Education is political. We live in a country where decisions about curriculum, testing, and graduation requirements aren’t solely in the hands of teachers and administrators but in the hands of government officials. On the one hand, I get it; having standards that cross district lines ensures that a child can move from School A to School B and have approximately what she or he needs to keep learning. On the other hand, keeping decisions away from those doing the work makes the work infinitely harder. Governmental oversight happens across a variety of industries, largely because there are safety measures that need to be regulated. The regulation of knowledge is a scarier prospect.
Who we elect directly relates to the regulation of knowledge. All different levels of elected officials have publicly stated opinions on education, including their thoughts on whether intelligent design should be taught in science classes and abstinence should be the only curriculum in sex ed. Politicians let us know in appearances and speeches how they feel about the presence of guns in schools and how to keep schools safe. Politicians have thoughts about unions and how to pay teachers. These aren’t inconsequential decisions. Education is political.
Yesterday was election day, and while I’m writing this with my own personal hopes for how many races were decided, I know that changing any system in any way takes time. Ballot measures (like Question 3 in Massachusetts about re-allowing discrimination on the basis of gender identity) are quicker; they have immediate impact.
But regardless of the new political landscape we’re waking up in, there are things that anyone can do to have a positive impact on education.
Here’s a smattering:
-Go to School Board meetings. The more you know, the better off you’ll be when there are decisions that need to be made.
-Assume that education has changed since you went to school. If you aren’t a teacher or administrator or very recent graduate, do some digging to find out more about your local schools, their policies, and their challenges.
-Donate. Donate your time, expertise, or school supplies. Don’t feel like you have to buy wrapping paper for the fundraiser but share other ways that you’d like to support education in your area.
-Trust teachers. Being a teacher is hard work on several levels (low pay, high stress, incredible work load, carrying the emotions and sensitivities of at least 25 other people), and they’re professionals. You have to obtain certification in order to be a teacher within the U.S.; you can’t walk in off the street and say you know what you’re doing. While it’s absolutely okay to ask questions about what a teacher is doing, you should also consider that this person has demonstrated content knowledge (and more often than not, they’ve also had to demonstrate knowledge of pedagogy).
-Ask how you can help. Different teachers and different schools have different needs. If there’s an active community or parent organization, check there. If there isn’t, contact an administrator or a teacher to find out what kinds of help will make the biggest impact.
-Listen deeply with thoughtfulness and empathy. We should do this with everyone. I don’t think we should try to listen in any other way, honestly. But I’ll encourage you to do this most especially with kids that you know. In so many ways, society doesn’t take kids seriously, but they have serious thoughts and ideas all the time. They also have incredibly serious feelings that are often written off because they’re kids. But if we want to make the lives of children fundamentally better, we need to take every aspect of them seriously (yes, I say this even knowing that I need to take seriously my one-year old who got upset when I took away an envelope he was trying to eat; I can take that away and still be sensitive to his needs and comfort him).
This next one is harder but critical:
-Look for institutional racism in your schools. It’s there. If you’re white, speak up about it. You can look in reports from standardized testing about how different subgroups do, you can look for different tracks in classes (honors, remedial, etc.) and question why they’re there and who makes up those classes (research heterogenous grouping; when teachers have been provided with effective professional development on how to do it, it does wonders for everyone). You can investigate redlining in housing (the practice of denying or significantly limiting loans for people of color in specific neighborhoods based on their perceived race and not on credit history), or you can look at property taxes in your area and surrounding districts. White supremacy and racism exist in the data; find those spots and point them out.
I’ll hope that the politicians we’ve just elected will do their best to make schools equitable, caring, and safe places that are good for teaching and learning. But while I’m not working in a school, I’m going to take my own advice and find out how I can be most helpful. I hope you will, too.
Image by Sara Bailey.