Last week I attended an education conference. One of the most powerful aspects of a conference is simply time with colleagues. We have the time and space to think, reflect, discuss, and debate. For my traveling companions and I, a school tour sparked an ongoing conversation about equity issues in education. I watched my colleagues think, analyze, discuss, and reconsider with passion, intensity, and expert knowledge.
We each wrestled with complex issues and questions for which there are no easy answers. Those questions really boil down to just one: “What is best for children?” This deceptively simple question is the heart of the education reform and education policy debates. The complexity of this question comes from the fact that there are so many stakeholders who can and should have input on the answer—and whose answers can be wildly different.
The children and their families certainly deserve some input into this question, yet we must always be mindful of the risk of either lowered expectations or unreasonable expectations that families and communities have for children. A lack of pedagogical knowledge or longing for comfortable traditions can also lead parents and students to answer this question in different ways than educators. Teachers have a lot of expert knowledge to inform this answer, yet we must always be wary of the assumptions and biases that influence our actions and the myth of meritocracy that colors all we do—a trap that education leaders must be wary of as well. Educators often do not share the cultural values or life experiences of their students and therefore see different answers to the question than they do.
Now we get to policy makers and philanthropists who, despite having a limited context and perspective and being far removed from the experience of individual students, have the power and money to ensure that their answer is the answer that gets heard. To my knowledge, none of us have been endowed with divine knowledge. Therefore, all (and I do mean ALL) of our answers to “what is best for students” are guesses, some only slightly more informed than others. Many educators and advocates for our public schools recognize the complexity of this question and accept that we cannot answer this question all by ourselves.
We wrestle…as should anyone who truly has the best interest of students at heart.
For some in the realm of education policy, their motives are transparently self-interested (perhaps with the thinnest lip service to student need). They have never wrestled and usually dont even pretend to. What concerns me more is the arrogant self-righteousness with which some educators, education leaders, policy makers, philanthropists, and reformers approach this question. They are deluded into believing that they know the absolute answer to this question and they stake claim to the moral high ground in all debates.
While conducting my dissertation research, I discovered a very revealing study from Wasonga published in the Journal of School Leadership in 2009. The author studied the practices of 32 principals who professed to engage in the work of social justice. Their most commonly reported socially just practice was shared decision-making. However, at the same time, they reported ignoring the perspectives of stakeholders (often teachers and teacher’s unions) that they perceived to have other agendas. Let me say that again. These principals were so confident in their interpretation of what was “best for students” that they eliminated whole groups of stakeholders from decision-making while still maintaining that they valued and practiced shared decision-making. If principals think this way, I can only imagine how educrats, politicians, and philanthropists think. The inconvenient truth about social justice is that there are no good guys or bad guys. We ALL engage in simultaneously challenging and perpetuating the social structures of oppression (I would put a link here, but basically just read everything Paulo Freire every wrote if you need to understand this point).
At the conference I attended, I was able to meet the National Superintendent of the Year, Alberto Carvalho. He graciously gave a significant amount of his time to my colleagues and I—total nobodies from another state—as we expressed some concerns we had from our site visits to some of his schools. We respectfully challenged him with some critical questions.
I watched as he listened and responded and I clearly saw him wrestle. At that point I knew that regardless of differences of opinion, I was in the presence of someone who truly had student best interests at heart—and was humble enough to know that he didn’t know all the answers either.
People don’t like uncertainty and qualified answers. Democracy is messy, difficult, and time-consuming. That is why charter schools that promise a magic formula of success for all children are so appealing. That is way standardized tests and numerical data enchant so many with their cleanliness and certainty. Unfortunately, our public schools and our children are simply being dashed upon the rocky shores as our captains foolishly follow the sirens’ songs. The have failed to heed the numerous voices of warning from those of us along for the ride who can see the danger ahead.
We know the answers aren’t that simple…and we wrestle.