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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

What Does Public Education Mean?

By Peter DeWitt — June 28, 2012 5 min read
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The very people who are supposed to be giving us directions are drawing the map as we are driving.

We are all at the center of a debate about the true definition of public education. It is a debate that has been going on for decades but the changes that we are presently seeing are unlike any that have come our way in a very long time and it is having a damaging impact on education.

Many politicians and corporate reformers believe a public education is about preparing American students to beat out international students. This competition is solely left up to how our students do on tests. These reformers use high stakes testing and accountability as their gauge on whether educators are doing an “effective” job preparing students for this international competition. When students do not perform well, education as a whole is failing according to them.

Education needs to change. Educators will tell you that. Schools need equal resources (computers, basic supplies, classroom space, smaller class sizes, etc.), teachers need high quality professional development to keep up with changing times, and students need to be exposed to the 21st century tools in school that they already at home. Providing equal access will help improve schooling but that is not easily done, so it’s easier to point fingers.

Unlike private education, public education is meant to be open to all students. Those outside influences that affect a student’s personal life, and therefore their academic life, are hard to control. Politicians have not put a dent in poverty, the unemployment rate, and homelessness so they look to what they can control, which is education.

The Changing Face of Public Education
Public education definitely needs a facelift, but is the one that the reformers are offering the one that we all believe is good for students? Is that the one that will level the playing field? At this point, it seems that the over-focus on testing and accountability is ruining public education. It is taking the focus off of creativity and the whole child and putting it on something that seems to have nothing to do with kids at all. It seems to be more about politics and money and less about education.

In the end, there are two sides to this debate. The politicians and policymakers that do not have enough experience with education to really know how to change it so they create false accountability standards, and the students, parents and educators who spend every day in it watching these harmful changes happen to them. Times are tough, budgets are being cut but does the whole educational experience really have to continue down this devastating path?

Educators believe that public education is about getting all students prepared for the 21st century, which does sound odd considering we’re already twelve years into it. They also believe it’s about getting students prepared for college or the workforce. After all, the greatest thing about a public education is that it involves the public, which is wonderfully diverse. Just like America from decades ago, the public schools take students from all different walks of life. That diversity is supposed to make us better. It’s supposed to offer a more enriching educational experience.

Although the idea of taking students from diverse backgrounds with diverse learning experiences is one of the cornerstones of what public education does, it is severely at risk these days. With the increase of testing pressures over the past decade, and now the increase of accountability through the use of strict evaluation standards that use high stakes testing as a percentage of a teacher’s evaluation, taking those diverse students and preparing them for the future is harder than ever.

It’s already happening in today’s schools. Many teachers are concerned about the students who struggle. The spectrum of academic ability of students entering the classroom has always been varied. Teachers have students who are gifted and high ability at the same time they have students who struggle greatly. Will those students bring down the scores on evaluations? What if those students have a bad day when they’re taking the exam?

The finger pointing is not just in the classroom. It is extending into the home as well. Teachers are looking to the parents. How will neglectful parents or those who do not get involved in their child’s education be evaluated?

What will truly happen to public education?
Teachers and administrators will be evaluated as highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective. We know from the recent stories in New York City and Los Angeles, where value-added scores were published in major newspapers that the scores are not accurate. We also know that some states, including New York, are going to make a child’s teacher evaluation public to the parents, who will then share that news with other parents.

We know that many teachers are concerned about teaching outside the box because it might somehow work against them instead of for them. With so many states adopting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which were supposed to be the springboard to a better education, many teachers are opting to teach directly to the core instead of using them as the base and going deeper with their teaching.

After a decade of No Child Left Behind and three years of increased accountability in order for states to receive Race to the Top (RTTT) money, education is not getting better. It’s becoming more stringent and less flexible than ever before. State education departments are expecting schools to have plans in place for CCSS and teacher and administrator evaluation at the same time their budgets are being severely cut. And those state education departments are offering little guidance on how schools can get there.

Where do we go from here?
Many educators feel as though they are fighting a losing battle. At the core of what they believe is that all students deserve a place at the table and they provide a foundation for students at a young age and help them find their creativity and passion for life. That cannot be done through testing but the very people who control the resources believe that the only way educators can prove that they are doing their jobs is through testing students at a very young age.

We, as educators, are now sitting in cars that have been stripped of a GPS, and although we are lost we can’t ask anyone for directions. The very people who are supposed to be giving us directions are drawing the map as we are driving. And they are doing public education a disservice.

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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.