Reclaiming the Conversation on Education

Matt Damon, whose mother was a teacher, recently questioned why teachers are often excluded from educational policy: “I’ve always believed that they [policymakers] have to invite teachers into the discussion to help design policy.  We would never let business men design warheads, why would you cut out educators when you’re designing education policy?”

Coincidentally, about a week later, I was invited to a meeting called “Reclaiming the Conversation on Education” that focused on the same issue.  In attendance were superintendents, university and college professors, school administrators, teachers, community activists, and parents.  Despite our varied backgrounds, the one unifying element that brought us all together is the one-dimensional focus on high stakes exam.  Elementary school teachers spoke about the pressures they faced to cover a curriculum that was still “under construction.”  Parents were concerned about their son’s/daughter’s well-being.  One parent described to me how her son pulls out his hair when faced with a three-hour standardized exam.

We also knew that recent discussion about pausing the roll out of the Common Core Curriculum as evidenced by headlines in the press (“New York to Slow Down Common Core Implementation”) is a sham.  There is no slow down.  Students must still pass Common Core aligned exams in all grades.  The curriculum will still be rolled out as planned, and teacher/principal evaluation will still be tied to tests.  Twice Principal of the Year, Carol Burris, explains why there is no pulling back here.

It also occurred to me to ask the question, “From whom are we reclaiming the conversation about education?”  By looking around this conference room at Barnard College, it was evident that the policymakers and architects of the Common Core Curriculum were absent from the room.  Those closest to the educational process (administrators, teachers, parents, and students) have been left out from the Common Core agenda since its inception.  One justification used for the Common Core is to make U.S. education more globally competitive.  It is ironic, then, that politicians have conveniently disregarded a basic principle that is found in other successful educational systems, i.e. to work collaboratively with those closest to the classroom.  Instead, policymakers set out on a conscious effort to exclude those most familiar with and expert in teaching and learning, educators themselves.

The Finnish educational model that is often cited by policymakers and private benefactors (such as, President Obama, Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan, New York State Education Commissioner Dr. King, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, and others) as a paradigm of success, invites teachers and principals to collaborate with politicians to write educational policy together.  Perhaps, if policymakers collaborated with those in the educational process, New York State would not be debating what the Common Core is, whether this curriculum can ever be effective, and how to implement it.  Instead of extending an invitation, policymakers in this state have closed the door on an entire profession.  That’s why meetings to reclaim the conversation are important.

The Common Core debate is just beginning in New York.  Hopefully, those crafting educational policy will learn that adversarial approaches do not work and only policy that has been developed after a healthy and knowledgeable debate will work.  To that end, Matt Damon’s 2011 speech at a Save Our Schools rally may provide a starting point to fashion future discussion.