Wednesday Reading List: Public Opinion, Career Education, Arts, and Identity

Alex Zimmerman at Chalkbeat summarizes some of the major findings from this year's PDK International poll on public opinion in education:

1. There is no consensus on what the main goal of the country’s public schools should be — and that makes it complicated to figure out how to assess them ... 2. The vast majority of Americans don’t think failing schools should be closed. But when those schools are kept open, most people think the administration and faculty should be replaced. Keeping schools open and flooding them with resources is the underlying approach to struggling schools in New York City’s Renewal program, but with a few exceptions, the city can’t dramatically change a school’s staff.

The first point is foundational. Without national consensus on the purpose of education, it's hard to assess whether we're doing a good job. It's no surprise that all of the countries who outpace the United States in education have a more national approach to schooling, whereas we delegate complex decision-making to thousands of local governments. Zimmerman points to two other takeaways: most Americans do not support the so-called "Opt Out" movement, and most Americans want more career and technical training in schools. Monica Disare looked at why those kinds of programs are so hard to create:

Employers involved in CTE programs surveyed in 2015 — including businesses, government agencies and nonprofits — said bureaucracy and slow response time are the biggest challenges in CTE work. The “sense of urgency at [the State Education Department] doesn’t match the practical demands on the schools of a rapidly changing economy,” said Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a coalition of business leaders ... Vocational ed was designed to help students enter the workforce right after high school with training in fields like auto repair or manufacturing. Today’s career and technical education still includes those fields, but also makes room for newer areas like computer science that often require education after high school. At the school level, that means seeking out partners in emerging industries, who will hopefully help match students with internships or even jobs after high school.

It can take years to create, design, staff, and enroll students in a new career program. By the time the program is off the ground, given the pace of technological change in the fastest growing professional fields, the content is bound to be outdated. It's a frustrating experience for educators.

On the other side of the coin, in an interview with Rhonda Broussard, Darren Isom reinforces that art should be an important part of education, no matter who the student is:

Our education perspectives are really based on the education that we received, which then informs what we see as the drivers of success.  What we need to be asking ourselves is “What actual role do we want our youth to play in the world?” I educate the kids in our program expecting them to become my personal and professional peers ... Very often we go into black and brown schools with well-meaning white Boards and leadership and when we talk about what we’re trying to achieve, they’ll say “That sounds great, but we don’t want to distract the kids from academic learning with music and arts.”  It’s problematic because these same rich, white folks would never be on the Board of [insert fancy private school here] and characterize arts and music education as a distraction.

Isom is right about that last point, and it reinforces his idea about expecting kids to be our professional peers. Some children need more attention and time in certain areas in order to excel in traditional academic subjects, but we shouldn't provide that extra academic support at the expense of a well-rounded education.

Some children have more extraordinary needs, like those who are homeless. Justin Lang and David Johns talk about how schools can support homeless children and families:

It is worth noting that students of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are disproportionately represented in this subgroup; and LGBTQ youth make up as much as 40 percent of all homeless youth. LGBTQ youth and youth of color (especially African-American youth) are also overrepresented in the foster care system, facing similar barriers to school success due to high mobility and school instability. In addition to the stress resulting from housing instability and neglect, homeless and foster care youth are more likely to be exposed to other forms of trauma such as physical and sexual assault, violence and hunger. Family rejection places LGBTQ youth who are homeless or in foster care at an even greater risk for mental health struggles. Homeless and foster care students are also more likely to be chronically absent and experience unplanned school changes. The collusion of these factors can result in significant barriers to achievement and lead to an increased risk of dropping out of school.

Understanding the intersection between homelessness, violence, mental health, and identity issues is critical. Tolerance of difference is not sufficient when teaching children, as teachers must be able to understand the strengths and challenges that come with being a young person whose identity is marginalized.

Finally, former United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wades into the public debate over charter schools with some measured words:

Sadly, much of the current debate in Washington, in education schools, and in the blogosphere about high-performing charter schools is driven by ideology, not by facts on the ground. Far too often, the chief beneficiaries of high-performing charter schools—low-income families and children—are forgotten amid controversies over funding and the hiring of nonunion teachers in charter schools. Too often, the parents and children who are desperately seeking better schools are an afterthought. Despite the bloodless, abstract quality of much of today’s debates on charters, the ideologically driven controversies won't end anytime soon. Advocates and activists will continue to care about whether a high-performing school is identified as a charter school or a traditional neighborhood school. But it is worth remembering that children do not care about this distinction. Neither do I.

Duncan makes a good point; from the inside of the education policy echo chamber, the debate about charters is deafening, but to a child, a good school is a good school. That doesn't mean that the politics aren't real, but they're a whole lot less important than whether or not a vulnerable child has access to great teachers. Chartering is one way to do that, not the only way, but it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to further constrain options for low-income families because of political calculus.