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Education Opinion

A Broader Bolder Vision (Some Assembly Required)

By Susan Graham — June 18, 2008 4 min read

You can’t pick up a newspaper without reading something about education, and when The Washington Post carried a huge ad for A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, it got my attention and piqued my curiosity. So I went to the Broader Bolder website to read the entire report.

Schools can’t do it alone,” said Co-Chair Helen Ladd. “Accountability is a pillar of our education system, but schools need the support of the community – both before children arrive at school and during their school years – for all children to achieve high standards.”

As a teacher, my first thoughts were: “Thank you for acknowledging that! These people get it!” Most of our schools do the best we can with the circumstances and resources we are given. To simply turn to public education and say “Geez, don’t you people care about kids? You really ought be accountable. The welfare of America’s children is your responsibility. Get with it, or we will deal with you harshly” is not only heartless but naive.

These are the core goals of the “Broader, Bolder Approach” --

• Continued school improvement efforts.

• Developmentally appropriate and high-quality early childhood, pre-school and kindergarten care and education.

• Routine pediatric, dental, hearing and vision care for all infants, toddlers and schoolchildren.

• Improving the quality of students’ out-of-school time.

These seem to be pretty logical and not highly controversial goals that were being endorsed by some people whose names I recognized and respected. But when I started digging into the reactions to this manifesto, things got a little more complicated.

Just about everyone in the virtual education world had something to say, either good or bad, about the Broader Bolder Approach. Think tanks and research groups all seem to have a position on this proclamation, and each group seems to be “interpreting” the “real” agenda of the Broader/Bolder coalition, based on how it fits with its own organizational agenda. Sometimes it seems that the education discussion is more about power and competition between adults than it is about looking for ways to cooperate for the benefit children.

I’m a policy amateur, my knowledge of education politics is shallow, and I don’t pretend to be smart enough to thoroughly deconstruct stakeholders’ agendas and motives. I know some of the endorsers by their, in my book, good reputation. I don’t really have time or energy to figure out all the backroom alliances or scores that are in the process of being settled.

I have a hard time understanding why anyone would have a problem with the stated goals of Broader and Bolder. At the same time, I acknowledge that there is a great distance between good ideas and practical implementations and between envisioning and implementing. Since questions are echoing in my mind, I’ll share them here.

All of these issues effect education, but are they education issues? Too often, policymakers determine that if something is a child issue, then it can just be rolled into education policy, killing two birds with one stone. Some of the additional “birds” are initiatives like child nutrition (breakfast and lunch), physical fitness, financial literacy, family life education (we don’t say sex), character education (but keep it value neutral, please), drug awareness, bullying prevention, internet safety, social equality, environmental awareness, heath screening, and childhood obesity.

While all of these are important issues, is the classroom or school where primary responsibility belongs for addressing them? Does the social activism emanating out of Washington sometimes usurp the role of parents, or does it simply acknowledge that “someone has to do it”?

Are we asking too much or too little of our schools? While acknowledging that “schools can’t do it alone” in the end, if we identify these things as education issues, do we, with the best of intentions, inadvertently demand that public education accept responsibility for fixing all of our societal problems? Does this diminish or enhance our schools’ mandate to educate children?

If these become “education issues,” are policymakers going to have the courage and discipline to provide the resources necessary? Will other areas of government give education the authority to take leadership in implementation -- or will other agencies see schools as a method of delivery for their own programs, under their own control?

If childhood health and after-school care become education issues, does that imply absolution for everyone except the education community? If we are still waiting for full funding for IDEA and NCLB, what assurance do we have that the necessary money will ever be made available to address these other pressing (and expensive) issues? And finally, if we constantly hear concerns about the high cost of public education and the ROI on those public dollars, will shifting more social services to us add fuel to the misperception that we are spendthrifts?

As I read the profiles of the Broader and Bolder task force, I am sure that they have the expertise and knowledge to have foreseen and addressed (as best they can) many of my questions. But I couldn’t help but be disappointed, as I scanned the list, that K-12 classroom teachers weren’t represented. I wonder if I would have been more or less enthusiastic if I had seen at least one practicing K-12 educator on that list?

“Teachers hold America’s future in their hands”, or so they say. But sometimes what seems doable as theory (some assembly required) becomes a lot more complicated in reality once you’ve unpacked the box. I can’t help but wonder why, if teachers are that important to the future of our nation and if teachers are the single most important factor in student learning, we are so rarely invited to the table when the Bold begin envisioning new approaches to our professional work.

Everybody’s talking at me -- but what if teachers were participants in those formative discussions rather than audiences or topics? How bold would that be?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.