Published: Sept. 17, 2019

PAUL:
Welcome to Brainwaves, a podcast about big ideas produced at the University of Colorado Boulder.

I’m Paul Beique.

This week-- we’ll take a look at a system most of us have been through, but which we don’t know everything about:

Public K-12 education.

We’ll look at some of the big problems with schools today and the barriers to solving those issues.

And we’ll find out why many people just don’t trust the school system, why bullying is getting worse.

And, what it’s like to be a kid in school today.

First up, we hear about bullying in the news all the time.

But what is bullying?

And why do experts say, after decades of progress, it’s now getting worse?

Brainwaves executive producer Andrew Sorensen talked to Liz Meyer, she’s an associate professor at CU Boulder’s School of Education, and an expert on bullying.

ANDREW:
Liz Meyer, thanks so much for being on the show. Let's start off with the definition:
What is bullying?

MEYER:
So, bullying is any kind of harmful behavior. Whether it be verbal physical, psychological, that is targeted at one individual intentionally and over time.

So, name-calling, pushing, shoving, and there's usually a power differential. So, it's usually somebody of a bigger size, or greater social status, or somebody older targeting somebody who doesn't have that same kind of social power in their school or their group.

ANDREW: 
I think we hear this word “bullying” a lot, but people have kind of different interpretations of what that looks like. In your research, how is this showing up in schools today? 

MEYER:
Well, bullying shows up in a lot of different ways, in kind of the most traditional way that most people think and hear about it, but I also think it's very important that we pay attention to the related category behaviors that I call “harassment,” which is when students are being targeted for a specific aspect of their identity, their social group membership, whether it be because they have a disability, or they're LGBTQ, or they're a student of color. Because those kinds of bullying and harassing behaviors don't just hurt the target or that individual student, it actually creates a whole host of harms for anybody who is also a member of that category or group. Because then they see themselves as also being insulted, or denigrated, or treated as “less than” in their school.

ANDREW:
In your research, it's not getting better well it had been getting better.

MEYER:
Well, it had been getting better over the past twenty years or so that we've been tracking a lot of these bias behaviors in schools. 

We've been seeing a slow and steady decline. Until recently, about two-and-a-half years ago, during the presidential campaign, we started seeing a bounce and an uptick in very particular forms of bullying and harassment that echoed a lot of the rhetoric that was coming out of the presidential campaign. And so, it's unfortunate, but understandable that the youth are echoing and repeating what they're hearing in the public discourse around them. 

ANDREW:
So what should we be doing? What should parents and teachers be doing to kind of curb that again?

MEYER:
Well, we have to understand that a school's job is to keep students safe, so that they can learn. And if we're not able to keep students safe, and that includes emotionally and psychologically safe, they're not going to be able to take risks to be able to engage in learning.

And so, whatever schools are doing to try to reduce bullying, to try to bring attention to negative and bias behaviors, that we as parents and community members need to support that and model it in our own behaviors. And regardless of our political affiliation, we need to recognize that kids need to have caring school communities where they feel respected, where they feel affirmed, where they feel like they can be long, so they can actually do the work of learning.

ANDREW:

Is there something that parents should keep in mind as they talk to their kids about bullying?

MEYER:
Absolutely, I mean kids have been hearing about bullying in their anti-bullying programs, usually since kindergarten, and they're a little sick of it. They're a little over it. 

So, we have to be a little bit creative in the ways we talk with our kids about it, and especially middle school where we know there is an uptick in bullying, it really peaks in grades six through nine, to be able to talk to your kids in ways that allows them to speak freely about what's going on with them and their friendship groups, in their online environment. And don't freak out and pass judgment on what's going on. 

Because, if you threaten to take away their phone, or reduce their internet access, they're going to be less likely to open up to you. 

So, we really want to keep the lines of communication open. So, when things are going on, you can help them make sense of it, like, “Wow, that sounds like stalking,” or, “Wow, that sounds like sexual harassment, let's talk about how we can make it—make that stop.” 

ANDREW:
And then, from the educational side, you mentioned kids are kind of sick of hearing about bullying what can educators be doing to make sure that they're mitigating this as much as possible?

MEYER: 
Well, a lot of schools have implemented what are called “social emotional learning programs” that are designed, and have been shown, to reduce bullying. And so, we need to talk about it more in the terms of relationships and friendships, what some students call drama in friendship groups. 

You know, just pay attention to those, those dynamics that happen, and use language that your kids are using. If they use words you don't understand, ask them to explain, and help them really be able to talk freely, without judgment, so you can help them make sense of what's going on in their world.

ANDREW:
Anything you want to add?

MEYER:
Just that, as adults, we do have a responsibility to create safe and caring home environments and advocate for our kids in their school environments. And if we don't know what's going on, we can't be that advocate for our youth. 

And so, we need to keep those lines of communication open. We need to be strong advocates in our school communities if we don't feel like our schools are doing enough. And we also need strong leadership in those school buildings—principals, teachers who are willing to do what they know to be right to help support all kids to be safe and affirmed at school.

ANDREW:
All right, thank you so much.

MEYER: 
Thank you

PAUL:

When we talk about education today, there are a ton of issues we could get into: funding, gaps in achievement between high- and low-income kids, gaps between white families and families of color.

But at the core of solving all of those things is trust.

That’s according to Kathy Schultz.

She just wrote a book about the lack of trust in the education system, and she’s dean of the CU Boulder School of Education.

Brainwaves’ Cole Hemstreet has the story.

SCHULTZ: 
I would say that there is a great deal of distrust in schools today. I think people are worried in general about the state of education. They’re worried that schools aren’t as good as they should be. That schools are failing kids.
 
COLE:
It’s a topic hard to pin down.
 
Why don’t we trust schools?

But that’s exactly what Schultz unpacks in her new book:  “Distrust and educational change.”
 
SCHULTZ:
We are in a moment in history, a moment in time where there is just a lot of distrust, a lot of distrust in institutions in general.

COLE:
Schultz, who’s been around education as a teacher, principal and school board member, Draws on some of her own experiences in the book.

SCHULTZ:
I was on a school board in Chester, Pennsylvania, which is a very small city outside of Philadelphia. It’s one of the lowest performing and poorest districts in the state of Pennsylvania.

COLE:
She was part of a board appointed by the governor, brought in to “fix” this district.

Part of the problem, Schultz says, was that charter schools made up more than half the district.

SCHULTZ:
And that was really squeezing out the life or the financial, sort of, capacity of the district to run its schools.

COLE:
One vocal group in the district was against charter schools, so Schultz and her fellow appointees tried a bunch of stuff to bolster non-charter schools.

SCHULTZ:
We built playgrounds on every campus, we started libraries in the school, we started a number of schools in buildings that had been closed.

COLE:
But a few years later, after a local school board had control again.

SCHULTZ:
Pretty much all of our changes disappeared.

COLE:
What went wrong?

SCHULTZ:
We had just really focused on the louder part of the district that seemed to be working toward the same goals as we were, which was to preserve the public schools at that point.

COLE:
And the people in the district didn’t *trust* Schultz’s school board. 

Not a single one of them was from Chester.

If she had to go back, Schultz says, she would do things differently.

SCHULTZ:
I would really try to forge the relationships that we had with the governor’s office and hand it off to them, rather than trying to solve the problems ourselves, and giving up when it was harder than we thought.

She thinks it’s important to acknowledge distrust to get over that hump.

SCHULTZ:
If there’s a history of distrust, if there’s a history of, say, racism, then that’s going to persist even if the new superintendent has new ideas.

COLE:
And while distrust is pretty universal across the U.S.s, the reasons Chester didn’t trust her, the reason any parent, school, school districts don’t trust top-down mandates, are local.

SCHULTZ:
I think that’s right. I think that’s right. And I think the solutions are local as well.

COLE:
… Instead of throwing uniform solutions, like standardized testing at lower performing schools.

SCHULTZ:
Standardized tests are meant to monitor how education is going and sort of improve it. But standardized tests are based on fundamentally distrusting teachers. Distrusting the knowledge that teachers have about students. And so if standardized tests used to both monitor teachers and monitor teaching then it makes teaching a less intellectual profession, and a less desirable profession.

COLE:
Schultz says that’s another key to fixing the trust gap: understanding the importance of teachers.

SCHULTZ:
One of the things that we need to do is restore a sense of dignity and kindness to teaching. I think that teaching is a hard job and we’re seeing fewer and fewer people want to go into teaching. We, I think, as a society we often underestimate how difficult it is to be a teacher, but also, how rewarding it is.

For Brainwaves, I’m Cole Hemstreet.

PAUL:
And now, a totally different kind of expert on public education—kids.

Brainwaves’ Lisa Marshall talked to her own daughter, and some of her friends about what it’s like for a kid in school today.

Lisa Marshall:
Ok. So, we are here with three current high school seniors to talk about what it’s like to be in high school these days. And I'd like to start by asking each of you guys to just state your name.

ESA:
I’m Esa.

SAGE:
My name is Sage.

NOEL:
My name is Noel.

LISA:
What are the biggest challenges facing high school students these days?

ESA:
Well lately, for me it’s been college preparation and getting ready to apply for those colleges and everything you have to do to prepare for all that.
 
SAGE:
I think that's the biggest challenge, for me, is probably the amount of weight that is put on testing, and standardized testing, and tests within classrooms, because instead of being able to express your creativity, and things like that, all of your weight is put on how well you memorize, and how well you can execute in a timed setting.

NOEL:
So, for me it's more of the transition from high-school into college. Because there's just so much pressure at a young age. You go from sitting in a classroom and having to raise your hand to get called on and raise your hand to go to the bathroom, to suddenly, within the next couple months, you’re supposed to know exactly what you want to do, where you want to go. And your entire life is figured out at such a young age when you're treating us just like kids.

LISA:
What about bullying? What's going on in your school?

SAGE:
I don’t think that I, personally, have faced a lot of bullying in my school experience. But I've noticed that probably the most prevalent type of bullying is that online bullying and cyberbullying. Just because you'll see those snide comments on Instagram posts, and things like that, because I think it allows people to do behind a screen so they don't have to face the emotions of the person they are bullying.

NOEL:
So for me, it is the little things. Because bullying doesn't really exist anymore in the sense that you're going to get beaten up after school or you're getting shoved into a locker. It’s just not like that anymore. Really, to me, it’s almost worse. It's the little things. The little snide comments you get so you get about what you're doing, about your weight, about your hair, just anything about you. And those small things build up overtime. And overtime, and you don't even know how much it’s affecting you because nothing big is happening.

LISA:
Is it preventable?

SAGE:
I think probably the most important thing to do is to identify bullying and put a definition on it. Because I think a lot of people are saying snide comments or doing things, those underlying bullying things, and they don't even realize that it is bullying. 

NOEL:
So, for me with preventing bullying, I think it actually starts with addressing the actual bullies themselves. Because, I don’t know about for you guys, but from my experience, when I was younger, I was a little pudgy, and I was made fun of a lot. And it wasn’t the kids that were well rounded and had a good home life that was nagging on me, it was the ones that had terrible homelives.  They had fathers in prison, or mothers who are drunks—along those lines. Just, you got to address them as a whole, because not well-functioning people are the ones doing this. I think that if we can reach out to those kids and get a better idea of why they're doing this, and how we can help them you know with themselves, I think that would help out other victims in bullying in general.

LISA:
So, another big objective in education today is to make sure that people from different backgrounds, whether it’s ethnic backgrounds, people with different gender identities, are treated with respect. I guess, how tolerant, would you say, your school is?

SAGE: 
I used to think we were a pretty tolerant school until I reached high school and with this, the new administration, honestly, I think that it's made a huge difference about what people believe it's okay to say. And I think that after 2016, there’s been a lot more of the racial bullying. At least in our school. I've heard from some of the Hispanics in our school, that people have told them that they should be deported. We had a student leave last year who faced some bullying due to his ethnicity. And I think that the biggest thing that you can do, even for those transgender students and things like that, is you need student advocates. The administration needs to talk to students and create student advocates, so that they can actually be the one saying that that's not okay. Because I think from an adult standpoint people don't take it quite as seriously, but if there are people in the halls, in those everyday situations, telling others that's not okay. I believe then that will make a difference.

LISA:
So if you were to think of maybe one or two things that are just extremely different about the way, about your high school experience, and maybe my high school experience, or your parents high school experience, what do you think you guys have to deal with that we didn't have to deal with?

NOEL:
Definitely the threat of mass shootings. That's the one… I'll never forget, there was someone in our grade who pulled the fire alarm one day, and we knew it wasn't a scheduled drill. And all that could go through my head with all the shootings. As we turned outside to get out of the school building, I just was waiting for someone with a gun. My mom never really had to deal with that. She never had experience what it’s like to be doing active shooter drills, and you know, having to run out of the building, or trying to barricade yourself in the room.  Just, I don't think adults really understand how scary that is anymore. 

LISA:
What's going well? What do you like about school and what would you like to see more of?

ESA:
Going to a smaller school, you're a lot closer to the faculty and the teachers. And I have family that go to schools where in their grade alone they have 600 kids. And being in a class of only has 70 kids, you get a lot closer relationship with those teachers, and you can really dive into the topics at hand. In my AP Gov class, we have seven people. And I can already tell you, just from being in it half a semester, that I'm learning so much more than I did.

LISA:
So, the last question for you guys: Is there anything you would want parents out there to know or understand better or consider about what it’s like to be a high school student?

SAGE:
I think I would probably say that you have to understand the amount of pressure that your student is under, with all of the standardized tests, regular tests, getting those high grades. Colleges are a thousand times more difficult to get into than they used to be. So, students are under incredible pressure to do well in school, to do all those extra-curriculars. Some students still have to work. So, I think that parents need to understand that students are doing the best that they can.

ESA:
Yeah, I was just going to say something along the lines of Sage’s, but your support really does mean everything. Having a parent to come home to that can push you to do your homework, and get that stuff together, and preparing for colleges and just keeping you on track. That support really does mean everything and, yeah!

Thanks for listening to Brainwaves. 

I’m Paul Beique.

Today’s podcast was produced by Dirk Martin, Lisa Marshall, Cole Hemstreet and Andrew Sorensen.

Andrew is our executive producer. Sam Linnerooth is our digital producer. Cole created our introduction.

Join us next week for another episode of Brainwaves.