Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are We Asking Too Much of Our Schools?

By Peter DeWitt — April 22, 2018 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Schools seem to be in a no-win situation. Despite all the good that they do when it comes to student learning and mental health issues that students suffer from, the negative rhetoric around school continues. It wasn’t too many weeks ago when the Secretary of Education sent out a Tweet that attacked the public-school system (which really needs to stop).

Here we are 17 years after NCLB (what has NCLB and mandates really helped?), and we still seem to have the same issues that we have always had. As hard as schools have been working to adapt to the sweeping changes in accountability and mandates or the constant stress of high stakes testing, they are still deemed unsatisfactory by politicians, policymakers and our various secretaries of education.

Our school system seems to be based on a political cycle and not a pedagogical one.

There is this constant need to ask or demand that schools change, which usually focuses on high stakes testing and international benchmarks like PISA. Unfortunately, when international comparisons on testing do not show expected improvement (PISA scores), schools are blamed for not being good enough. This cycle of negative rhetoric thrown at schools has undermined public education. And we need not look any further than teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky or student walk outs around the country to see that schools are at the center of a boiling point.

Are asking too much of our schools?

In a recent Education Week Commentary Rebecca Kolins Givan and Pamela Whitefield asked whether teachers were at the breaking point which you can read here. There were many comments at the end of the commentary. One particularly interesting one was written by Bloolight who wrote,

The taxpaying public treats us as if we are a bunch of missionaries, which brings several unspoken assumptions into the conversation. First, missionaries don't complain. They make the best with what they have. Second, they do not demand raises because their primary motivation is charity. Third, they sacrifice the pleasures of life for a greater good. We aren't missionaries. We are professionals who utilize a distinct set of skills to educate children. These skills take years to learn and decades to master. We aren't miracle workers. We can't do our jobs properly in schools without resources, so "waiting for superman" is a waste of everybody's time. We are human beings who work hard at a job that demands a great deal of our energy and passion. In return, we demand fair compensation. Our profession is built upon the ability to form positive relationships with kids, and this love we bring into our work has been used to take advantage of us for too long. The brave teachers who have stood up for their rights have (hopefully) begun to change the way society looks at teachers. I would gladly trade the reverence and admiration for fair compensation and realistic expectations.

Bloolight brings up a great point and important perspective. Schools are tasked with a lot these days, and they are not always given the proper funding or assistance to get it all done. What’s more frustrating is that the teachers, leaders and students are expected not to complain while doing it all.

There are many reasons why schools may be at the breaking point. This is the season of high stake testing which still does not provide enough immediate and authentic feedback to teachers, families and students. We see schools overwhelmed with the pressures of accountability and negative rhetoric, at the same time they are dealing with the pressures of helping students who suffer from trauma.

And Then There is Social-Emotional Learning...
At the same time schools experience hardships that they don’t always control, they have a battle over whether they should be charged with teaching social-emotional learning (SEL). This pressure of teaching SEL comes on top of their primary job of being a place of learning. Perhaps it’s due to a belief that schools spend all of their time on academics, or that SEL should be the job of the parents; SEL is one area where some educators and leaders are saying enough is enough.

For full disclosure, I often talk about the need for academic and social-emotional learning in schools. Typically, when writing about social-emotional learning (SEL) I hear from critics who do not believe SEL has a place in schools. The reasoning for their criticisms range from the idea that SEL is the job of parents to the concern that schools are trying to brainwash students with their liberal ideals (yes, that is one of the criticisms).

I feel as though SEL is as important as academic learning, and that if all families worked on SEL with their children, schools would not have to take this on. However, it’s more complicated than that. Not all students come to school ready to learn, many suffer from trauma, and part of SEL is not just about learning to get along, it’s also about teaching students how to collaborate with other peers...even those peers that may think differently than they do.

But then I wonder if I too fall under Bloolight’s missionary concept? Do I expect too much from schools? Do I expect a balance between SEL and academic learning that cannot possibly be accomplished?

In the End
It seems as though we ask school personnel to do quite a bit. Some may say too much. Schools are tasked with educating students and getting them to reach beyond their potential. Additionally, there are many personnel who also take on the role of pseudo-parent because the children in need may not have support at home. Teachers spend their own money on snacks to have on hand for hungry children, and offer free breakfast and lunch to large populations within their school.

And sadly, they are expected to do all of this really well on minimal budgets, and then not use it as an excuse when students don’t make large academic gains. If we want to give our schools a fair shot in this world, we need to have real discussion and see real action around the following.

  • Doing more with less - The more we add on at the same time we take away funding.
  • Not every teacher and leader is equipped to teach SEL - There needs to be partnerships with outside agencies.
  • Too much accountability, not enough autonomy - School leaders and teachers spend time doing accountability work that takes them away from building deeper relationships with students.
  • Time - How are schools supposed to get it all done?

This is the boiling point for schools, and we need to do more than just pay attention...we need to take action as well. And it would go a long way if we also showed a little more appreciation for our schools...

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017). Connect with him on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.