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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Is Public Education Always Fighting an Uphill Battle?

By Peter DeWitt — January 19, 2017 4 min read
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It’s tiring to keep fighting uphill. I mean, I’m all about the growth mindset, but some of this is ridiculous. Public schools always seem to be in the position of defending themselves. Over the years, it seems that the U.S. public school system has been in an uphill battle to prove they are effectively teaching students. Perhaps it’s been longer than I remember, but ever since A Nation At Risk in the Reagan era, the U.S. public education system has had to defend itself.

Each decade brings new policies that do not seem to work, which results in those at the top blaming schools for lack of improvement, without ever really looking at the fact that their policy may have been flawed. If their bright ideas, which are mostly bipartisan, were so bright wouldn’t we see improvement?

No, we have not been perfect, and there are many things about education and learning that need to improve. But aren’t there many things about politics, parenting, as well as education that need to improve? The thing that needs to change the most about public education is the way we talk about it. It’s easy for those to bash it if they have never spent time in it.

They have never seen what teachers and students are doing together that could improve society. They don’t see school communities coming together to work collaboratively to work out the big problems they are facing. They don’t pay attention to the innovations taking place, and see those public schools that are trying to increase student voice in schools despite the obstacles that happen form the top and from the home those students come from.

There has been growth as well as achievement.

Growth Versus Proficiency
On January 17th, 2017 it seemed as though many of us realized how far of an uphill climb we have to go, because that was the day of the senate hearing for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Her hearing lasted less time than the average superintendent interview for a school district. Her answers, although vague, were accepted more easily than the answers of thousands of public school teachers during their interviews.

Sen. Michael Enzi from Wyoming spoke, but I am not sure what his point was because never got to it. He spent too much time bashing former President Barack Obama. I thought this was about the kids? I thought this was about putting the best person in the position of running our schools and heading our university system?

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken seemed to be the hero for public education. He asked DeVos the difference between proficiency and growth. DeVos could not answer, and according to this article, Franken dropped the subject with some disgust. If a teacher or principal could not answer the same question, in most cases they would not be considered for the job. And yes, DeVos is considered to be the U.S. secretary of education. Most of the people sitting on the committee were no more than a rubber stamp. This was all a dog and pony show. Most of the senators chosen for that committee proved that our political system lacks both growth and proficiency.

Pedagogical Versus Political
Public education is built on a political cycle and not a pedagogical one. This is not a slam on charter, private, or homeschooling. This blog is about specifically addressing the fact that public schools are criticized, undermined, and unfairly targeted. And sadly, all of the arguments are focusing on the wrong issues.

John Hattie, someone I work with as a visible learning trainer, wrote the Politics of Distraction (POD. Full link here) in 2015. Hattie writes,

In my travels I have met with many political leaders and department officials and continue to be impressed with their commitment to improving their education systems, their desire to make them world-leading and their dedication to improving outcomes for students.

However, those politicians focus on the wrong issues. Hattie continued by writing that the politicians focus on,

'Structural 'fixes' such as more money, different forms of schooling, different types of buildings, performance pay for teachers, setting standards, privileging a few subjects, more assessments, more technology, lower class size, greater school choice, or longer school days, to list just a few.

Hattie, who has done the largest meta-analysis of what works in education writes,

These are typically expensive proposals, which the evidence shows have minimal effect on improving student learning. These distract us from implementing policies that can make a significant difference, defined here as interventions with an effect size of at least 0.4, the average expected effect size for one year of progress in school.

So...what should we do?

Shift the Narrative
In the Power of Collaborative Expertise, Hattie writes,

My claim is that the greatest influence on student progression in learning is having highly expert, inspired and passionate teachers and school leaders working together to maximise the effect of their teaching on all students in their care. There is a major role for school leaders: to harness the expertise in their schools and to lead successful transformations.

Although you should read the full report, among his most important recommendations is to “shift the narrative.” We need to talk less about teaching and more about learning. We need to build the collective efficacy of the teachers in our school by allowing them to have a voice in their teaching, professional development and the learning that students do. Collective efficacy has an effect size of 1.57 which is nearly quadruple the hinge point of .40.

We build collective efficacy by allowing teachers and students to work together through inquiry. Additionally, we build collective efficacy by having a deep understanding of achievement over growth. This sole focus on achievement does not help our students. Students can show achievement through scoring a high grade on a test, but it doesn’t mean they grew.

We don’t build collective efficacy by continuing this negative narrative around public education.

In the End
Sadly, it is clear from the senate hearings for the U.S. secretary of education, politicians are not shifting their narrative. They are recycling the same old narrative that has not changed since the Nation At Risk. What will you, as teachers, leaders and parents of students in the public education system do to get your voices heard about the benefits of education? How will you go back and listen to the issues that came up during the hearing or on social media from people who don’t like public education? Do they have merit? Are there things we should change? Will you look within and reflect on how you can shift the narrative? Or will you point a finger and blame in the same way many on the senate did?

Our strengths far outweigh our weaknesses. Don’t you think it’s time you spoke up to highlight your strengths?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the best selling Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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.