AP season is in full swing at school. Walking the halls, you see backpacks laden with review books, flashcards stuffed in pockets, and a general look of exhaustion on many faces. The AP United States History exam is exactly three weeks away. As we continue to march through the curriculum, wrapping up our analysis of the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations, we are also going back to the beginning to start a review of what we studied throughout the year. This past week, that review included a reexamination of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and the formation of our democratic government after the Revolutionary War. As the students analyze the heated debates of our founders over issues of federalism, Congressional representation, checks and balances, individual liberties, and slavery, I am struck by certain similarities between those debates and our own discussions about educational reform.
The Founders agreed that the then-existing form of government needed improvement. The Articles of Confederation were not working. They failed to create a cohesive, workable nation. Likewise, most educators agree that our current education system needs fixing. With thousands of schools currently labeled as failing under one method of assessment or another, and 3.5 million students dropping out of school each year, there is clearly a lot of work to do. Combine that with 14 million children living in poverty, and the task appears overwhelming.
Like the days of the Founders, however, there appears to be some common ground even among the most disparate voices trying to be heard on the issue of education reform. Personally, I hear what sounds like agreement on some key components of an effective school:
- A qualified and dynamic principal who is not afraid to lead;
- Qualified and passionate teachers in each classroom;
- Adequate time for relevant mentorship, staff development, and collaboration among teachers;
- Accountability with fair methods to assess the success of students, faculty, and administrators; and
- Adequate funding to support what we expect from our students and to recruit and retain the best and brightest professionals to teach those students.
What is less clear, and much more controversial, is how we reach these goals. How do we assess effective teaching, inspired leadership, and student learning? Many look at the current conversation about education and feel frustrated, pessimistic, or fearful. However, the debates, dialogue, and disagreements exemplify the beauty of our democracy. Democracy, as the Founders recognized, can be tense, messy, and difficult. If they were seeking only efficiency and expediency, the last thing they would have wanted to do was open up the discussion to “we the people.” Likewise, the education community is involved in a process that includes a multitude of perspectives and opinions, partnerships and alliances, compromises and attempts at consensus. To live up to the very essence of our nation’s founding, education policy needs to include the voices of all stakeholders. We cannot defer only to the loudest voices – politicians, bureaucrats, trade associations, and other special interests. The voices of our students, parents, community members, and especially teachers also need to be heard. And we all need to be better listeners, more open-minded, and a bit patient as we consider ideas – both new and old – that will transform our profession.
We now stand on the cusp of a transformative moment in education. Education has become the civil rights issue of the 21st Century, and we have the chance to improve dramatically the educational opportunities available to all students including those who are living in the most impoverished communities. However, to be successful, teachers must demand an equal role in the decision-making process. And, we will be heard if we speak confidently with a voice of experience and hope, not afraid to be held accountable, not resigned to accept mediocrity, and constantly pushing our students and ourselves to be better.