Hope, Change and Superman

Education Nation.

Wow, suddenly that tag is everywhere. Hallelujah. It seems as though educators have been waiting forever to have our day in the news. Our time has finally come. So why do I feel so anxious?

It’s because the neglected topic of education is at its center the topic of hope and change. Its offer of new meaning, possibility and opportunity touches us all. Now that the media is catching hold of this topic, there is the new possibility that as a nation we will embrace the multitudes of educational problems with multitudes of creative solutions — each customized for the particular need — in the right place, with the right measure, in the right time. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? That would be really smart if all of us out here with our expansive educational backgrounds could seize this opportunity and make the United States stronger on the heels of this issue. That is the change that so many are hoping for now. And it makes me anxious, because there is little evidence that we know how to get this opportunity for change right.

We all know there are many problems out there — from underpaid teachers to dilapidated learning spaces. There are many great needs around education. How can we prevent this moment from churning over our airwaves as a reductionist, partisan debate over the obvious points such as the teachers’ union, charter schools and standardized test scores and instead flow through the national dialogue as an inspiring call — an educational awakening?

Bitter, polarized positions promulgated by evening pundits are at best uneducated. At worst, they thwart opportunities for parents and children to really learn about what is possible in life. That is what is at stake here: a meaningful future for our citizens, the lives of children, the peace of mind of parents, the chance to be a real citizen of the United States and the world. This conversation can ensure these things. These things are now threatened by our placing this issue on the back burner for so long. This is education’s moment and how we handle this moment will define our future.

The Great Education Debate — Let’s Get It Right

A very wise school administrator friend of mine used to note that there were four essential ingredients to giving children a quality education: time, space, love and money. The new debate on schools comes in part because of a massive influx of money into the education system, both through the Recovery and Reinvestment Act and from the continued interests of philanthropists like Bill Gates and now Mark Zuckerberg. There is no question the money is sorely needed. Like many educators, I worry that some of it is following poorly conceived programs based on bad data. However, it signals a shifting of priorities and, for that, all educators should be grateful.

Maybe this will mean we don’t have to scroll down to the bottom of every online newspaper to see stories about one of the things that matters most in life (learning) only to find a headline about an overpaid college president.

I am, however, concerned about the tenor of the debate which has arisen from education’s newfound place in the spotlight. On the sidewalk outside Waiting for Superman, on the campaign trail, in a living room watching “Education Nation” — I keep hearing the same expressions of conditional logic, “Well, we will never be able to fix the schools until we deal with_________________.” You can fill in the blank here: “teachers unions,” “building more charter schools,” “schools of education”, “defacto segregation.” This type of “there is no solution to this until that happens” approach crosses political lines, class lines and race lines.

Conservatives and progressives alike seek to demonize this or that element as “the impediment” to progress. We need to guard against such reductionist thinking and strive to maintain a holistic frame to the debate. Our educational system is enormously complex. We are not Finland or Singapore. There are more than twice as many students attending school in New York City alone as there are in all of Finland. There are 138 languages spoken just in the borough of Queens. There are no easy fixes, no angels and no demons. The conversation should be as nuanced as the lives of the various children who walk through the doors of our nation’s schools every day, intent on learning. Time, space, love and money. We are focused now on the money and certainly; the money can do a great deal to improve the issues of space, upgrading our crumbling infrastructure. As for love, no one who has spent time in schools can doubt that the work teachers do is an act of love. Let us be mindful then of time.

During his campaign, President Obama was smart to recall Reverend King’s invocation of “the fierce urgency of now” to rally followers to the immediate imperative of the nation’s problems. Nowhere is that urgency more evident than in schools. While outside, the debate rages on, inside the clocks are ticking. Together teachers and students are busy solving equations, revising grammar, testing hypotheses in a concerted, crazily choreographed dance to make the most of every day, every hour, every minute, of instructional time. For kids, time means everything. You only get one shot at sixth grade.

Let us keep our focus on the children and what they need right now. Now is the time for a deep, meaningful, thoughtful debate. We need to take the time to get it right. However, if we allow ourselves to be bogged down in reductionist bickering or sidetracked by provisional arguments, we do a shameful disservice to the children. They are in there even now, studying, working, learning, striving, engaged in the fierce urgency of now even as the debate rages on outside.

Jenifer Fox is an internationally published author, educational keynote speaker and leading innovator on 21st Century Learning. Her groundbreaking book, Your Child’s Strengths, a Guide for Teachers and Parents (Viking/Penguin) is widely accepted as the definitive guide to developing success through a focus on strengths for children. Jenifer authored The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists (Wiley) and has created Differentiated Instruction, an online professional course for teachers.

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