A New Conversation about Public Education




It seems to me that you cannot turn on the radio or read a newspaper today without hearing someone repeat this line ”public education is broken-a failure”. A few days ago, I heard this claim from a prominent local leader. He followed his statement with the extraordinary claim that this failure could be traced to teachers and unions: decisions made at the local level by teachers, principals and superintendents, school boards.

I also heard this man’s anger and frustration.

I share his anger and frustration, but I do not share his premise or his conclusions. For the last decade, public education has been organized to accommodate the federal requirements outlined by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Education is organized to accommodate standardized testing: standardized testing designed to ensure that schools will fail. No one can legitimately call this ‘local control’. According to the measurements outlined by NCLB, schools are failing.

Meanwhile, Race to the Top requires schools and ultimately our children to compete for federal funding. This approach to funding education is based on the premise that principals and teachers lack motivation and drive. Providing a competition will fuel both. Based on that premise, our nation’s schools may compete for the limited funding available if they meet certain criteria. Competition results in winners and losers: some schools receive funds others do not.

The protocols of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top profoundly and dramatically impact the way our local schools shape school calendars and educational environments and learning opportunities. The cost to our schools can be measured in loss of local decision-making, loss of curriculum that is not linked to testing and the financial drain of administering the tests.

Equally damaging are the conclusions about public education driving these policies and the conversations about reform that identify teachers as ‘the problem’.

When I hear leaders engaging in this blame game, I want to ask them, “Where do expect this to take us?” How does directing your anger at teachers and principals and unions serve to shape an approach to education that will benefit our children?”

I think that it is time to frame a new conversation about public education.

As a society, as communities that care about our children, we need to engage in dialogue that will help us determine a vision for education that truly meets the educational needs of every child.

And if we want every child to meet their full potential, we need to define clearly the responsibilities of schools and teachers and the responsibilities of society.

Schools can be environments where every child’s developmental needs are recognized and served, but communities must be equipped to provide environments beyond the school day where children and their families that will help them to thrive.

On the same day that I heard the angry comments of one local leader, I heard a broadcast featuring Finnish education leader Pasi Sahlberg speaking about the approach to education adopted by Finland. The contrast between the two leaders could not have been greater. 

Finland’s approach to education is driven by a vision for education in which children’s learning and developmental needs are identified and addressed comprehensively long before they enter the public education system beginning with universal healthcare (prenatal care included) and financial supports for families and continuing through post secondary education. Teachers are treated with respect and provided with the tools including the education they need to work with every child. The school day is shorter and for younger children time for play is incorporated into the school day. Standardized testing does not shape the curriculum. The Finnish approach to education began forty years ago with a conversation about what they wanted education to look like. They asked themselves this question: “What do we want for our children, our schools and our communities?”

The dialogue generated to address this question resulted in a new approach to education that has yielded impressive results. In a culture that has decided to support children, public education is organized to meet their learning needs and Finnish students are thriving and teachers are regarded as respected professionals.

Today, in Minnesota only 20 percent of households have children enrolled in K-12 education. Eighty per cent of households have only an indirect connection to these children.

Yet, every Minnesotan, every member of the communities that comprise this state are connected to the children enrolled in our schools. Their capacity to thrive is vitally important for every aspect of the future of our communities and depends directly on our ability and willingness to engage in authentic dialogue about public education.

“What do we want for our children, our schools and our communities?”

If we endeavor to answer these questions thoughtfully and imagine a future that depends on all of us, I believe that we will discover common ground and be able to define a common purpose.

I think we would decide that we want Minnesota’s children to have access to the educational opportunities supported by research – opportunities such as education infused with the arts which has been shown to fuel creativity and increase success in language comprehension and understanding of math concepts. Opportunities driven by developmental needs, not costly standardized tests and competition for scarce funding. I think that we would feel compelled to define long term goals for building communities and local economies that support people of all ages.  Our children are depending on us to start a new conversation about public education.