American schools are dealing with an unprecedented mental health crisis spurred, at least in part, by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated school closures. Vocal advocates, including NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, argue that teachers should be better trained to assist in addressing mental health challenges. But that’s like calling a gardener to fix your plumbing issues. And it invites mission creep that could hamper efforts to increase student learning.
Surveys administered in April by the National Center for Education Statistics reveal that schools continue to feel the mental health effects of the pandemic, with 70 percent of public schools reporting an increase in the number of children seeking services and three in four reporting faculty concerns about heightened student depression and anxiety. Data is not disaggregated by state, but regional breakdowns indicate that the greatest challenges have occurred in the Northeast.
Still, there is simply no telling whether such problems will persist. If schools drop union endorsed COVID-19 mitigation strategies—which, given their ineffectiveness and negative impact on mental health, would be a wise decision—it is certainly conceivable that the current adolescent mental health crisis could recede.
Despite dire warnings about the long shadow cast by COVID and the resources that it would take to overcome learning loss—including a plea co-written by former NYC Chancellor Richard Carranza that the United States needed a “Marshall Plan” for American schools—2021-22 state assessment results from Tennessee reveal that achievement levels there has essentially returned to its pre-COVID normal.
Even if the adolescent mental health crisis remains acute, or even if policymakers feel that the pre-pandemic normal should be a floor rather than an aspirational goal, the notion of deputizing teachers as mental health counselors raises several concerns.
First, the practical: time that teachers spend addressing mental health needs is time that they aren’t spending teaching the 3 R’s or lesson planning. A sobering reality check reveals that student literacy and numeracy in New York is an emergency unto itself. While meeting the mental health needs of students is incredibly important, it should not come at the expense of their learning subject matter skills and knowledge.
Plus, ambition is one thing and execution is another. Teacher professional development has a lousy track record of success, and recent happenings should serve as a cautionary tale. As of 2018 New York teachers are required to receive mental health training, yet a report issued last month by the New York State Comptroller revealed that none of the twenty districts surveyed were fully compliant with State Education Department regulations.
Second, the political: The wave of state-level legislative victories for school choice that has swept the country over the past year or so was fueled in part by families who feel that public schools have become too politically doctrinaire. The type of teacher mental health training for which Pallotta advocates is an offshoot of social-emotional learning (SEL), a popular trend in public education that places a greater emphasis on schools teaching students to “manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
While SEL sounds innocuous and desirable, Max Eden of the American Enterprise Institute chronicles how it often intersects with controversial curricula and pedagogies. Taxpayers deserve a public education system that stakes out a politically dispassionate middle ground on issues fraught with tension and conflict.
Third, the financial: New York’s education spending is already stratospheric and saddled with unfunded mandates. Some districts have used funds from the American Rescue Plan to add staffing, including mental health counselors. Amidst the potential fiscal cliff created by such decisions, declining student enrollment and a shaky economic forecast, legislators should be looking to pare down on education spending, not expanding it.
Rather than tasking teachers to participate in ineffective and potentially tendentious mission creep, schools should empower teachers to enforce basic norms of classroom behavior, including disciplining students who disrupt, bully, or otherwise threaten the welfare of other students. A growing proclivity among schools across the country to resolve conflicts through non-punitive means—a position endorsed by NYSUT—has largely neutered teachers’ authority to punish students, likely exacerbating teacher burnout and student mental health challenges.
As is so often the case in education, schools don’t need more resources or fashionable pedagogies to cure what ails them but must eschew union extortions and return to common sense practices.