On Devos and Our Power as Teachers

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From The Economist.

This past week, Betsy Devos was named the Secretary of Education.   On the day of her confirmation, I asked as I often do: “What message does this send to our children?”  On this day, I am far  more concerned about the message that we as teachers send to our children than the confirmation of Devos.   I am not writing to repeat the many reasons that she is woefully unqualified to assume this position including her track record of being against public education, ties to questionable educational outfits and an inability to distinguish between proficiency and growth.  This would only be a reiteration of what most of us already know.  I am writing to cut to the reality and see the bright spots that are in the making.

I have never been interested in teaching students to be compliant in a system that doesn’t always have their best interests in mind.  Doing this would be disingenuous and would be against the values that I hold for myself and my students.  As educators, we should be asking: “Are we teaching our students to be critical thinkers who will show up and show out when they stand in opposition to a policy?  Are we teaching them to engage and become active participants in our democracy?”

For many of the students of Pittsburgh, the answer is “yes.”  On Wednesday, hundreds of students from Pittsburgh marched and gathered outside Senator Toomey’s Pittsburgh office so that they could voice their opposition to the confirmation of Devos.  I am heartened by the fact that the students of Pittsburgh have been activated in opposition to this blow to public education.  As we enter into these difficult times, we must be more cognizant about the messages that we send to our children about compliance.  The way in which we teach must go beyond compliance and transcend to a new level that allows students to actively engage with information and use it to solve problems in their communities and beyond.  We cannot think that we will produce the empathic, creative and flexible thinkers that this world needs if we continue to build our school culture on compliance alone.  If we want thinkers, doers and transformers, then we must redesign our schools systems to offer the environment for these things to emerge.  

So many are up-in-arms and bracing for the impending doom for public education that is Devos without first stopping to realize that our educational system has continued to be inadequate in providing quality education for many of our nation’s youth.  There has persisted a vast disparity between the haves and the have nots that has continued to go unchecked.  In many communities, the schools have continued to produce dismal results.  It is important to note that our schools are not failing, they are getting the results that they are designed to create.  We cannot continue to place bandaids over foundational problems of inequity and access and expect to get different results.

Over the next four years, it is possible that there will be radical changes that may rattle the foundation of our nation’s educational system.  These next years will likely be trying—  filled with many policies with which we all disagree.  In these times, we need to fight the battle against things that are morally reprehensible and stand up to policies that will do harm to our children’s education.  That being said, we have been asking for radical change to education for many years.  For years, the system has not budged and the results have remained largely the same.  There have been roots to our system that have needed to be upended for many years.  The changes that we seek, cannot occur without the decimation of many of the educational policies that have been in place for years.  When these roots are upended and the foundation begins to crumble, we must be ready to rebuild our schools without the broth of that has created our current system.  What should our systems look like when we are forced to rebuild?  How will we create a school system where all students are valued regardless of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or gender?

While we wait for the next moves of Devos, we need to dare to dream of new ways to design our schools— starting with the ones in which we work.  What steps can you take to influence change in your school to make it a better place for all learners?  How can you move your classroom, your school, and your district beyond the constraints of compliance based education so that we can build the schools that our students deserve?  I am both concerned and hopeful for the future of our public schools.  The difference between positive change and disaster is in our hands— it is in all of our hands.  As Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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