately educate the next generation.
Some of the viral teacher testimonials on TikTok fault parents for the behavior and low skill levels we are seeing in schools. It is understandable for teachers, who are themselves scapegoated for failures in education, to push back. Our students’ ability to learn in school often is a reflection of their living conditions outside of school. But these living conditions reflect broad social failure, not the failure of individual parents. Long working hours for parents, high costs of housing, food, healthcare and the presence of trauma and violence makes students’ lives and teachers’ jobs harder.
The 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike proclaimed that teachers’ working conditions are our students’ learning conditions and they modeled a community-based organizing approach including demands that went beyond the classroom like rent control. Blaming overstretched parents lets the real culprits off the hook – politicians from both parties, when they’re not openly attacking schools and educators, are systematically starving schools of funds and resources.
Even in the face of such chaos, teachers and families cannot and will not give up on our students and their education. They deserve schools that care about them, connect with them, and push them to succeed. But ultimately, they deserve a safe, sustainable world which means a society built around meeting human needs instead of maximizing profit. The task of caring for and educating the next generation is our collective goal and to make it possible we must fight collectively for an education system that respects teachers and students.