• Action Idaho

Idaho's Culture of Failure

Debates over Idaho’s schools often center around funding and test results and, more recently, the problem of critical race theory and associated ideologies. But none of these matters touch what is central to education—a unified sense of mission. Is the culture of the school supportive of student learning? Is there a consensus within school buildings about what student learning is and why it should be pursued?

As nations disintegrate and fray, so does the underlying ethos necessary to sustain its vital institutions. When there is rebellion in the rear, armies become less competent. When there is less confidence or consensus, governing institutions likewise get a lot worse. One would be hard-pressed to name a single institution that has kept the trust of citizens and manifests more competence in today’s America when compared to a generation ago.

As nations disintegrate and fray, so does the underlying ethos necessary to sustain its vital institutions. Nowhere is this truth more evident than in our public schools.

The Rocky Mountain, Vallivue, and Borah high schools, to name a few, are the fraying edges of cultural disintegration.

Teachers across the Treasure Valley tell harrowing stories of broken cultures—of students uninterested in learning or unable to focus. These are not issues that can be solved with mere money. Nor are they necessarily connected to the anti-American ideologies that have infected public schools across the country. The absence of educational vision is a problem of its own.

One teacher in the Treasure Valley who spoke to Action Idaho on the condition of anonymity is quitting at the end of the year due to profound cultural problems. This teacher is giving up decent pay and generous public benefits. She is hoping to find a position in a private school. There, she hopes, to find a stronger sense of mission and thus greater order in the day.

The school she is leaving witnesses “lots of fights” between students, at least one per week. Racial tensions run high, with name-callers and the thin-skinned starting much of the brawling. Social media pages are dedicated to fights at this particular school. In some cases, they are staged with the express purpose of generating content for social media.

Vandalism is also common, ranging from pulling sinks off the wall (a popular prank on Tik Tok) and other property damage. Vulgar writing marks school buildings and bathrooms, of which there are too few. Indeed, students are often late for class because there aren’t enough bathrooms operating in the buildings. There is plenty of money for repairs, but the damage is so frequent that the custodians cannot keep up.

Drug use, supported and even encouraged through Idaho’s Health and Welfare programs, has spiked in schools as well. “One or two students per class,” this teacher estimated, are “too high to learn in each class.”

Students routinely cheat on their assignments. Information and arguments are gleaned from the ubiquitous online environment. A paper on government can be cribbed from websites on government. A paper on Shakespeare can be mostly copied from websites on Shakespeare. Why analyze when it is easier to copy or paraphrase? Students learn how to check boxes, but they have no incentive to master material.

But worst of all is the ubiquitous presence of cell phones. Few schools have blanket prohibitions on their use in the class—and many schools actually think that computer use improves education. Nothing could be further from the truth. All these electronic devices do so much to distract students. They take their attention away from permanent things and toward the passing fancies of the moment.

“I am leaving because of the cell phone problem,” the teacher said. “That and the fact that every day I would leave for school with a terrible lump in my throat, filled with anxiety.”

This level of disorder makes it impossible to teach or learn, and the order that must precede excellence is rapidly disintegrating. Not enough people respect the civilized and civilizing norms in the classrooms or in the hallways, but the consequences are all around us. We see them when students exit the halls of learning and enter the village of society.

Active, confident administrations can try to enforce civilized norms, but only if they reflect a decent consensus. Of course, these norms are too often stigmatized today as too white, too European, or too heterosexual. So, the people in charge often lack the confidence to enforce standards that could make schools work better for teachers and students alike.

Money cannot buy a better culture. Nor can it replenish dwindling substitute lists, and fewer people are entering the teaching profession altogether. When a village falls apart, it takes one to put it back together.