Setting the Bar: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Era of Distraction, Dependency, and Entitlement, by Shane Trotter (Barbarian Virtues, 314 pp., $13.99)
On complex issues of public education, insight from those working in the school system is too rare. We rely mainly on commentators and policy experts outside the classroom to analyze data and piece together what is happening in our public schools. While helpful, they can fail to capture what a day in the life of a typical student looks like.
Setting the Bar: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Era of Distraction, Dependency, and Entitlement by teacher and writer Shane Trotter is thus a useful resource for those seeking to learn more about the state of public education. Based on his real-world experience, Trotter understands that reforming public education will take not only changes in policy but also a different mindset.
Trotter begins with a familiar image: “What I see is six kids sitting (yes, sitting) on the curb silently scanning their phones. Their heads are tilted to the side lazily, mouths open, faces empty, and thumbs swiping steadily in search of distraction.” These kids are doing nothing wrong, but the problem is that they aren’t doing much of anything, and their lethargy often extends to the classroom and home. Too many young Americans move through childhood and adolescence without learning or doing much, leaving them lonely, incompetent, and deeply depressed.
In the first section of his book, Trotter tries to account for how we got here. He traces the problem, as do other commentators, to parents’ embrace of safetyism, which leads them to eliminate all forms of adversity for their children and thereby prevent them from developing essential virtues and skills. Consequently, a generation of young people winds up glued to screens and unable to cope with reality.
Trotter assesses what has become a one-size-fits-all approach to solving nuanced social problems, particularly those related to education. While the discussion has its merits, Trotter is somewhat out of his depth here in diagnosing cultural and political ideology. Numerous factors contribute to our social dysfunction, and many lie beyond the scope of Trotter’s analysis. When he strays from his area of expertise, the text becomes heavy with quotes and definitions that detract from the book’s purpose.
Trotter notes the environment that enables and even encourages teacher apathy. As Trotter attests, all educators in public schools have the choice either to challenge their students or pass them on quietly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many teachers—Trotter included—frequently choose the second path. “As much as I wanted to fight every battle, I eventually caved to the exhaustion of a demanding Texas high school coaching schedule (which seemed to be the job I was really hired for),” he writes. “I compromised more times than I would have ever thought possible.” Trotter found it onerous to persevere within a system he felt actively discouraged achievement.
The book’s finest chapter is its twelfth: “Six Practices That Are Ruining Education.” Here, Trotter calls out the main problems plaguing public schools: special-education accommodations that remove all accountability from learning, late- and makeup-work policies, the elimination of mandatory exams, credit-recovery programs, the overuse of smartphones, and standardized curricula based on state testing. In Trotter’s view, these factors have dissolved accountability and excellence in schools. Worse still, colleges are adopting the same bad practices as K-12 schools.
In the final chapters of Setting the Bar, Trotter outlines a plan for reform. Educators should start by rediscovering first-principles thinking, which “seeks to break systems down to their most basic elements so they can be reassembled in new ways,” he writes. Trotter argues that students should learn not only the basic knowledge of core subjects but also the skills necessary to becoming independent, well-rounded adults. After undergoing rigorous instruction in core subjects during elementary and middle school, high school students should specialize in an academic area of interest to attain knowledge and skills necessary to living well and contributing to their community.
Trotter might have enriched Setting the Bar by expanding on his professional experiences as a teacher and offering more of his own vision for education reform. Nevertheless, the book is well written, relevant, and accurate in its description of public education today. It can be tempting to give up on the possibility of reforming public education in the United States, but Trotter’s realistic optimism provides hope.
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