It’s happening again! Governors are finding out they have surplus funds and are talking about what to do with the money! Political aisles are being crossed and education is at the center of the conversation. After several years of excessively harsh and severe budget cuts to education and other programs, surprisingly there is now evidence of a surplus in many states. Education has been accused of failing and the all sorts of solutions to its improvement have become the basis of the platforms for those seeking public office.
First, let’s investigate the murky evidence. It is true that we are working in an educational paradigm that harkens back to another century. It is true that our buildings were designed without the flexibility to develop some new program possibilities. It is true that current immigration rates have reached the levels of the early 20th century. The number of foreign born residents is at its highest levels in US history. Current immigrants come primarily from 10 countries within Asia and Latin America. In the early 20th century, the largest numbers of immigrants came from Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Italy, all European countries. These new immigrants do not share our European heritage. The challenge to educators of this increased diversity is noteworthy. Simultaneously, across the language and cultural gaps, we are striving toward meeting very different expectations from those held a century ago.
Claudia Golden and Lawrence F. Katz published an article in the Journal of Economic History entitled, “Education and income in the early 20th century: Evidence from the prairies.” In it they report that the U.S. Commissioner of Education has collected data on the number of students enrolled in and graduating from both private and public schools since 1909. As the century moved ahead so did high school enrollment and graduation rates. They attribute this to “the building of public high schools, the decrease in transportations costs, and a change in the curriculum.”
So here we are. Our graduation rates have been reported as being at 75% - the highest rate in 40 years. But in those 40 years it is essential to note our requirements have become more rigorous and our student populations are inclusive of a broad spectrum of learners. These are good things. But let’s consider with that being the case, there are still 25 % of our students who do not complete high school and in some urban areas the numbers are significantly higher than that.
So, again, the businesses of education and politics interconnect. Should money be allocated to Universal Pre-K? full day kindergarten? more pay for teachers? tax cuts? or a rainy day fund for the state? (this one is particularly interesting since schools were criticized for having such funds and the allowance for such a fund was reduced)? We need to take a position on the priority.
Although educators might present a large voting bloc, we are not well organized. Some states rely on unions to be their representatives in these discussions but unions are designed to protect and advocate for its members rights and protection. That is not what we need right now. We need an organizing platform for an informed voice. Money isn’t a solution to any of our problems, perceived or real. Program innovations are what everyone is calling for. Yes, money needs to follow really good ideas. But what data substantiated plan has been proposed that the Governors could see, understand, and agree upon? We are falling short in being proactive voices and are only now beginning to be seen as reactive voices. Let’s lead with an idea. Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey has recently released a book entitled Digital Leadership. In it he states,
Leaders of schools need to acknowledge that learners today are “wired” differently as a result of the experiential learning that takes place outside of school. The learning styles of the active, digital learner conflict with traditional teaching styles and preferences. How can we possibly meet the needs of these unique learners if our practices are suited for a time that has long passed? (p. 15)
He is one of many leaders who are speaking out about the need for the redesign of our teaching and learning paradigm. STEM programs present a powerful option when well understood. STEM does not exclude the social sciences or the arts. STEM is not just a high school program for those talented students in the subjects of science, technology, engineering and math. Governors, we ask that you consider providing money to schools which begin the professional journey to transform teaching and learning to meet the demands of the 21st century student. We ask that you invest in a real concerted effort to understand that STEM is a paradigm shift in teaching and learning that transcends subjects and changes the way students learn. Governors, if we are to implement the Common Core for which most advocated, then invest in the professional development of the teachers who are charged to make it happen. Give us money to allow for half-year sabbaticals in which teachers can work together with businesses and medical facilities in order to learn and plan the changes and perhaps return to learning more about how students learn.
How can we make our voices heard? How can we get to those making decision without it always being in response to a decision already made? We have to get organized and be invited to the table. Perhaps, another plan would be to get organized and call our governors to the table. We believe that everyone wants to do good work. But we also know that we don’t all know the best ways to get that work done. Right now, our Governors are thinking about what to do with that extra money. Let’s tell them.
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.