I’m starting my 18th year as an educator. Wow. As I typed that, it really just dawned on me. That’s enough time to have witnessed some interesting changes. In so many ways we are doing so much better now than ever before. In fact, I honestly wonder if I could meet all the requirements for high school graduation now when I see the expectations of our students. They are so much smarter than I was ….. and in some cases, am. Of course, in some ways it feels like we’ve taken steps back in other areas.
Certainly, no one would argue that we have reached the pinnacle of greatness. There is always work to be done and advancements to be made. However, it is fascinating to me to see how things have changed…..good and bad. Overall, it appears the purpose of public education in our nation (and of course, purpose drives policy which drives practice) has changed dramatically. Historically, the purpose of education in our nation has been for a variety of reasons. These include to indoctrinate students with religion, create a loyal citizenry of patriots, and create a workforce for factories and manufacturing. Of course, there are more that could be argued. The purpose was always derived from what leaders and those in power determined to be best within the boundaries of our own nation.
Now, our purpose is totally determined by competition. We have no true North because we are making moves based on others. A clear winner and a clear loser. This means our purpose is to outperform China, India, Finland, (insert any nation). And our entire educational system is guided by the idea of competition. As a parent, I am interested in hearing if my child’s school is on the top (insert any number) of school in our state or in the country. Colleges taut their success by an appearance on US News and World Report of college rankings. As a teacher, I glare at my students’ test scores and see if they are higher or lower than another teacher or another school or how they measure to the state average. Moreover, our standardized test results are measured on a bell curve. Never has there ever been a time that all students can pass a standardized test. In order to have a 5, we must have 1s. If everyone passes the tests, we do not assume our schools are doing what a great job. We assume, instead, that the test is too easy or our expectations too low. Therefore, we are saying there must be clear winners (pass) and clear losers (do not pass).
Our entire nation (and perhaps the world) is functioning from a clear purpose of winning a competition. Certainly, there are places where that is appropriate — elections, sports — but schools should not be one of them. We must help our schools, our parents, our teachers, and most importantly, our students realize the only competition that matters is when we try to improve from our past efforts. We are only in competition with ourselves. The one place in our society where everyone should be successful is in the classroom. As I look ahead to the start of a new year with new classes, let me be reminded that I am not in competition with other educators at my school or elsewhere. We are on the same team working to ensure our students are successful. My greatness does not depend on someone else being inadequate. We can be great together. Let me build a culture where students support and encourage each other rather than compare themselves to each other. Let us create schools of thought not of scores and winners and losers.