Let’s Have Courage over Politics in Education

There’s a problem in public education, and it’s not the schools. It’s the politics.

I believe most people involved in the public education arena want to do the right thing for kids, even though they don’t always agree. Sometimes we do reach agreement on strategies that will improve education, and that’s productive in many ways. When public officials work together, it increases the public will to support our public schools, and that’s good for kids.

Too often, however, political messages are massaged to elicit strong reactions, rather than encourage us all to think deeply, understanding that we can find common ground in addressing problems.

From charters, to vouchers, to the “common core” standards, positions on education these days get shaped to cut to the political right or left. Those on the right generally promote choice and competition as part of public education, and the other side places the focus on building a strong system of public schools.

A perfect example of the political messaging problem is the immediate backtracking of Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, on Common Core State Standards.

She clarified her stance on social media since her appointment, admitting she had supported Common Core at one time, but now says, “That’s not my position… along the way, it got turned into a federalized boondoggle.”

There it is: the politically charged phrase that reinforces the divide in our country, rather than a broad supportive statement about the need for high standards across the board, so that we prepare our students to compete in a global marketplace.

Those very people who bristle at the mention of “Common Core” lament the fact that the U.S. scores in the average range among nations on international tests. But coming together on these high standards is best way to raise achievement, according to the testing group. The Organisation for Co-operation and Development (OECD), which manages the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), says this about the United States:

“An alignment study between the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and PISA suggests that a successful implementation of the Common Core Standards would yield significant performance gains (for U.S. students) also in PISA.”

Mrs. DeVos is from the business world. I would like her to know that the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has been a supporter of Common Core State Standards from the beginning, and posts this statement on its Web site:

“The Kentucky Chamber and its members continue their strong support for the state’s academic standards, viewing them as key to the progress our students are making in achievement.”

Here’s what I said in 2013, in a guest post on Stu Silberman’s Education Week blog:

In fact the federal government was not involved in writing these standards. They were drafted under the leadership of the nation’s governors (Republican and Democrat) and chief state school officers, along with teachers, business groups and other educational organizations. States have the option of adopting the standards or not – to date, 45 state legislatures and D.C. have signed on.

The truth is states that adopted the standards (there never was a federal mandate) have moved forward crafting their own standards based on the Common Core, and are supporting districts and schools in making local decisions on how standards are met.

That’s no federal boondoggle. It actually sounds more like the kind of private sector and local initiative regularly called for from all parts of the political spectrum.

In the Commonwealth, the Kentucky Core Academic Standards are continually under review and improvement based on local input. Kentucky has been on the forefront of education progress. It was hailed for the most sweeping education reform in the country in the 1990s when it implemented a completely revamped system under the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA). And, the Commonwealth was the first to adopt the globally-benchmarked Common Core State Standards in 2010. And, it has made continual progress.

Are we thinking as big as the public officials from both parties did in passing KERA? Are we courageous enough to ensure our tax system provides what schools need? Are we so divided that we have to continue to belittle bold moves like adopting high standards?

My wish is that all public officials would act with courage and integrity on issues of this magnitude. Mrs. DeVos has been nominated to the highest office in education in the Trump Administration.  We will need to see a bigger and better vision from that office, one that respects all the positive progress in public education.

(Look under Q&A at http://betsydevos.com/qa/)




About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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1 Response to Let’s Have Courage over Politics in Education

  1. Emily Elliott says:

    What a great perspective! Our nation’s education leaders should learn from Kentucky’s great example in how to raise student achievement … by working together locally to raise both expectations and performance!

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