Education Opinion

What Is Wrong With Our Schools?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 26, 2013 4 min read
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Do you believe your schools are failing? Poverty levels are rising, mobility rates increasing, diversity growing, and expectations for all, hoisted. Families are facing more and different challenges. The 1950’s family, with a dad who works, a mom who stays home and two children, is now rare. Extended families are across the nation or globe, not across the street. Most of our teachers and leaders received initial training based upon an education system and theory that was grounded in another century.

Our graduation rates and mastery rates have increased. Doesn’t that hold out hope? We have maintained and raised those rates in some cases in spite of all those changes that have impacted our systems. We must not allow the rhetoric to influence our continued dedication to educating all the students in our schools. However, we must pay attention.

Finland is held up as a model. Three years ago, NEA Today published Linda Darling-Hammond’s examination of Finland’s successful emergence onto the educational stage. In that article, she wrote:

The process of change has been almost the reverse of policies in the United States. Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around the very lean national standards. This new system is implemented through equitable funding and extensive preparation for all teachers. The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes.

This certainly isn’t the approach taken here. Our reformers have pursued another path ignoring the important lessons found in the successful results celebrated in Finland. So here we are.

We know what we do well. We know much of what we have been doing has worked but it all hasn’t. Our attention is diverted from true thought time by the tidal wave of mandated change. If we know anything about learning, we know that operating from a deficit model creates a drag that remains throughout a process. So, for example if we are focused upon asking the question, “Why are 20% of our readers below grade level?” we are focused on a negative and we have been reticent to go there. The media and political and business leaders have not. But, if we were to ask ourselves, “How have we succeeded to get 80% of our students reading at or above grade level and what does that tell us about how to raise up the rest?” we get to spend time analyzing the aspects of student success. Then, we have the information we need to apply to the 20% who need that attention. Instead of, “What are these teachers doing wrong in their instruction?” we could be asking, “What are those teachers doing right in their instruction?” Turning questions around is one essential key to our taking control.

The polarizing and prolific Diane Ravitch has transformed her position from “advocating for the removal of incompetent teachers, tying school performance to student scores, and for closing failing schools” to the position taken in her new book. Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools discusses, in part, the need for a focus on the challenges of race and income inequality. (From NY Times article by Motoko Rich) It is not only Ravitch who knows, only too well, that race and income inequality are the basis for much of our present day challenge. We know it. Her advocacy, and willingness to openly reveal her transformation of position should be a lesson. Few positions remain unaffected by unfolding events over time. The only ones we think of are those positions taken by our Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights. After that...things change. Amendments come.

Motoko Rich’s article continued:

She has come to doubt the whole project of school reform, saying it will solve little without addressing poverty and segregation. “We know what works,” she writes. “What works are the opportunities that advantaged families provide for their children.”

Is the amount and change of testing a brutal challenge? Yes. Is the demand for shifting curriculum, topics, and methods a brutal challenge? Yes. Is the new evaluation process a brutal challenge? Yes. But we come to work to lead institutions of learning for children. And we have done so much of it well. But, children coming to us in poverty are not from the 1950’s. These are our children now and we have not succeeded with all of them. But, schools are public and so is our responsibility. Without our success, the country fails.

This is a time for change and we also admit that. Unfortunately, we didn’t sound the alarm. Others did. No matter the political mandate, we still have control over how we actualize it in our schools. We hope you believe that there is so much that our schools are doing well. Let’s thank those fighters who are stepping forward - not only Diane Ravitch, but also those daring and courageous leaders from within the system who are stepping up and stepping out. And in the meantime, let’s do what will keep our schools strong, safe, learning environments that are changing to meet the needs of this century and the children it brings to our doors.

Listen to Tom Ashbrook’s interview with Diane Ravitch.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or email.

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.