School & District Management Opinion

Who Can Say Schools Are Good Enough?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 09, 2017 4 min read
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We have the greatest opportunity the world has ever seen, as long as we remain honest -- which will be as long as we can keep the attention of our people alive. If they once become inattentive to public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors would all become wolves. - Thomas Jefferson

Educational leaders find themselves in an interesting position. After years of public criticism of public education from one faction or another, we are, with health care and defense, at center stage nationally. On that stage with us are those in powerful policy positions who are advocates of vouchers and charters to fix a broken system. Ironically, we do not see it as broken, though we agree it may need some work. So, we enter the drama in the role of the resistance. And, we know that, in these times especially, being proponents of any status quo with a governmental bureaucracy attached is an unpopular place to be.

So, we must consider the question....with the national spotlight on us, can we change the focus? Can we become the model of one governmental system, that works well locally, and rally a base to support us while still acknowledging that we all need to get better and, in some places, challenged and failing schools need new kinds of help? As a profession it seems we are all painted with the same dark brush, as failing to educate students effectively for this century and to high standards. We are advocates for systemic change but not for throwing out a system that has worked well to serve our economy and our democracy. It has also lead most people to have a story they can tell of a teacher who influenced their lives positively. To be not the best we can be does not make us bad... or does it?

Successful Schools Cannot Rest

Basking in the comfort of a community enjoying excellent schools does a disservice to the students, the parents, and the community at large. A community’s opinion of a school implies that community is knowledgeable about what quality education is. That is not always true. Minds get made up and even when facts are sought, they are often not complete. How could they be when even educators wrestle with what schools should look like, what academic standards should be, how students need to be taught, and what experiences offer students the best learning?

Developing a vision for change is not a leader’s job alone. Here is where the attention that has turned to schools is an advantage. Yet some leaders hesitate. Why upset the apple cart? It has been twelve years since Thomas L. Friedman’s The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century hit the bestseller list. In it when talking about jobs lost to overseas, he quoted an email he received from Mike Arguello, an IT systems architect living in San Antonio. Concerned about the jobs that were leaving the US and going overseas, Friedman asked him what we needed to do in America to get our edge back. Arguello’s response:

I taught at a local university. It was disheartening to see the poor work ethic of many of my students. Of the students I taught over six semesters, I’d only consider hiring two of them. The rest lacked the creativity, problem-solving abilities and passion for learning (p. 261).

The belief presently about how overseas jobs hurt our economy and legislating their return will have little effect unless our schools develop the work ethic, creativity, problem-solving abilities and passion for learning. These are the tough things to measure on a test, aren’t they? If you have followed our work, you will recognize that we add communication, collaboration and ethical behavior to these attributes.

Of course there are many classrooms across the country where these skills are developed and some students’ lights are ignited by individual teachers. Those are the one’s fondly remembered. Yet we have an obligation to all students, not just the ones who are lucky enough to be in certain classrooms with certain teachers at just the right moment.

The leadership challenge remains. The attention of the public can be an asset. Leaders might consider extending a fresh welcome to those who have been a “thorn in the side”. Maybe they can see a future we can’t and want help if asked. Scan the teachers, parents, community members, business and higher education partners for the people who are present but sitting just out of the conversation.

A Warning

If shifting the manner in which teaching and learning is taking place has not been on your radar, now there is another incentive. If the promised economic changes come to pass and overseas jobs are brought back to this country and our workforce fails to produce as well as their overseas counterparts, schools will certainly be blamed. As a profession where learning is central, we are being offered an opportunity to use this information, take advantage of the attention education is receiving, and have a voice. We aspire to gaining the advantage to develop more robust learners with skills that will carry them beyond their years in our schools.

Although you may be familiar with Karl Fisch‘s and Scott McCleod‘s now well known “Did You Know?” video, we suggest re-watching what was produced in 2006-2007. Perhaps it can be on the agenda for that first meeting of the group that will help to lead the new vision for the school and district. In their video they say “Shift Happens”. But has it in our schools? Using it will be in the hands of those skilled leaders willing to step up and lead the charge.

Friedman, T.L. (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Illustration by giralt courtesy of Pixabay

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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.