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School & District Management Opinion

There Is Rampant Distrust in Education. Here’s How to Fix That

High-stakes tests, top-down leadership, and the many roots of distrust
By Katherine Schultz — June 19, 2019 4 min read
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Distrust is the backdrop of the political climate of the United States, from every ideological perspective. There are few areas in which the consequences of this climate of distrust is more evident—and more destructive—than public education, where it has become a central obstacle to educational change.

One critical source of the widespread distrust across U.S. school systems is the prevalence of top-down decisionmaking. When decisions are forced upon districts, schools, individual teachers, or community members from someone with more authority or power, with little consultation, the decision and the decisionmaker are both often received with distrust. For instance, across the country in both urban and rural districts, there has been a recent pattern of school closures in response to demographic shifts. As a policy, school closures have historically engendered distrust in communities; people resist losing their local schools as a community center. School closures are generally dictated by people viewed as outsiders—often school boards or superintendents—while the impact is most strongly felt by people in a local community.

How can school leaders and policymakers address that distrust head-on?"

A second example is the controversial use of high-stakes tests, which are based on a premise of distrust by outsiders of local—or teachers'—knowledge of student progress, as well as a distrust of teachers’ ability to accurately assess students’ understandings. High-stakes tests are used not only to assess students in a manner that may not be connected to classroom instruction, but can also be used to evaluate teachers. The results of emergent bilingual learners who are forced to take the tests in English, for instance, too often reflect poorly on the teacher and fail to capture what the students actually know. Teachers, parents, and local communities are increasingly voicing their distrust of high-stakes testing and its consequences.

What does it mean for there to be deeply rooted distrust in our educational system, educational practices, and the teachers who work each day in classrooms? And how can school leaders and policymakers address that distrust head-on?

It is possible to replace a culture of systemic distrust that has been building over time by creating spaces that honor human dignity. We should start by doing the following: Acknowledge the expertise teachers bring to classrooms, build on local knowledge through collaboration rather than imposing top-down solutions, recognize and build on the capacities students bring to school, and create and nurture a culture of respect for students, teachers, school administrators, and community members.

And, yet, a focus on building more trust is not enough. We must address the roots of the distrust. Without allowing for acknowledgement of historically rooted distrust, the distrust is likely to continue as an impediment to progress or change.

Distrust can manifest itself in several ways. The most frequently recognized form, relational distrust, often masks structural forms of distrust. People most easily identify individuals and institutions as untrustworthy (relational distrust) when there are often deeper causes of the distrust (structural distrust). In education settings, we often simply replace the distrusted person or change the institution when examining the political and historical causes for that distrust would be a better starting place.

As an example, in many urban districts and schools, there is a revolving door for superintendents and principals. Often, when a new district or school leader arrives, that person initiates a new set of reforms to make their own mark, without taking into account the previous history in the district or school. As a result, if there is a history of distrust, it will persist into the new administration. When new superintendents or school leaders fail to acknowledge the history of racism that characterizes the dynamics of many urban school districts and instead seek to move forward with new ideas, the past will limit future possibilities. All district and school leaders should begin by learning about the history and nature of the distrust that preceded them.

School and district leaders should collect stories of distrust and use these stories to look for patterns. What are the instances where members of the community felt distrust, and what might the district or school do to repair this damage? Consider the truth and reconciliation commission established in South Africa in 1995 to acknowledge past injustices during apartheid. The opportunity to tell stories publicly is one way to acknowledge the past—and move beyond deeply entrenched distrust.

To prevent future distrust, we need to re-examine where authority is located, as well as the structures for participation. Too often, the top-heavy concentration of decisionmaking authority in education has led policymakers to impose quick fixes from above—close a school, remove a disruptive child or noncompliant teacher, implement a new standardized curriculum or packaged program, increase oversight and monitoring—rather than looking for longer-term solutions grounded in knowledge and buy-in from people on the ground. If possible, there should be community—or teacher—participation in consequential decisions, which makes them more inclusive of a larger number of perspectives.

Importantly, all of these strategies require patience. Allowing enough time for changes to take hold is the greatest shift we will need to make in our approach to educational reform, but it is also what will allow us the greatest opportunity for meaningful and lasting change.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as How to Overcome Distrust Head-On

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