What is education in 2018?
Our public schools aren’t failing, our system is.
Education in 2018 is a tug-of-war between “the system” and our students. As a whole, our public school system shows a great deal of statistical success. However, on deeper study, there are significant disparities based on social class, race, ethnicity, and gender. Black and Hispanic high school students graduate at a rate of 77.5 percent—more than ten percentage points below their White peers. While we purport to educate ALL, we are not educating ALL with equity. Our increased focus on “readiness” and academic acceleration is limiting our students in non-academic areas, such as the soft skills and critical thinking needed for success after graduation.
As the National Teacher of the Year, I am often asked about what we can do to ensure our schools are meeting the needs of ALL students. My answer is simple. We must ensure that when we talk about the school system, we are talking about all of the students who make up that system and who should be the center of how that system functions. This assertion should not be groundbreaking. It should be the norm.
But our public schools weren’t created to serve all students. Public schools were created in the 17th century to educate wealthy, white males. The notion that ALL students have the right to a free, excellent education didn’t emerge until the last 60 years. After several Supreme Court decisions such as Brown v. the Board of Education, P.A.R.C v. Pennsylvania, and Lau v. Nichols, we have expanded the scope to focus more on providing equitable educational opportunities, structures, resources, and facilities across states. However, “the system” we have created often hinders this promise.
To understand our education system today, we need to look at the last quarter century. In the early 1980s, businesses began to assert that our public schools were not preparing students for the workforce. They were specifically focused on the lack of technical and academic knowledge necessary for the current and future jobs at that time. This led to the notion that our “public schools were failing.” This phrase became a hallmark when discussing schools and deeply impacted educational policy. The most impactful legislation came at the turn of the century with No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
NCLB accelerated the shift toward standardization. The belief that our public schools were failing, coupled with the actual disparity between schools and school districts led to a culture of testing and prescribed curriculum in our classrooms. This stemmed from the idea that if all schools were learning the same thing, at the same pace, that would lead to equity. Instead, it has perpetuated the “Myth of the Average” (see Todd Rose TED Talk), in which school systems are built for the average student to meet the needs of ALL students. In reality, there is no such thing as an “average student”. When we design for the average, we end up leaving many students behind, particularly our students with disabilities, our students living in poverty, and our students of color.
Now, in 2018, we have spent nearly 20 years teaching within a standardized system, which bases outcomes primarily on standardized test scores and places schools into three general categories: “exceeding standard,” “meeting standard,” and “failing.” Not surprisingly, many of the schools in the “failing” category are situated in communities with lower socioeconomic status and a higher concentration of families of color. The reality is that the intention of this system, to standardize and therefore equalize education for ALL, has failed our most vulnerable communities—a fact society still frequently overlooks. Instead of placing the blame
on this system designed for the average, we unjustly blame the teachers within the system and the communities the system is supposed to serve. In other words, society assumes the people in these communities and their teachers just aren’t working hard enough.
According to our current federal Department of Education, the solution is “choice” — providing families with alternatives to public education, through private and charter schools. This means public funds are funneled away from public schools—over which the public has actual oversight—into these alternative options, which have limited to no public oversight. The assumption is, that charter and private schools have more flexibility in meeting students’ individual needs because they are not governed by public and governmental oversight and are, therefore, a better “choice” for families.
There lies the paradox. Having a flexible system centered on student needs is fine for “choice” schools, but not for our public schools. Public schools must continue to operate within a rigid system designed for the average student, who does not exist. This does not make sense and, in essence, perpetuates inequity. When the U.S. Department of Education pushes “choice” for families, who really has the “choice?” Only families who can afford to either pay the tuition necessary for a private school—vouchers rarely provide the actual funds needed for a private education—or who can provide transportation and other supplies/requirements needed to attend a charter school.
The actual solution? In my experience, the best thing we can do is make neighborhood schools the number one choice for families. Provide public schools the latitude to develop their own individual systems based on the needs of the community in which each school resides. In my 19 years in the classroom, I have never taught the same thing in the same way year to year because I have never had the same students year to year. This same philosophy should apply to ALL our public schools. Each system should be flexible enough to meet the needs of today’s changing demographic each year. Putting students at the center of our systems is difficult, especially when we’ve been operating within a rigid framework of standardization for so long, but it is imperative. Students should not fit into the system; the system should adjust for our students.
Mandy Manning is the 2018 National Teacher of the Year. She lives and teaches in Spokane, Washington. Mandy started her career in education as a Paraeducator in a Designed Instruction classroom in Shelton, WA. in 1998. She achieved teacher certification in Texas in 2003. Currently, as an English language learning educator, Mandy is the first teacher for refugee and immigrant students at Joel E. Ferris High School in the Newcomer Center in Spokane. Her passion is making connections with her students and their families, and taking those connections out into her school and into the Spokane community. She strives to ensure her students feel welcome, wanted, and loved, and works to instill in them the belief that they are worthy of every success and happiness they dream of in life. Mandy urges all those she encounters to be fearless, to be kind, and to build relationships rather than fences. She is married to Ryan Brodwater and has three children. When she is not advocating on behalf of her students and profession, she is a a horror writer and avid reader and also loves to spend time with her family in the great outdoors.