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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do We Really Have a Problem Without a Solution?

By Peter DeWitt — July 18, 2014 5 min read
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Recently, I had the pleasure of presenting at the national conference for the National Association of Elementary School Principals. They moved it to the summer, which was a brilliant move because more school leaders have the flexibility to attend when the school year is over. I saw old friends, made new ones, and learned from the people I surrounded myself with for the 24 hours I was in Nashville.

As with any conference filled with educators, our time at lunch, dinner and waiting for sessions were consumed by conversations around education. They shared successes, frustrations, and asked questions of one another.

When I decided to present at the conference I was a practicing principal, but by the time I presented I was no longer in that role. Despite what people may say, I spent 11 years as a teacher and 8 as a principal, so I will always be a public school guy. That world, and the students, teachers and administrators who are in it matter to me.

But I’m worried about the public school debate, and many of the people I talked to were as well.

Sarcasm, fighting, name calling are all the weapons du jour that both sides choose, while many in the middle watch in awe. The politics of education have taken over the conversation, and good learning practices aren’t just taking a back seat, they are in the way, way back. Much like the one that came in the brown 78 Plymouth my parents drove, where my brother and I had to face the traffic driving behind us.

Yes, there are teachers, parents and students who seem to be fighting for their lives. Their schools are closing due to a lack of resources, poor decisions, and the promise for something better in the future. Sadly, they are surrounded by more poverty than you and I can imagine...and I taught in schools that had poverty, and they pray for a silver bullet...or Superman.

There seems to be some adults seem to want to take on the fight, not because they want to help the schools in need, but because they relish a fight. And they are getting in the way of us making any positive changes. On the other side we have reformers who want to help make changes. Yes, there are some reformers who want to make positive changes, they are as tired of the red tape as those who are anti-reform. Unfortunately, there are some who just want to make a buck, and would love to see public education become privatized.

And then there are all of us in the middle, beginning to feel comfortably numb watching the situation around us because we have become so desensitized to it all. So many issues...so little time. Where do we start?

Our Issues

There is no doubt that we have our issues. There is too much testing that is not age appropriate. We have state education leaders who believe that students with special needs should take grade level tests they cannot read, but they give them double time just to make those students feel doubly worse about themselves. They believe that tying teacher evaluations to tests that teachers have never seen are a positive way to move education forward. That’s just really stupid. Especially tests that offer no feedback in how to change instruction.

There is so much accountability, and red tape that comes with it, that it doesn’t change instruction, but just creates more unnecessary work for teachers and administrators that prevents them from focusing on instruction and learning.

I worry that we have come to this place where both sides shoot at the each other, and then blame each other for not being able to move forward. Is it really possible that both sides, and all of those people in the middle, cannot come up with better solutions for our schools?

Why can’t we come together? If states have local authority, why can’t we figure out how to invite all stakeholders to the table? The stakeholders who really can do something about our present situation. Is it really better to name cal than it is to invite state and local agencies to talk?

Or are we now beyond that?

Is it really possible that the best scenario is to treat all schools the same when we know they are not. And let’s face it, very few people on either side are innocent of doing the same to children. There are many adults who have been treating all kids the same for years, so to say one side is guilty and other is not is completely ludicrous.

In the End

Are we really done talking? Do we just shoot first and ask questions later? There are many people in the middle who are tired of that. We have so many brilliant people involved in education, both at the ground and a much higher elevation, but we cannot seem to move forward.

Schools need strong leaders, which means Schools of Ed have to make sure they are educating Leaders and teachers to be prepared for the classroom, and they have to make sure they are weeding out the pre-service teachers who should never see a classroom of their own.

We need present school leaders to step up to the plate and do their jobs. They need to stop making excuses for not having tough conversations, and they need to highlight all of those teachers who are doing amazing things in the classroom, because there are many who are doing amazing things.

We need teachers to stop using the very one size fits all approaches to teaching that they blame outside groups for creating, because those approaches were there before the groups ever were. Students learn through different methods, just as the students came before them did.

All schools deserve proper resources. Perhaps I have too much of a Utopian view, but I believe all schools should have current technology, desk that don’t wobble, tables with all four legs, enough chairs for students in the classroom, certified teachers in every room, books, paper, pencils, ceilings that don’t leak, and adults who care about them. Maybe then they can pass a test or two.

And finally, we need outside groups, politicians and policy makers to wake up and stop ignoring teachers and administrators. If they are left out of the conversation, they will only prevent any new initiative from coming through, as they should, because no new initiative is worth it’s weight if there has not been administrator, teacher, parent and student voices heard in the process.

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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.