The Canary in the Coal Mine: America’s Failing Education System is a Warning to a Failing America

According to Kat Eshner of the Smithsonian, over a hundred years ago, John Scott Haldane pioneered the use of canaries as an early warning system for coal miners to make them aware of the presence of deadly carbon monoxide in the mine. Unfortunately, this usually resulted in the canary’s death, but it saved untold human lives. That is, if the bird’s demise was discovered in time. The use of the canary and similar tactics ended around 1986 when an “electronic nose” was developed to detect poisonous gasses more accurately than a dead bird. Ironically it was near this time that America’s proverbial canary, our public education system, began to look wan and sickly. And here the irony gets thick because nearly everyone has noticed, but we’re all still in the mine deciding what to do about it, and the canary has long since fallen off its perch and is twitching at the bottom of its cage, barely alive.

It is no surprise to most people that America’s education system is failing. Ask nearly anyone, informed or otherwise, and they’ll undoubtedly tell you how our schools are mires of incompetence, or are horridly underfunded, or are over-managed, or use any number of decidedly negative adjectives to describe the state of our school. Yet, curiously, when parents are asked how well their children’s schools are performing, the vast majority seem to think they’re doing great. It’s other people’s schools who are the problem, according to several polls, including this one from NPR. In a land of “personal accountability,” it’s almost laughably always someone else’s problem. In that hypocrisy, at least, we are unfortunately consistent. 

Where there is no public consensus is why. Why are America’s schools failing? And have been declining for nearly four decades? We could list dozens of reasons, ranging from standardized testing and curriculum to under-funding, from poor teacher pay to a loss of morals, from “wokeness” or to conservative “indoctrination.” The list is virtually endless, and there is no singular reason. Most of the reasons touted as the decline have some part in making the mess we are currently lying in. Our problems are legion, which means there is no one solution to making them better; as much as we may want there to be some magic solution to solving the education crisis, which would make things better by the next school year, there is not. What there is a lack of direction and the ability to compromise between parties, and coupled with minimal level of discourse in this country, you can see how we got here.

Let’s look at some basic facts. According to US News, every prosperous country with a high quality of life, including life expectancy, general happiness, low unemployment rates, and low infant and maternal mortality rates, also has a highly successful public education system. The “civilized” or first-world countries that do not have a better-than-average public education system have a lower life expectancy, are generally less satisfied with life, and have higher rates of infant and maternal mortality. Sadly the United States falls into the latter of these categories. Of the first-world countries, we rank somewhere near the halfway mark in nearly all measures of a good life, yet we claim to be the best country in the world. We may be the strongest, but we are not doing well at all. This is the equivalent of a professional athlete at the top of their game but suffering from a host of underlying issues that will claim their life.

Why a better education system should be inexorably linked to a better society is not immediately apparent. It’s not as if a better education system will make all those other ills disappear. If we better educate our children, we’re not going to suddenly be healthier, or make the gun epidemic go away, or suddenly be happier with our lives. And likewise, if we solve the obesity epidemic, or the gun crisis, or the medical disparities in this country, it won’t lead to a better education system. All of these things must rise together. We can have a world-class education system, but if a third of our students are struggling at home due to poverty or illness, how can we hope to educate them properly?

We are a relatively long-lived species, and much of the foundations of who we become occur in childhood and adolescence, so new ideas and concepts are most easily adapted during this period, which is when public education typically takes place. Afterward, we tend to spend the rest of our lives either building our existence around those beliefs or struggling to learn new ones and adapting them into our lives. This is why education is so essential yet so flawed. We need it to help us become better adapted to a more rapidly changing society, but it is not designed to do so. Instead, it tragically takes years for that slow, systematic change to work through the system and incorporate it into the curriculum, at which point society has already progressed and education hasn’t yet adapted. And so follows our children and then our country.

The bad news is that what will be required to fix education is nothing short of a complete shift in priorities in our society. A total societal change would be needed because education is nothing short of teaching our children how to adapt and learn in our society. If our culture is broken, then our education system is broken, so it will also require a complete rebuilding of how education is both considered and applied. We need to move away from the “Education as a means of producing workers” mindset and rebuild it to adapt to a changing world, but it’s a Catch-22. Change takes time, especially in education and government, but the pace of change is speeding up, making education less effective, which only increases the need for more change, and round and round she goes.

A brilliant woman, educator, and friend once told me that human society progresses in one of two ways: Slow, systematic progress over years or decades, caused by new laws passing, the democratic process, and the country incorporating new changes over time. The other is quick, violent action, usually war or revolution, which might be months or years, followed very often by backsliding in morals and freedom and then slow systematic progress or further war. And then more slow, systematic progress. But either way, the change that needs to happen in a society occurs at about the same pace, and almost always, change is either painfully drawn out or violent with a long, painful recovery.

I don’t know what will help this situation, but it will be hard for all of us. There is no magic solution, there is no easy way out. What I do know is that the problem will only worsen if we do nothing, that a generation of kids are already being stranded in the dark while the adults are standing around in this metaphorical mine, looking at a dying canary and arguing about what we should do. If it were only so easy as to follow one’s nose to the scent of fresh air, but no one can seem to remember what that smells like anymore, and our children have only tasted the stagnant, poisoned air that is killing us. I wonder, if they are ever to find their way out, will they recognize the smell of freedom and change, or will they run back into the stale and increasingly deadly mines they grew up in and are so familiar with? The mines we are raising them in and we can’t seem to leave behind because too many of us are scared.

I hope they will run towards change, even if that means leaving us in the dark. They are the only ones who can adapt to the shift that is happening as fast as it is, because they are young and still able to do so. That is what I am teaching my own children to do, and as long as I’m an educator, that is what I’m trying to prepare my students to do. But I can only show them a way out. We have to allow them to leave, and if we’re all brave enough, to walk out into the light behind them and let them lead the way. 

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