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If Education Is Really About the Kids, We Have to Be Open to Self-Reflection

It is often said that the political battles in education are the nastiest of all, with ideology and special interests on all sides digging in and the actual education of children less of a priority than the egos and demands of a bunch of squabbling grown-ups.

Perhaps the tide is turning just a bit.

Self-help authors, therapists, and perhaps even Pope Francis might just be clicking their heels over what appears to be a wave of self-reflection that has invaded the education wars. Yes, that’s right. The K-12 education space of late is rife with “mea culpas” and they’re coming from some highly respected and powerful people.

Let’s start with the White House. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who have pointed the finger at themselves, in part, over what they concede has become excessive and ineffectual testing in America’s schools.

In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students. The Administration bears some of the responsibility for this, and we are committed to being part of the solution.

Just over the weekend, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, issued her own mea culpa in the New York Daily News over her past support for zero-tolerance policies in schools.

These policies were promoted by people, including me, who hoped they would create safe learning environments for students by freeing them from disruptions by misbehaving peers. It was analogous to the broken-windows theory of policing. We were wrong.

Sure, she also used it as a platform to take a shot at charters but hey, it’s something. And as far as zero-tolerance policies go with their lack of efficacy and disproportionate impact on low-income students of color, I’m with Randi.

Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute is also riding the wave of self-reflection. In Hechinger Report, he writes about the wrongheadedness of seeing yourself as being on the good side, and by default, painting those on the other side as nefarious:

But if this is really to be about “the kids,” and not just our own search for meaning, we need to be careful of lapsing into morality plays. We need to be particularly mindful of not villainizing our opponents. And we need to be humble enough to acknowledge the technical challenges in what we’re trying to achieve.

It’s hard to know if this is just a blip or if there is genuine movement towards more introspection and a better understanding of what unites us. Today’s launch of Teach Strong, a coalition of 40 organizations including American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, Teach For America and Education Post, bodes well for collaborative efforts around a common mission:

We believe that all students, especially those from low-income families, deserve to be taught by great teachers. To accomplish this goal, we must modernize and elevate the teaching profession. This effort will require transforming the systems and policies that support teachers throughout all stages of their careers.

Whether this recent spate of mea culpas proves to be consequential or just a phase remains to be seen. But in a space that feels so highly polarized much of the time, self-reflection with a dash of humility can only be a good thing.

What do you think?

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