Every election year, the field of education becomes a primary platform for debates, policies, and sound bites that candidates hope will appeal to voters. This phenomenon was on full display in my home state of Virginia last fall when Glenn Youngkin was elected governor after a race dominated by debates over parental involvement, critical race theory, equity, and the proper use of additional federal pandemic-relief funds. With similar questions being fought out in political arenas across the country, it is time to look at the two competing visions of education that spur these debates.
Imagine the first vision—one focused on equity—as seen through your left eye. This approach focuses on the need to eliminate barriers to student achievement predicted by race and socioeconomic status, and it has been dominant in my state for the past eight years under Democratic leadership. The left eye focuses on funding additional student supports, both to educate the “whole child” and to respond to disparities in standardized-test scores among demographic groups.
A vision focused on equity seeks to provide the resources that students and schools need to close the aforementioned gaps, provide training to instructional staff to eliminate implicit bias, and implement culturally relevant professional learning to teachers. For students of color and other disenfranchised groups, the left eye is often the main lens for understanding their own educational experiences.
The second vision—one focused on school choice and accountability—can be seen through your right eye and was the dominant lens of my state’s educational system under our last Republican governor 12 years ago. The right eye sees underwhelming standardized-test scores as proof that too many schools are “failing” by funding unsuccessful programs. In this vision, an emphasis on equity is not only divisive but waters down the curriculum and the expectations of teachers.
The right eye sees an education system that focuses on too many “noninstructional” components that should be the job of the parent and not the school, including social-emotional learning and students’ sexuality and gender identity. The right eye perceives the left-eye vision for education as indoctrination. This vision for education wants schools to focus on innovation, for parents to have choices for where their children attend school, and for all students to have the chance to improve the socioeconomic status of their families—provided students follow the plan.
The problem with both visions is that the left eye does not see what the right eye sees and vice versa. As one of 133 superintendents in Virginia and one of 33 superintendents of color, I am tasked with seeing both lenses, while still remaining true to myself—the only way to have a clear vision.
A recent breakdown in communication over the removal of certain equity resources from my state’s department of education website is a reminder of the dangers of only seeing education through one lens. Many Virginia superintendents protested the removal and other recommendations intended to root out what was perceived as a “divisive” curriculum as a decision that should have been discussed before recommendations were made public. The new administration saw these actions as making good on the new governor’s campaign promises. The challenge is that a lack of communication prevented collaboration, which resulted in competing visions.
Competing visions for education can sow distrust and negativity that can make it even harder to keep our current teachers and recruit the next generation of educators. Having multiple visions for the future of education sometimes creates more conflict than compromise—but only looking at what’s in front of us with partial vision increases our collective blind spots.
Good communication and collaboration allow us to see the full picture, including what we might have overlooked. Good communication and collaboration provide us with an opportunity to reach our true goal of keeping students first. Putting kids first is the shared vision of all educators, and, as leaders, we must never lose sight of that shared vision. In order to put kids first, we must always think about the impact that adult decisions have on kids. We must think about how our students are watching what we do, and that if we are teaching them to get along, compromise, and work together, it is our jobs to model that expectation as leaders.