Time to Examine Our Beliefs about Education

These are challenging times as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on our nation and our world. Yet we see those in essential positions continue their commitment as they work tirelessly during these challenging times. That is true of our educators; learning how to adapt during a pandemic was never a part of the college coursework to becoming a teacher. I applaud my fellow educators for continuing to be their best for their students. Yet, I feel the urgency to have meaningful discussions about our schools and our educational systems. There is so much about our schools that need to be changed, and this pandemic and its impact on education can be the impetus for discussions.

When I was a principal, I sometimes faced difficult decisions between toeing the line and listening to my gut feelings about what was best for our school, our students, and our teachers. I wanted our staff to think out-of-the-box and to be innovative. Yet, I knew that as the principal, I needed to be aware of the expectations of our schools and regulations that needed to be adhered to. How do we balance the two when they were sometimes not in sync?

Now that schools have had to change due to the pandemic and safety issues related to being back in school, the time is ripe to discuss how to make schools more relevant. As a principal, I would often think about different scenarios and ponder how we might change the way we’ve always done education:

  • Those of us in education see first-hand the correlation between socioeconomic status and student achievement.  Societal factors have a huge impact on some of our most needy students, and expecting them to be able to focus on school when their basic needs are not met is unrealistic. We know that given time and a caring staff, schools can have a positive impact on disadvantaged students. We know that school can be the one constant in a child’s life, the one safe place where family problems can be forgotten for a few hours. How do we address the socioeconomic gap and its impact on education so that ALL students have equal opportunities to be successful?
  • We know that every student is different and when they begin school, they do not start at the same starting line; in fact, some students are far behind other students when they first enter kindergarten, but we expect them to be at the same place at the end of the year,  Think of it as a running race; can we reasonably expect someone to start half-a-lap behind and finish at the same time as others who started with a big lead? How should we be measuring progress in school?
  • During this pandemic, teachers shared how much they learned and how they collaborated with colleagues to create classrooms where social-emotional learning was as important as academics. If we agree that positive relationships between students and with their teachers can make a difference, how can we use that knowledge to positively impact teaching and learning?
  • Seat time and good grades are not necessarily an indication of learning. Too often, learning in school is merely memorizing and regurgitating information. Real learning means applying skills or facts to delve deeper, to make sense of information, and the application to new situations. It may mean that students get feedback then revise their work before submitting it for credit. How do we change our reporting system to tell the story of real learning that has lasting impact on a student?
  • Too often, school is teacher-directed. It is the teacher in the classroom who determines what to teach, when to teach it, and what is the evidence of learning. Students are often passive learners as opposed to being passionate, self-directed learners whose curiosity about a subject drive their own learning. How can we ensure that our student learners have an opportunity to create their own learning that is meaningful and impactful to them?
  • This pandemic provided evidence that face-to-face learning is not the only option for K-12 schools. Technology is an equalizer; students can learn just as well through blended and/or virtual learning; in fact, some students thrived in this environment. How will schools reconfigure how they provide teaching and learning now that options other than face-to-face, have shown to be successful?
  • The public judges schools based on standardized test scores, and schools feel the pressure of ensuring that their students are prepared for this once-a-year high stakes testing. Teachers may be evaluated based on the scores of their students. Unfortunately, the reports that schools receive are rarely useful. Teachers have no way of examining their student responses to see what kinds of errors were made. While we understand that the public needs to know that our schools are educating our students to be contributing citizens of their community, is there a more reliable, less expensive, and less time-consuming way to rate our schools besides high-stakes testing?
  • One of the frustrations I had as a principal was not having sufficient funding for our students to experience a well-rounded education that included music, physical education, visual arts, drama, STEM, etc. Our teachers needed support, too – dedicated mentors for new teachers, instructional coaches, technology coaches, etc. This pandemic showed the dedication of our teachers to plug away despite the challenges they faced. While we understand the fiscal challenges our states are facing, the question of funding for schools will not go away. If our children are our priority, shouldn’t our schools be adequately funded?
Soon, we will have a new Secretary of Education. These discussions, at the national, state, and district levels, are long-overdue. Let’s hope we can finally work to improve our systems so that all students, no matter where they live, can have access to a quality education.