Our two major political parties are polar opposites about the role of the federal government. One embraces the role of the national government to intervene, regulate and uplift. The other supports a minimal role and trusts the local level and individuals to find solutions that work. Education is caught currently on the horns of this divide. Historically, education has been a bastion of local control with policy setting by locally elected or appointed school boards and regulation from the state level. Now, the federal government has become directly involved in every classroom as Race to the Top and Common Core has entered the scene. Schools are programmed to reflect their communities. That is reflected in everything from parent and student aspiration to sports to extracurricular activities. Yet, a look back reminds us that schools have been part of the national agenda since the space race of the 1960’s when a focus on the importance of math and science emerged. For some, it made a difference.
Twenty years later, EdWeek reported the following in an article in 1984. Listen to the familiar lines from within the current policy song: schools are of “great national importance” and there is concern about “declining quality of teaching and learning.”
Education is now viewed by just about everyone as a matter of great national importance. Concern about the declining quality of teaching and learning crosses all geographic boundaries and is a topic of interest not only to educators but also to economists, business leaders, and others who, until recently, have not looked upon education as very important to their separate and collective futures.
The first part holds great potential for our survival as an institution that serves children, and our country. Yes, “schools are of great national importance”. Amidst debates about tuition tax credits and school prayer, the 1983 Nation at Risk Report pulled President Reagan into the quality issue.
The White House was clearly impressed by the depth of public concern over the declining quality of education: The proposal to abolish the Education Department was abandoned, and in speeches around the country the President’s attention turned to reflecting public attitudes about education as reported in the polls... The public concern about education is not going to go away and should help sustain the national focus on schooling. (EdWeek).
How can we be surprised? Has the local daily urgent kept us distracted from the long warning we had that a tsunami was approaching? As of 2011, there were 13,588 public school districts in the United States. A formidable voice if gathered as one. But, that has not happened.
With the acceleration of every kind of communication and information, technological developments from 3D printing to cars that drive themselves, a national fixation with the quality of schools is inevitable. But still, the voices heard remain those from outside of schools. Corporate magnates and politicians are forcing school change, albeit with little understanding of the school- community complexity.
The focus of the nation on schools is not being diverted by immigration nor by terrorism. The Common Core was a factor in this month’s election. The belief that schools are of national importance is growing as the connection between education and economy becomes more linked, as science and technology impact the future of our nation’s economy and society and the careers that await the students as they graduate.
The concern about the “declining quality of teaching and learning” - once again we ask, based on what? Yes, there are teachers and leaders who do not live up to expectation, as there are politicians, physicians, police officers and CEO’s. But, in New York, the Democrat & Chronicle reported:
Overall, about 94 percent of the 125,956 teachers outside of New York City were rated effective or highly effective, while 5 percent were deemed developing and just 1 percent were ineffective.
Ask most educators and they will say that the structure they are given in which to work, the demands of meeting the needs of 21st century students, the lack of professional development, diminishing funding and a conflicted purpose and direction are the keys. From the outside, our newly elected governor refers to education as “one of the only remaining public monopolies” and he has vowed to break it up by advocating for more charter schools. Yet there remains little proof that the charter movement has better teaching and learning than their sister public schools.
Somewhere along the way educators seem to have lost their voice as advocates and leaders. What we need now is a gathering of voices, not against those trying to improve us, but as guides for them. The Ed Week article that spawned our thinking was written in 1984. The date struck us as curious, since 1984 was the year given to George Orwell’s futuristic novel written in 1949. His was a look into a future that is actually unfolding in reality in our lives today. Maybe we should turn to the writers for guidance about how to navigate these new waters and become captains of our ships again...but captains for a new age. This must happen because it is only with our hands on the helm that our students arrive, over this choppy water, at the destination of being college and career ready, safely and on time.
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.