According to the National Education Association, each American school child has “a multitude of identities that shape how they feel entering school each day.” The organization goes on to ask, “How can we, as educators, ensure our schools support each of those identities so that each of our students can learn and flourish?”

This focus on students’ “identities” is both misplaced and misleading — misplaced because the only relevant identity of any school-age child as far as a public educational institution is concerned should be “young person learning to read, write, reason, and do arithmetic,” and misleading because it’s really the multitudinous identities of adults, not those of children, that are the driving force behind today’s troubling educational trends.

Public schools are failing in their basic mission to educate young Americans; as a result, we are in the midst of a full-blown disaster of illiteracy and innumeracy. Eighth graders’ average math test scores have dropped to their lowest levels in 35 years and their reading scores to the lowest levels in two decades. Meanwhile, two-thirds of American fourth graders are functionally illiterate, yet many parents are ignorant of just how dire our educational crisis has become.

The notion that public schools are understood as support centers for students’ identities is nothing more than a semantic papering over of their increasing failure as public schools — that is, institutions that impart skills and knowledge to American children without regard to race, class or creed.

Despite what are likely the best of intentions on the part of many who favor the neo-identitarian rhetoric, socio-economically disadvantaged students of color are disproportionately harmed by this dereliction of duty. These are the students who most need cost-free, institutionalized opportunities to attain literacy and numeracy. But such opportunities are effectively stymied — often, patronizingly, in the name of those same students — by a system in which educated elites counterproductively prioritize partisan virtue-signaling over academic achievement.

At bottom, many leaders in public education today prioritize neither children’s alleged “multitude of identities” nor children more generally. Instead, they replace what is good for all kids with what feels good to some adults.

Why, for example, was phonics instruction mostly abandoned in public schools over the past 30 years, so that it now has to make a “comeback?” Did we think there was a better way to actually teach children to read? Nope. But we decided that we cared more to posture about a “love of reading” than to inculcate literacy in children. After all, the former is warm and fuzzy, if ineffective; the latter is boring and tedious, so we abandoned it despite its efficacy.

How about the sexualized content, particularly as relates to transgender rhetoric, being foisted upon America’s kindergarteners at the behest of the National Education Association and its allies? Teaching kindergartners about gender identities and choices of pronouns has zero to do with children’s needs. Honest people, progressives included, know this deep down — even if they are afraid to so much as entertain the thought. On the contrary, “choose your pronouns” inflected sexual content in schools simply creates a captive class of potential victims so that a cadre of so-called “gender-nonconforming” adults and their “allies” can perpetuate a notion of “gender identity” that is patently false.

But, alas, public schools mostly defer to the desire of a small minority of disproportionately influential teacher-activists to share their “holistic” selves — sexuality included — with minor children. This activist fringe has been able to shape the conversation about LGBTQ issues in public schools to seem as though their focus is on the developmental needs of children when in fact it is on the solipsistic self-promotion of adults.

Further examples of this phenomenon — claiming as students’ needs for support what are in fact the ideological agendas of adults — abound.

Ironically enough, we are delimiting students’ capacity to form exactly the sort of multifaceted identity to which our public schools pretend to be responsive. Because we waste so much time peddling a false and oversimplified notion of identity for the benefit of adults, we deprive children of the knowledge and skills to understand themselves, their society and the broader world.