Hope and Despair in 2016 (Part I)

hope and despair

(Image credit: Seth Wenig / AP / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

Anyone who has been associated with public education over the past 15 years will tell you how challenging and turbulent the years have been. The level of distrust and disparagement that educators have been subjected to is really rather unprecedented.

The purpose of this blog and many others is to provide a counter argument to the persistent narrative of reformers that American public schools are failing and that our teachers and school leaders are not sufficiently motivated to fix them.

Saying that, I would hope that the majority of people involved in the school reform movement have positive intentions. I think we can all agree on the urgency of removing barriers for disadvantaged students and eliminating what President George W. Bush referred to as, “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” from our schools and classrooms.

Where good people diverge is the manner by which this objective is pursued. As I wrote in a post last week, it really comes down to a person’s preconception as to whether educators are “the problem” behind education reform or the solution.

I have met very few teachers in my 23 years in education who did not want children to experience success in their classroom. Most teachers enter the profession because they enjoyed school themselves and because their own lives were positively impacted by the actions of an educator.

Teachers are willing to work long hours, for relatively low pay, and under challenging conditions because they enjoy helping kids learn in a safe, caring environment where they are valued, respected, and loved. For most of us teaching is not just our profession, it is our passion.

Like the Geico commercial says, “It’s Just What We Do.”

Nonetheless, the debate relative to what America needs to do to “fix our schools” will continue for the foreseeable future.  And intelligent, committed people will continue to disagree on the possible solutions and on who is best equipped to facilitate the real improvement needed in our schools.

This dichotomy of opinion was clearly revealed a few days ago in this article published in the Atlantic Magazine under this byline:

Can Schools Be Fixed?

Experts on K-12 education offer their reasons for optimism and pessimism going forward.

The authors provide a variety of perspectives from whom they deem “experts” on K-12 education. Each contributor provided their own set of reasons on why they are hopeful about the future of public education in America, as well as their reasons for discouragement or despair.

Of course, as one national blogger pointed out, the list of experts quoted for this article did not happen to include even one currently working classroom teacher or school administrator.

To be honest, four individuals included in this article have previously taught in a public school classroom at some point during their careers. At the same time, I have to question the composition of this group of twelve education experts.

While there is diversity of thought among the group, this group in no way represents a cross-section of American experiences. Two are economics professors, two are CEOs, one is a education professor and policy expert (Linda Darling-Hammond), four are authors/journalists (including Diane Ravitch), one leads an advocacy group, and two are representatives of the major teacher unions.

Only two in the group did not earn a degree from Stanford University or an Ivy League school and eleven of the twelve are white. NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia self identifies as Hispanic.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not dismissing the value or credibility of the thoughts and opinions of any of these individuals. These are intelligent, well-educated, and successful people and I learned something from reading each of them.

My comment is more of a indictment of the process used by the writers to select their contributors. Based on the stated scope and intent of this article, the failure to include even one person of color who may have more meaningful experiences and perspective on the challenges faced by schools in urban settings seems contrived.

Dr. Pedro Noguera is just one name that immediately comes to my mind when I think of someone whose perspective would have added significant value to this conversation.

If you have not heard of him before now, Dr. Noguera is a sociologist, educator, and author currently on the faculty of UCLA. In the past twenty years, he has done extensive research on the issues of race and equity in America’s schools.

I recently finished reading his outstanding book, “Excellence Through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student.

Co-authored with Alan Blankstein, this book is a collection of essays that share real stories of school transformation, each centered on the necessity of educational equity for ALL students, the value of relationships, and the importance of a shared vision for student success.

Ultimately, this book provides a vision for what schools can be if we are willing to set aside some of our differences and actually work together to improve our schools.

This was the premise behind the joint effort last year between the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA) and the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA)  to create their “For the People: A Vision for Oklahoma Public Education” .

The purpose of this initiative was to expand the conversation about public schools in Oklahoma and to get as many people involved as possible. As the website encourages:

Say YES … Be part of the conversation. Say YES … Do whatever it takes to build up students and teachers in our state. Say YES … Embrace a new vision for public education. For all people. For all children.

We all need to say YES.

The hallmarks of a democratic society are free speech and exploratory thought. As Hubert Humphrey once said, “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.”

All opinions and ideas should be heard, and individuals and society as a whole should strive to find new, better ways to understand the world and to interact with it. Our schools belong to us and we need to maintain an active voice in driving the policies which affect our students and teachers.

This is something that must change in 2016. With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) last month, many of the more onerous parts of NCLB have been pushed back to State Capitols and Legislatures.This is our chance to make sure our lawmakers know exactly where we stand relative to our schools.

This much is certain–our silence supports the status quo.

There are reasons for each of us to be frustrated, angry, disillusioned, or desperate. Conversely, there are also many reasons for us to be optimistic and hopeful for a great year.

We are educators. We believe in kids. We love our schools. We value the partnerships with our parents and communities.

More than anything, we understand the incredible influence that a caring adult can have on the future of a child. Teachers are naturally hopeful.

With that spirit, over the next few days, several of your favorite Oklahoma bloggers will be sharing our own reasons for despair as well as our reasons for hope in 2016. Even with the current fiscal crisis and teacher shortage, I suspect most of our entries will be heavy on the hopeful side.

As we post our own versions, we would love to have you join in the conversation and share your thoughts and ideas with us in the comments. And please don’t let it stop there. Resolve to join the conversation in a meaningful way. If you don’t know what you can do to help, ask one of us.

We need you now more than ever!

say yes

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One thought on “Hope and Despair in 2016 (Part I)

  1. I don’t know how many of you have ‘joined’ the word-for-the-year that’s been discussed on social media. I have and my word is DETERMINED. Among other things, I’m determined to emphasize the positive in dialogue and determined to seek the advancement of important ideas / concepts.

    The most important dialogue for me is the advancement of effective learning for all students. If we seek to advance the efforts rather than demanding ‘the full solution’ here, we can get that effort advancing like a ball rolling down hill.

    One of many great blogs dedicated to this effort is Rob Miller! Working together, taking positive steps, we certainly can make a difference.

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