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America’s schools are at a turning point. Our children are being over-tested, our teachers are physically exhausted and emotionally demoralized, and our tax dollars are being diverted to replace our public schools with a privately managed, free-market system of education.
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Last evening, a dozen teachers, parents and other community members met in North Olmsted to learn about the initiative of the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network to provide Ohio’s citizens with an opportunity to discuss statewide education policy issues and concerns impacting their local schools and communities. North Olmsted is one of 20 pilot sites participating in this grassroots initiative. In March, the OPSAN leadership team from North Olmsted will host a community forum to discuss the impact of high stakes student testing.
Growing concern about the high stakes testing of our students has reached a tipping point and is now being addressed in many regions of our country. On March 11 in collaboration with the Schlechty Center, the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network (OPSAN) is hosting a symposium with John Tanner, author of The Pitfalls of Reform: Its Actual Incompatibility with Improvement. This symposium is free and will be held at the Educational Service Center of Northeast Ohio from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. To register, contact Tracy Spies at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the founding principles of our democratic republic is that we elect other people to speak on our behalf. Throughout most of our lives, it has been drilled into our heads that this is how our system of representative government works. As a result, many citizens believe their patriotic responsibility begins and ends in the voting booth. Keeping citizens on the sidelines, other than on election day, is a serious threat to the future of our public schools which need the full support of an engaged, knowledgeable and empowered public in order to take them back.
Our new book, Cleaning Up the Mess from Sacred Cows: A Strategy to Take Back Our Public Schools, is now available on Amazon.com. It is authored by Charlie Irish (a former public school superintendent) and me and addresses the harsh reality that our public schools are in trouble. Not only have our teachers and students been overwhelmed by three decades of sweeping education reforms, but the long-standing relationship between the public and its public schools is hanging by a thread. Our book exposes the root of the problem as misguided conventional wisdom which, until now, has been immune from criticism. In Ohio, a grassroots movement challenging this sacred-cow thinking is serving as an important source of learning for the rest of the country.
For the past two decades, research institutions like the Kettering Foundation that study societal trends have been warning our nation that the long-standing relationship between the public and our public schools is hanging by a thread. In his book, Is There a Public for Public Schools?, Kettering Foundation President David Mathews wrote in 1996 about the loss of public ownership in our nation’s public schools. A decade later, he revisited the issue in Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy: “Unfortunately, a good many people today no longer believe that they own the public schools or that they have the responsibilities that ownership implies. This is not an issue of whether people are confident that these institutions are doing a good job, feel close to them and would pay taxes for their support. Ownership is a more fundamental issue: When people drive by a schoolhouse, will they say, ‘this is our school” or only ‘that’s the school’? What they say will influence the future of public education in America.”
A widely accepted unwritten rule in public education is that school superintendents are expected to set the agenda for what gets discussed. While, at first glance, this cultural norm may appear to be insignificant, it is an important symbol of the conventional thinking that is keeping citizens on the sidelines. In some ways, it is eerily reminiscent of the time when we were in school and had to raise our hand and gain permission from our teacher before we could speak. Today, many citizens still think they need to gain permission before they can speak.
Singapore’s schools are reported to be abolishing standardized exams, minimum and maximum marks, class levels, pass/fail, and subject grades over the coming years. In “Why the World’s Best School System Is Getting Rid of Grades,” Singapore Education Minister, Ong Ye Kung, is quoted as saying that “coming in first or second in a class or level has traditionally been a proud recognition of a student achievement but removing these indicators is for a good reason, so that the child understands from a young age that learning is not a competition, but a self-discipline they need to master for life.” Abolishing standardized testing is something that has been successfully implemented in Finland and Wales and many more countries are debating going that route.
In my recent blog on 12-5-18, I reported on a dinner meeting last Tuesday of superintendents and civic leaders from the Austintown, LaBrae, Boardman and Columbiana school districts in northeast Ohio. A major concern that was discussed during the meeting is the teacher shortage facing our nation. This growing crisis is addressed in a recent report in Education Week about two national surveys conducted this year. One of the troubling findings from this research is that only one in four teachers would recommend their profession as a career for a friend or colleague.
Four years ago, Ohio’s public school superintendents launched an initiative to increase their ability to help shape education policy in our state. Currently, the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network includes superintendents from more than 100 school districts. Last evening, four of them took a major step in turning their initiative into a community-based grassroots movement. During a two-hour dinner meeting, the superintendents and civic leaders from the Austintown, LaBrae, Boardman and Columbiana school districts began what will be an on-going conversation about ways in which they can provide the citizens in their communities with an opportunity to discuss educational issues and concerns impacting their schools. During this coming year, citizens from other Ohio school districts will be joining them in this important discussion.
In a recent broadcast of “CBS Sunday Morning,” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it has been well documented that the partisan divide in our country followed very closely on the heals of schools stopping to teach civics education. In the same interview, Justice Neil Gorsuch added that only 25 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government and a third can’t name any branch of government. Their concern about the lack of knowledge about how our system works should be the concern of every American who believes that a healthy democracy depends upon an educated citizenry.