Many inside the educational system feel accused of allowing it to become broken. To be broken most often implies an accident of some sort or a long time without adequate care that makes it vulnerable. It is striking that in this, and so many elections before this one, campaigns focus on a candidate’s desire and ability to fix what is broken: schools, assessment systems, state and federal government and now immigration policy. During the last presidential campaign it was broken health care systems. The exaggerated rhetoric is meant to rally a following and establish the candidate’s understanding of the mess we are in and how they will fix it. The electorate is invited to act out of fear.
Deficit thinking is a powerful thing. It easily enters our bodies as a scare tactic, usually calling our attention to something over which we have little control but will harm us without an intervention. The Common Core has become a lightning rod. Although it was meant to address what was perceived to be broken, it now exemplifies the battleground about who knows best for our children. “Schools are broken” immediately strikes a chord about doing what is right for children. If schools are not working well, the future of our society is at risk. How can we have let this happen to our children? These calls appeal to the general public who know little about the internal functioning of schools and see only how large our systems are and how much they cost. Other than that, they know us from their own childhood experiences and that of their children and grandchildren.
But as educators, the charges strike even deeper into us because it appears that we are the ones that allowed the system to fail. And if the rhetoric in the public continues, it opens the doors for public disdain to grow with the beliefs that educators are failing and schools must be fixed. Thus the current debate about how to establish policy to rid the system of protected bad teachers. And so no one forgets the violation of the public trust, we see photos of a handful of educators being carted off to jail for fixing grades. The sprinkling of truly bad acts reinforces the “broken” image.
Merriam-Webster.com offers synonyms for “broken” that include disconnected, violated by transgression, reduced in rank, made weak or infirm. Schools, generally speaking, are none of these. Are there schools where students receive an inferior education? Are there schools where teacher and leader turnover is high? Are there schools where leaders have failed to use creative solutions to limiting realities? Are students living in poverty served less well than those who are not? Have circumstances allowed schools in poor neighborhoods to crumble? Yes to all of these questions. Does that make the system broken and in need of repair? Or is it about patience with the process of improvement? Societally, we have lost our patience, haven’t we?
Let’s change the lens and look at this from a non-deficit place. What have we accomplished? Think about the expanding role of the school over the last hundred years. In the 1950’s schools responded to the invention of Salk’s polio vaccine by offering to inoculate children right in the school. We offered a response and expanded our role prevent the spread of a disease and become supplemental sites for health care. We added transportation systems and providers as schools grew in size, food services as cafeterias were added, all as responses to growing needs.
Blaming educators for the “broken system” does not prepare those who are leading the heavy lift before us to be energized or visionary. Unless, that is, we accept that defeat is a beginning place. Schools do have successes. Graduation rates alone can be viewed as a triumph, considering our country includes all students in that expectation. Can we do better? Of course. Are we best preparing students for a future unseen? Are we changing well and fast enough? Perhaps not. Can we do it alone? Not anymore. The 21st century had seen to that. Seventy seven years ago, FDR made a speech in which he called for the government’s help in the inequities between the schools in rich communities and those in poor communities.
Fifty eight years ago, President Eisenhower called for our nation’s need to produce more scientists.
There is plenty of history here to acknowledge the growth of systemic issues. If it is our time to address these, leaders are ready and willing. We have only to look back to see where we are. Some of what needs to be done is in the hands of our elected officials. Some of what needs to be done is in the hands of educators. Some of what needs to be done is in the hands of new and unidentified partners. Some is in the hands of parents and communities. We can no longer depend on one district or one state to carry the torch forward. As a nation, we have to make a commitment to all students in the system...and that may mean some federal sticks and carrots.
Surely, we will hear more about educational issues in the campaign. “You campaign in poetry and govern in prose” is a quote attributed to the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo. We are at a change moment in our country and in our schools. Change does not require something to be broke, it requires leaders seeing a horizon that has greater potential and taking us there. Our schools have come a long way trying to meet the demands of society. Now, we need a kick start. But we haven’t failed. Schools are not broken. We need to be in forward motion. We need to do so in order for those who follow us can look back 77 years and say, “They set the course. They started us on our way. The gap has narrowed. Our workforce is prepared. Our citizens are informed.” And they will be thankful that we were proud of our strengths and talents and were courageous enough to step into a frontier, and change what needed to be changed. Let us lead forward in poetry...
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.