Reforming our public schools is one focus shift away
Have you ever noticed how every election cycle, everyone seems to have a new solution to all that ails the public school system?
It appears that every political party, every candidate and every media pundit takes a stab at putting forth new solutions to all of the challenges and crises in the public school systems.
For a person like me who spent 30 years inside that system, I usually just shake my head in utter disbelief at some of the “solutions” proposed.
From my vantage point as a former teacher, school level principal and district superintendent, it shakes me to my core to see how our public schools and systems continue to struggle just to keep their heads above water.
The new challenges are immense and the complexities are almost overwhelming.
I mean, it’s not like we are talking about widgets here that if they come off the conveyor belt as an inferior product; we simply toss them in the trash and start over.
What we are talking about is our children, our hearts and our legacy.
As a dad, it’s really not a question of whether or not you want your kids to have a great educational experience and experience further success in their lives.
After all, they are the most important resource we produce and the quality of the experiences they have in their formal education years is one of the most important things that we must get right.
So, how do we go about doing that?
Is it spending more money?
Passing more laws?
Creating more rigorous tests?
If you’ve been following what’s been happening both nationally and state by state for the last ten to fifteen years, then you know that all of those things have been tried.
Millions and millions of dollars have been added to the public school systems from the government to prop up school districts during lean economic years. The Race to the Top initiative comes to mind as an example.
And in the “passing more laws” category, every year that goes by, loads of new laws pertaining to public school systems are passed, both at the federal and state levels, adding more and more regulations and compliance requirements to an already full plate.
In attempts to address the quality issues in schools, a large number of the new laws put into place over the last ten years are focused on increasing the rigor and accountability of educational standards and their accompanying standardized assessments.
Of course, the world has changed and continues to change, so obviously, curriculums must be updated and technologies embraced.
There doesn’t seem to be much dispute on those points.
With so much at stake, to the casual observer, it looks like a great deal of attention has been placed on improving the public school systems through a flurry of activity and continuous high-profile debates.
But large amounts of activity do not equal effectiveness.
Sure, there have been pockets of success in closing some of the gaping achievement gaps that exist.
But I often wonder why we haven’t made the giant leaps forward that one might expect from all of the “inputs” to fixing an ailing and perhaps broken system?
The one thing that seems to have gotten lost in all of this activity is very simple.
Education is a people business.
It’s people that are school leaders.
It’s people that are teachers.
It’s people that are students.
It’s people that are parents.
It’s people that show up at schools every day, Monday through Friday.
Their collective lives, their struggles, their pain, their attitudes and their energy are all what work together to create school cultures and what we’ve come to know as public education.
What we’ve missed in all of the legislative mandates and budget wrangling is that people remain at the center of the success or failure of schools and their students.
It’s who they are, what they value, and what they have to give that makes a difference in the lives of every individual that impacts each school, every day.
My mentor and leadership author, John C. Maxwell often says, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
Believe it or not, school leaders and teachers are people before they are job titles.
Their motivation and inspiration to pour into the lives of children and teens every day is directly tied to who they are as people first, before their degrees and certifications even stand a chance of making a positive impact.
It is also true that you cannot give what you do not have.
When school leaders and teachers are convinced that their main focus and concern must be compliance with regulations and laws, then their attitudes and behaviors must follow suit with those priorities.
In reality, the primary focus in schools should be relational.
After all, it’s people who either fail or succeed, dream or stagnate, graduate or drop out.
Schools will succeed when people feel genuinely valued, from both outside and inside the school walls. When people feel valued, they begin to value their work and believe in the significance and legacy of what they do every day.
When they believe they are valued, they value their work and they value those that they lead and teach.
When they value those that they lead and teach, it’s no longer about attempting to solely rely on legislation to raise standards and instill accountability.
People who know their value have high standards.
People who know their value want to add value to others.
People who know their value want to live a life of significance with others around them.
So maybe the answers to reforming our school systems don’t lie in the passing of more and more legislation or tougher and tougher academic standards.
Maybe it’s about each one of us choosing to go first.
Maybe it’s about recognizing that we have the power to change an entire educational system one school, one school leader, one teacher, one child at a time.
Change that isn’t focused on rules and regulations, but change in how we demonstrate that we value people before process and individuals before organizations.
There are those that may believe that it’s impossible to make any sort of difference focusing on the approach that I am suggesting.
To those I share The Starfish Story by Loren Eisley.
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed
a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.
Approaching the boy, he asked, what are you doing?
The youth replied, Throwing starfish back into the ocean.
The surf is up and the tide is going out.
If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.
Son, the man said, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish?
You can’t make a difference!
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish,
and threw it back into the surf.
Then, smiling at the man, he said
I made a difference for that one.
Photo: Getty Images