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With Larry Ferlazzo

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School & District Management Opinion

The Biggest Policy Challenges Schools Are Facing Right Now

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 09, 2024 9 min read
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There are many education policy challenges facing schools at the moment.

Today, two educators share which ones they think are the most important ones.

‘Legislative Attacks’

Keisha Rembert is a lifelong learner, equity advocate, and award-winning educator. She is the author of The Antiracist English Language Arts Classroom, a doctoral student and an assistant professor/DEI coordinator for teacher preparation at National Louis University. Prior to entering teacher education, Keisha spent more than 15 years teaching middle school English and U.S. history.

George Orwell’s words in his book 1984 resonate deeply today: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” These words hold immense relevance as we traverse the landmine of educational bills that have enacted book bans; restricted the exploration of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity topics; and prohibited the teaching of historical truths or any discourse that may result in “discomfort, guilt, or anguish.”

In the past year, education-focused legislative attacks have become palpable and personal. We have seen an influx of anti-LGBTQIA+ bills, totaling a whopping 283, nationwide. In Florida, the value of AP African American Studies has been questioned, undermined, and dismissed as “lacking educational value.

And critical race theory has become persona non grata, a scapegoat to thwart discussions and actions toward racial justice in our polarized American political landscape. These examples highlight the trend of states’ attempts to not only control curricula, learning, and discourse but also to stifle justice and constrict bodies and intellectual progress, negatively impacting the whole of society.

According to a 2022 Rand Corp survey, one-fourth of the teachers reported being influenced by legislative actions, pending and imposed, to change their lessons. It is scary to think that state legislatures, without any educational expertise, wield the power to manipulate knowledge and rewrite history. In the words of Paulo Freire, “Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people—they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.” And thus, the barrage of these oppressive educational policies are not only unconscionable but also fundamentally untenable for student and societal success.

We find ourselves at a critical juncture, where the exclusion of diverse perspectives and the suppression of uncomfortable truths have the potential to distort our collective consciousness. It is in recognizing and embracing the history of the most marginalized among us that we truly learn about ourselves, our growth as a society, and the ideals to which we aspire.

These dehumanizing legislative impositions hinder our students’ understanding of our shared history and also represent a dangerous path that encroaches on our personal and academic freedoms. They undermine our capacity to nurture students’ critical-thinking skills and hamper our ability to cultivate a citizenry that values democratic ideals and engages thoughtfully in meaningful change.

As educators, we must continue to fight and offer our support to those living under oppressive state regimes. In our classrooms and beyond, we should:

  • Advocate academic freedom: We cannot be passive bystanders while the rights of our students, selves, and colleagues are at stake. We must actively engage in discussions and initiatives that protect and promote freedom of all kinds within our schools, communities, and nation. We must reject the notion that any student should be denied the invaluable opportunity to be exposed to truth, diverse and inclusive perspectives, ideas, and experiences. Our championing of freedom creates an environment that fosters critical thinking, humility, and a deeper understanding of our world.
  • Foster critical thinking and humility: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The only way to deal with unjust laws is to render them powerless by ignoring them.” It is time to lean into what we know is right and teach our students to do the same. To navigate this time of distortions and mistruths, our students need to be analytical thinkers who are discerning, open-minded, and equipped to challenge rhetoric and resist the manipulative forces that are restricting knowledge and controlling narratives.
  • Uphold the ideals of democracy and global humanity: In the face of state-led oligarchies, it is our duty to instill in our students civic literacy, agency, collective responsibility, and the need to dismantle oppressive systems. Our students must be justice seekers who build bridges as compassionate citizens.

If we are not vigilant, we risk facing a fate reminiscent of the residents of Oceania depicted in 1984, where “every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture repainted, every statue and street building renamed, every date altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Censorship is antithetical to freedom; it begets spirit-murdering curricula violence, posing a direct threat to the mental and emotional well-being of students whose histories, identities, and personhood are silenced and deemed inconsequential and without value. By perpetuating harm, these laws also establish a dangerous precedent for future educational policies. The brevity of this moment demands action. If education is the ultimate pursuit of liberation, then the freedom it promises hangs in the balance.

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STEM Access

Kit Golan (@MrKitMath) is the secondary mathematics consultant for the Center for Mathematics Achievement at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.:

Despite the demand for mathematical thinkers, our country continues to push data-illiterate and math-phobic graduates into the workforce. As such, a vital issue facing public schools today is inequitable access to high-level math courses, which acts as a gatekeeper for many who might enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.

Most course sequences prevent students from reaching rigorous math classes, especially students of color. Often, students who do have access to these courses come from privileged backgrounds whose families have invested time and money outside of the school day to “race to the top.” Regardless, many colleges use AP Calculus as a determining factor for entrance and class placement even though most students don’t reach this or other high-level math courses that better align with their career aspirations due to systemic barriers.

Few districts have created flexible course sequences that allow students to reach high-level math classes by senior year, meaning many students who do not accelerate in middle school may never be able to reach higher math classes without taking multiple math classes simultaneously or attending summer school.

Many middle school students do not know their career trajectory; having the option to delay acceleration until junior year and take a compressed Algebra 2/precalculus course would allow more students to access rigorous courses without being barred in middle school. Additionally, because current Algebra 2 courses focus heavily on symbolic manipulation that modern graphing technology renders obsolete, a compacted course could focus more on developing the conceptual understandings needed by eliminating this content. Yet, few schools have made this transition despite the obvious benefits.

Truly, this is a larger issue of tracking and acceleration for some students. Despite the consensus that sorting practices have a disproportionately negative impact on outcomes for marginalized students (NCTM, 2018), many parents still advocate for their children to be accelerated. Because teachers frequently struggle to differentiate for mixed-ability math classes, students who are ready for additional challenges may slip through the cracks as their teachers attempt to support struggling students’ access to grade-level content.

I’m not advocating separating these students into different streams, as the reality is that no matter how well you think you’ve grouped students by ability, there is no such thing as a truly homogeneous class; student variation is one of the only constants in education! Instead, teachers need additional professional development, time, and support (and reduced class sizes!) to better be able to differentiate their classes to ensure that all students have both access and challenge.

This is a systemic issue that requires structural changes beyond individual teachers. Sadly, most middle and high schools rarely have schedules allowing students to gain additional experience with math unless they are pulled from arts or other elective courses. Meanwhile, community colleges have recently begun to replace “developmental math” (their “low track”) courses with co-requisite models where students would enroll in both a credit-bearing course and an additional support class designed to help them gain access to the math content of the former. How might K-12 schools replicate that idea to provide additional support to students who need it?

Ultimately, the issue facing public schools is whether AP courses should be considered a privilege for the few who have access to outside resources or if it should be accessible to any who are interested in pursuing that pathway. Under the current paradigm, only students who take additional math courses outside of their standard school day or who are able to double up on math courses early in high school are able to reach AP Calculus by senior year. It’s outrageous that students who take Algebra 1 “on time” in 9th grade are considered remedial math students when measured along the path to AP Calculus. It’s past time we updated high school math options to reflect the 21st-century needs rather than settle for the status quo of the past century.

Citation:

NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics). (2018). Catalyzing change in high school mathematics: Initiating critical conversations. Reston, VA: Author.

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Thanks to Keisha and Kit for contributing their thoughts.

They answered this question of the week:

What do you think is the most important education policy issue facing public schools today, why do you think it is so important, and what is your position on it?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.

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