The Promise of Public Education
On January 9, 2017, I had the pleasure of attending a major education speech by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Ms. Weingarten, a former high school teacher in Brooklyn, New York, championed a vision for public education that celebrates the promise of our public schools, while also denouncing Betsy Devos as the wrong pick to be our next Secretary of Education.
As a public school educator for over seventeen years, and a father of three, I have experienced firsthand the education wars that have frustrated and demoralized the teaching workforce. We have been trapped in an over-standardized, one size fits all education system, while repeatedly failing to nurture the innate brilliance of every child. Top down, narrow policies, have silenced and misguided educators and families at the local level, while members of the “testocracy” continue to profit substantially off our kids. At this important time in our nation’s history, we need true leadership in public education.
Randi Weingarten displayed that leadership in her inspiring speech. Her powerful words were a call to action. A call to focus on the whole child, and to remind this country that the promise of our democracy will only be reached if we ensure a healthy and vibrant public school system. The test and punish policies of the past two decades have not worked for our schools. Achievement gaps remain, achievement overall has flattened, student engagement is declining, and new teacher applications have decreased dramatically. For the schools that are celebrated as panaceas of student achievement, they also carry abysmally high teacher attrition rates; with teachers consistently reporting feeling dejected and dehumanized. Ms. Weingarten’s speech urges us to pivot away from these oppressive policies, and to fully embrace four pillars of public education
In the most diverse country in the world, where ninety percent of our children attend public schools, where child poverty is growing and technology evolves instantaneously, the four pillars are a pathway to health and prosperity for all. First, by placing the well-being of our children at the core of our education policy, we recalibrate our moral compass as a nation, and invite all to support physically, mentally, and emotionally safe schools. By beginning with well-being, we will no longer ignore the importance of early childhood education, and will work to give all families the support they need to live healthy and fulfilling lives. Finally, well-being includes an academic curriculum inclusive of the arts, leadership and citizenship, and a socio-emotional curriculum that includes opportunities for self-reflection and correction, and restorative practices, supported by a well-staffed Guidance Department.
Ms. Weingarten also highlights powerful learning, building teacher capacity, and collaboration to round out her four pillars. The challenges of today, which include criminal justice reform, a growing economic divide, substance abuse, and increased diversity, require a dynamic approach to learning. Students must consistently work together to solve authentic problems, communicate effectively, take initiative and practice creativity. Further, building teacher capacity and continued learning is crucial to ensuring that teachers remain highly skilled and inspired, while guaranteeing that every child has a quality teacher in their classroom. Policies that focus on improving teacher capacity are incredibly impactful, because they affect classroom practice directly; which numerous studies have shown impacts student achievement the most.
Finally, collaboration serves as the essence of lifelong learning and critical for all to truly thrive in a diverse global economy. Through learning and working together, we will fortify our amazing profession and work to solve the world’s most complex problems. Collaboration, done genuinely, creates systems that troubleshoot naturally and harmoniously adjust to new ideas. If all schools are supported as community spaces for learning, where teachers, principals, students, parents, superintendents, retirees, and community based organizations come together to meet the needs of all children, we will all have a chance to benefit from and celebrate the promise of public education. I will answer Ms. Weingarten’s call to action, and encourage all who value public education to do the same.