Educational Soapbox: Dander Up!

One thing I miss about not having my boys home anymore is the conversations we would have after dinner. This is true of my middle son, especially. He is a big picture thinker and a conceptual learner. Our current educational systems, in the U.S., at least where we live in the mid-west, do not cater to this type of learner. He learned best by taking in the concept and working backward to the details, as well as using his hands. Most curriculum spirals up, not the other way around. And, while hands-on learning is more popular than it was, most of it is still far from project-based. At times, it made learning difficult and made it hard for his teachers to understand what he needed to learn best, even if they wanted to help. But, that’s all in the past, he’s gone beyond his high school days – much more so than I – without a grudge. He’s “figuring it out” as he tells his father and me and so he is. We are proud of his work ethic and perseverance, as well as his extensive self-reflection. Throughout history, this is a recurrent theme. Most educational systems, no matter how hard they might try, do not “serve everyone.” It’s just too hard.

I think most can agree that our educational systems are in trouble. The pandemic wreaked havoc on a system that was already standing on shaky ground. I think education will look very different in the future than it did before the pandemic. And, it should. I hope we’ve learned something from this extended experience!

Stakeholders have become vocal critics of educational systems in their local settings. This is true of our school system as well as others I read about around the country – from Texas to North Carolina to California and New York. School systems are in trouble, there is no doubt about that.

But, what bothers me is what has brought out the loud angst of these previously quiet (and sometimes, ignorant) individuals. I have spent a great deal of my adult life advocating for change in our schools and more importantly, advocating for students.

Back in 2010, when we formed a parent support/advocacy for TAG (Talented and Gifted) students nobody blinked an eye. We had to beg parents and staff to be part of this group and heavily advertised it to the five buildings in our district. Even parents who joined felt we got off track by being sucked into the bureaucracy of a system – having to follow Robert’s Rules and develop mission and vision statements – all of which was done. The board of education was not brought into the discussion, and some were unaware of our efforts entirely. The district superintendent knew and was involved as well as some other district administrative-level staff. In essence, we fought hard but were not successful in being heard or bringing about change.

Yes, we made some mistakes with this group. But, our biggest problem was not being heard. If we were heard, we were brushed to the side with remarks like “these students will be fine – they’re gifted” or “this is tracking – we don’t do that anymore” or other various condescending comments. But, herein lies the rub – when I hear people speaking of serving “all students” as we’ve heard from various board members and aspiring board members, it brings me right back to how this sub-set of students was (and, probably still is) underserved. Doesn’t the phrase “all students” include those that are talented as well? Doesn’t it include those in the top 97th- 99th percentile of standardized testing results? Even if you took the testing results out of the equation, every student I knew who was identified by our district as a TAG student exhibited their gifts and talents in a multitude of ways. That very exhibition was why they were not “worried about” or served as well as they could have been. But, the phrase ALL STUDENTS means just that – ALL STUDENTS! And, don’t even get me started on the SEL (social-emotion-learning) needs of these students. They need as much or MORE support with mental health and socialization issues as compared to any other group of students.

So, you’ll have to forgive me when the use of that term- ALL STUDENTS – gets my dander up. Maybe we should have been more vocal and beat the board of education over the head like some local parents have done about issues related to the pandemic. Maybe, loud, vocal action and use of public participation time should have been used to garner enough attention to make our group succeed beyond three years. I don’t know. As the saying goes, you can’t turn back time.

But, I do know this. I know that I’m paying close attention to what all of the candidates say who are running for our school board this spring. I’m paying close attention to how our current board reacts to their need for change and their need to serve ALL students. How are ALL students going to be served? I, for one, would be interested to know how this phrase turns into an action statement.

Yes, I know the buzz words. I’ve been involved in education long enough to know them. Most of the buzz words sicken me because it’s the turn of a phrase and nothing more, in most cases. I watch and I learn. Heck, I’ve even sat on district committees over the 22 years I’ve lived in this town. Without having to serve (running for the board or holding a seat on the board), I sat on the Student Learning and Achievement Committee for two years (recently). And, years ago, I sat on the report card committee when we changed our elementary reporting system. I’ve committed time to both learning about the system and trying to make it better. I had students in the system for 20 consecutive years. That’s a long time. I want our school system to be the best it can be.

So, no matter the outcome of the contentious board of education election in our district, I’ll still be watching and waiting. It IS time for a change. What that change means or who will be involved in it – I cannot say. All I know is that the phrase ALL STUDENTS does mean just that – but HOW do we make it happen? The first step is probably, very simply, just to get along in a professional manner, using careful listening skills. I’ll be listening. Will you?

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