Education Opinion

Eight and a Half Things I Know Are True

By Nancy Flanagan — December 30, 2011 3 min read
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The usual end-of-year Janusian posts are springing up everywhere in Ed Blog world this week--the best and worst of 2011, bold predictions for the upcoming year. List-making draws readers. But I don’t really have the heart to revisit the terrible and wonderful year just past--nor do I want to be embarrassed by my own starry-eyed prognostications, come December 2012.

I do like the idea of “Ten Things I Know to be True”--ideas that represent genuine reality, in my world, a roundup of verities. Try as I might, I couldn’t come up with ten.

#1) Real school reformers do not spend their days perusing blogs, obsessing over their tweet numbers, engaging in online catfights or handicapping states’ chances to win your tax dollars by being more compliant than other states. Real school reformers are mediating squabbles on the playground, revising an unsatisfactory lesson plan during their planning period, or meeting with the PTA to figure out how to get new books for the library since the budget was slashed. Again.

#2) Education and schooling are two completely different things. School is where most children spend time during the day with their peers, resulting--one hopes-- in credentials that society deems necessary to the next phase (more schooling, jobs, etc.). Education is something else entirely. It’s the sum total of what we’ve learned, absorbed and can apply to the challenges of living. Best-case scenario, school is a useful piece of the lifelong process of education.

#3) There are good-guy organizations out there, on the education reform front. But it’s getting harder to tell who they are, as seductive edu-rhetoric and policy-advocacy advertising obscures truth. One (not infallible) clue: who’s funding the organization.

#4) A lot of the rhetoric about education being the civil rights issue of our generation is just that: grandiose but empty talk. The civil rights issue of our generation is that shameful and increasing income gap. It’s going to take a lot more than charter schools which teach kids to walk in straight lines to fix that dangerous economic chasm.

#4a) A corollary: We need more minority voices in the ed-reform debate. We also need more female and youth voices. The most dominant voices, right now, are men representing their own perspectives. And the people doing the actual daily work of investing in and improving the education system--by this I mean students, parents and grassroots-level educators--are largely female and minority. Some of my best friends are white male educators with gray hair. Still, the dialogue is very unbalanced right now. Move over, John Merrow.

#5) We aren’t going to solve our education problems with technocratic solutions. Not by alternative governance. Not by omnipresent, high-tech data analysis. Not by legislation or competitions. Not by carrots, sticks, levers, advertising or exhortation. Not even by tough mandates. And certainly not in the marketplace. We will solve our education problems via careful investment in people and practice, over time.

#6) Many American teachers feel powerless. They’ve never had their intelligence, dedication, qualifications or career choice challenged like they have in the past decade. Teaching is a vocation of service; it’s not pursued as a way to hit the big-time, in terms of personal profit or fame. So asking teachers to take the risk of getting publicly political makes some of them queasy. Wisconsin in February of 2011 was proof that teachers who are angry enough are a potent force for change.

#7) The movement to reclaim public education will catch fire when school leaders decide they have agency and the moral fortitude to push back against policies they know are harmful to kids. We’ve seen some of that courage emerge recently in New York State. Patron saint of gutsy administrative bluntness: TX Superintendent John Kuhn. You know that leadership video where one crazy guy starts dancing, and eventually is followed by a whole crowded hillside of dancers? If school leaders would get over their reservations and start dancing--speaking powerfully from their hearts and minds--we might have a chance to turn things around.

#8) We can have both excellence and equity in public education. Equity is not a matter of evenly dividing limited resources--it’s about individually crafted opportunity for every child. And excellence has many faces; it’s a lot more than upping the percentage of college degrees. Our rich country has the resources to provide a free, high-quality education for every child. The fact that we don’t is a matter of political will and preference.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.