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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.

School & District Management Opinion

12 Critical Issues Facing Education in 2020

By Peter DeWitt — December 15, 2019 7 min read
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Education has many critical issues; although if you watch the nightly news or 24/7 news channels, you will most likely see very little when it comes to education. Our political climate has taken over the news, and it seems as though education once again takes a back seat to important political events as well as salacious stories about reality-television stars. It sometimes make me wonder how much education is valued?

Every year around this time, I highlight some critical issues facing education. It’s not that I am trying to rush the holiday season by posting it well before the 1st of the new year. It’s actually that I believe we should have a critical look at the issues we face in education, and create some dialogue and action around these issues, and talk about them sooner than later.

Clearly, the fact that we are entering into 2020 means we need to look at some of these issues with hindsight because we have seen them before. Have the issues of the past changed or do they continue to impact our lives? As with any list, you will notice one missing that you believe should be added. Please feel free to use social media or the comment box at the end of this blog to add the ones you believe should be there.

12 Issues Facing Education

These issues are not ranked in order of importance. I actually developed a list of about 20 critical issues but wanted to narrow it down to 12. They range from issues that impact our lives in negative ways to issues that impact our lives in positive ways, and I wanted to provide a list of issues I feel educators will believe are in their control.

I have spent the better part of 2019 on the road traveling across the U.S., Canada, Europe, the U.K., and Australia. The issues that are highlighted below have come up in most of those countries, but they will be particularly important for those of us living in the U.S. There are a couple that seem to be specifically a U.S. issue, and that will be obvious to you when you see them.

Health & Wellness - Research shows that many of our students are stressed out, anxiety-filled, and at their breaking point. Teachers and leaders are experiencing those same issues. Whether it’s due to social media, being overscheduled, or the impact of high-stakes testing and pressure to perform, this needs to be the year where mindfulness becomes even more important than it was in 2019. Whether it’s using mindfulness apps and programs or the implementation of double recess in elementary school and frequent brain beaks throughout the day, it’s time schools are given the autonomy to help students find more balance.

Literacy - We have too many students not reading with proficiency, and therefore, at risk of missing out on the opportunity to reach their full potential. For decades there have been debates about whole language and phonics while our students still lag behind. It’s time to put a deep focus on teaching literacy with a balanced approach.

School Leadership - Many school leaders enter into the position with high hopes of having a deep impact but are not always prepared for what they find. School leadership has the potential to be awesome. And when I mention school leadership, I am also referring to department chairs, PLC leads, or grade-level leaders. Unfortunately, not all leaders feel prepared for the position. Leadership is about understanding how to get people to work together, having a deep understanding of learning, and building the capacity of everyone around them. This means that university programs, feeder programs, and present leaders who coach those who want to be leaders, need to find ways to expose potential leaders to all of the goodness, as well as the hardships, that come with the position.

Our Perception of Students - For the last year I have been involved in some interesting dialogue in schools. One of the areas of concern is the perception educators (i.e. leaders, teachers, etc.) have of their students. Sometimes we lower our expectations of students because of the background they come from, and other times we hold unreachable expectations because we believe our students are too coddled. And even worse, I have heard educators talk about certain students in very negative ways, with a clear bias that must get in the way of how they teach those students. Let 2020 be a year when we focus on our perception of students and address those biases that may bleed into our teaching and leading.

Cultures of Equity - I learned a long time ago that the history I learned about in my K-12 education was a white-washed version of it all. There is more than one side to those stories, and we need all of them for a deeper understanding of the world. Read this powerful guest blog by Michael Fullan and John Malloy for a deeper look into cultures of equity.

Additionally, we have an achievement gap with some marginalized populations (i.e., African American boys), and have other marginalized populations (i.e., LGBTQ) who do not feel safe in school. Isn’t school supposed to be a safe place where every student reaches their full potential?

Students and the schools they attend need to be provided with equitable resources, and we know that is not happening yet. My go-to resource is always Rethinking Schools.

District Office/Building-Level Relationships - There are too many school districts with a major disconnection between the district office and building level leaders. 2020 needs to be the year when more district offices find a balance between the top-down initaitives that take place, and creating more space to engage in dialogue with building leaders and teachers. School districts will likely never improve if people are constantly told what to do and not given the opportunity to share the creative side that probably got them hired in the first place.

Politics - It’s an election year. Get ready for the wave of everything that comes with it. Negative campaigns and bad behavior by adults at the same time we tell students to be respectful to each other. It’s important for us to open up this dialogue in our classrooms, and talk about how to respectfully agree or disagree. Additionally, we have to wonder how the campaigns and ultimate presidential decision will impact education because the last few education secretaries have not given us all that much to cheer about.

Our Perception of Teachers - Over the last few decades there has been a concerted effort to make teachers look as though they chose teaching because they could not do anything else. Whether it be in political rhetoric or through the media and television programs, our dialogue has not been kind, and it has led to a negative perception of teachers. This rhetoric has not only been harmful to school climates, it has turned some teachers into passive participants in their own profession. Teachers are educated, hardworking professionals who are trying to help meet the academic and social-emotional needs of their students, which is not always easy.

Vaping - Many of the middle and high schools in the U.S. that I am working with are experiencing too many students who vape, and some of those students are doing it in class. In fact, this NBC story shows that there has been a major spike in the use of vaping among adolescents. Additionally This story shows that vaping is a major health crisis, and it will take parents, schools, and society to put a dent in it.

Time on Task vs. Student Engagement - For too long we have agreed upon words like “Time on task,” which often equates to students being passive in their own learning. It’s time we focus on student engagement, which allows us to go from surface to deep level learning and on to transfer level learning. It also helps balance the power in the room between adults and students.

Teachers With guns - I need to be honest with you; this one was not easy to add to the list, and it is very much a U.S. issue. I recently saw this story on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt that focused on teachers in Utah being trained to shoot guns in case of an active shooter in their school. This is a story that we will see more of in 2020.

Climate Change - Whether it’s because they were inspired by Greta Thunberg (Time Person of the Year) or the years of hearing about climate change in school and at home, young people will continue to rise up and make climate change a critical issue in 2020. We saw thousands of students strike this year and that will surely rise after Thunberg’s latest recognition.

In the End - It’s always interesting to reflect on the year and begin compiling a list of critical issues. I know it can be daunting to look at, and begin to see where we fit into all of this, but I have always believed that education is about taking on some of this crucial issues and turning them around to make them better. Anyone who gets into teaching needs to believe that they can improve the educational experience for their students, and these are just a few places to start.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018), and Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram or through his YouTube station.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

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.