Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Rising or Setting Sun on K-12 Education?

"I have often looked at that picture behind the president without being able to tell whether it was a rising or setting sun. Now at length I have the happiness to know that it is indeed a rising, not a setting sun."

~ Benjamin Franklin, 1787


It was the close of the Constitutional Convention and the last few delegates were affixing their signatures to an new plan for a United States of America. The picture he was referring to was on the high back of the chair that had been occupied by George Washington as he presided over the contentious debates during that long, hot Philadelphia summer. Franklin's remark to one of his colleagues, overheard by James Madison, exemplified the importance of looking beyond the months of heated arguments and disagreements to a vision of a unified republic that would draw its strength both as a single nation as well as separate states. And while not perfect by any measure, the events of that summer continue to be the foundation of the longest existing constitutional republic.


Franklin's uncertainty throughout the Convention could be looked at as a forerunner to the heated debates going on today regarding the purpose, effectiveness, and future of K-12 education in America. Is the sun rising or is it setting?


A setting sun.


We can't always help it. We're humans. We still have an innate fear of the dark and things that go bump in the night. In education, those things are everywhere and we (the professionals in the field) see them as destroying public education in this country:


  • The hard-headed dependence on high-stakes testing to determine if our students are receiving an adequate education has caused extensive narrowing of the curriculum, test preparation, and less time for developing innovation, creativity, and critical analysis skills in our students.

  • As a result of this zealous reliance on testing, there's an unwillingness on the part of our political leaders to tackle the most important problems with our education system: growing child poverty, expanding cultural and language diversity, single-parent families, low teacher compensation, and a general lack of respect for our public education system and the teachers who work in it. Couple this with the constant increase in expectations that schools not only provide a basic education but also take over the role of the parents and community with everything else a child needs, including basic nutrition, and you can see why more and more promising teachers are leaving the profession.

  • The old saying, “Put your money where your mouth is,” doesn't seem to apply to the contentious arguments surrounding public education. Despite the fact that it could easily be considered our number one national security strategy, politicians are convinced by private sector business that cutting funding for schools so their taxes can be reduced is the only way to build a thriving economy. If kids are graduating with low skills, simply blame it on the teachers and their unions. It's a cheaper solution. Really? Is it?


A rising sun.


Every cloud has a silver lining. A tired, old cliché but appropriate given the current debate surrounding K-12 education. The trick is looking beyond the darkness of the cloud and finding that silver lining:


  • Our K-12 system clearly has not changed much over the past 100-plus years. While we have seen improvements in student achievement, as measured by national and international assessments, those improvements have not been robust enough to keep up with the changes in the world economy. In other words, we've been moving the football down the field but the goal posts are moving, too, and we're not making enough changes in our game plan to catch up. The current political and economical pressures, while wrongheaded in their focus on narrow student testing, may still force us in the end to become a better system.

  • Technology has the promise and the ability to help our K-12 schools become relevant once again in the lives of our kids. If we truly believe that, we'll do everything within our capabilities to protect instructional technology from the blades of the budget cutters. Expanding our visions for teaching and learning to include mobile, wireless technology tools, even allowing our students to connect school with their real worlds by using their own devices in the classroom, can help move our classrooms in the direction of innovative, collaborative, project-based learning environments. Using multi-modal instruction that incorporates social-networking into the equation can increase student engagement and focus learning on individual student needs and desires. Technology tools are not the be-all, end-all, but they definitely provide us with a tool that can leverage declining budgets with growing achievement demands.


Photo by Cory Olsen | The Grand Rapids Press


Yes, despite the frustrations we're all experiencing as K-12 education takes a public beating, I truly believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel (okay, that will be my last cliché) and if we remained focused on that light, open ourselves to expanding our own collaborative personal learning networks, and be willing to question our own beliefs and mental models about what K-12 schools should look like, we will be well on our way to experiencing Franklin's rising sun.


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