As we approach the 2016 general election, I’ve heard public officials, family, and friends make very clear statements regarding which side of the aisle they support. Yet, I find it hard to believe that the average American falls in line 100% with either political party, or supports every word and tenet of a particular public policy. We are nuanced people. Very few issues are as black-and-white as we’d like them to be. Here’s a guide for things to consider when considering your stance on a particular issue, candidate, or political party, put in the context of educational issues.
- Most issues have an “it depends” clause.
With the onslaught of information available today, it makes sense that we want answers that are black-and-white. The reality, though, is that there’s gray area for most policies and practices. We also have to balance our ideological values with evidence. Charter school proponents may believe in free-market values and choice to improve public schools through vouchers and charter schools, but I haven’t seen widespread evidence that choice in and of itself actually improves academic achievement or long-term outcomes in significant ways. Yes, there are individual students who have benefited, but there are also individual students who have lost out. Charter school opponents claim that taking away publicly-elected oversight through school boards is detrimental to the public’s ability to provide free and quality education to all. Yet, the reality is that some public schools have dismal records, and charter or private schools have sometimes had success with the same students. We have to acknowledge that we all want good things for our kids, and then use the evidence to figure out what that looks like without demonizing the other side.
- Most policies rely heavily on the quality of their implementation to be successful.
Common Core seems to be a prime example of this. Two-thirds of Americans are in support of some sort of common standards across the country. Yet, barely half of Americans are in support of Common Core. Support for both questions have dwindled significantly from about 90% of public support in 2012. Even presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has called the roll-out of Common Core “disastrous,” despite supporting them overall.
They were implemented quickly in many states, often without the curriculum materials or professional development to help teachers succeed in teaching the new standards. While support for Common Core seems to be leveling off with teachers, who are most familiar with them, several states have repealed or are considering repealing the Common Core. The new state standards that have been written in South Carolina and Indiana are extremely similar to the Common Core, which means that it may not be the concept or content that people disagree with so much as how they were implemented and the ensuing political backlash.
- Statistics usually tell us about an average (the typical student) but variance is also important.
Charter schools are a prime example of this. On average, they have similar student achievement outcomes as traditional public schools. But, there are schools that outperform their counterparts and schools that woefully underperform. We have to think about those schools, too.
This is also clear in school segregation. The average black student in the U.S. attends a school that is 49% black, 28% white, 17% Latino, 4% Asian, and 3% “Other,” but that doesn’t mean that every black student has this experience. At the edges of the spectrum, however, 13% of U.S. public schools are over 90% black and Latino, while 33% of schools are less than 10% black and Latino. To understand the reality, we need to look at the variety of students’ experiences (known in statistic-speak as “variance”) not just the average.
- There’s always room for improvement. “Fixing” a policy may mean making adjustments, not abandoning it altogether.
Student assessments under No Child Left Behind (2001) resulted in the narrowing of curriculum. But, we also learned more about disadvantaged student groups and have continued closing the achievement gap for students of color. Should we throw out testing altogether? Some would say yes, but most Americans say no. Graduation rates, college enrollment, and achievement scores have all increased since NCLB passed in 2001. What we can do is improve on student assessments. Adjusting consequences for students, teachers, and schools could result in less narrowing of curriculum and subjects taught. Involving more well-rounded tests that encourage creative and critical thinking would help teachers emphasize these skills in class. Continued improvement in data use can help teachers and school administrators adjust their practices and policies to see continued student growth. States have the power to make some of these changes under the new Every Student Succeeds Act without dismantling gains made under No Child Left Behind.