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How can we have a more constructive conversation about education?

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Part 1 of this series, “The state of K-12 education is miscommunication,” described how two recent conferences illustrate the divide in American K-12 education between education professionals and those outside the field. This post looks at the educator’s perspective and offers advice for all sides moving forward.

The educators I talk to speak mainly about their passion for helping young minds find a love of learning. They also talk of feeling stressed out, juggling too much responsibility, fearing layoffs, being required to practice methods they don’t support and having criticism heaped on them from every quarter — whether it be unsupportive parents, critical administrators and education vendors who fail to provide adequate product training.

Educators are developing a bunker mentality from feeling constantly under siege. We are in a new era of accountability in K-12 education, and many educators feel that the criteria for success are arbitrary, measure the wrong things, and — in the worst cases — are bad for kids.

It strikes me that our current discourse isn’t very productive. Everyone agrees that there are challenges in education, but disagreement about the best path forward is preventing us from looking at the problem in the same way. For what it’s worth, here’s my advice for having a better conversation about education.

To educators:

  1. Lose the defensiveness. I frequently hear educators say, “Everyone thinks he is an expert on education because he went through the K-12 system.” That’s true, insofar as it goes, but it isn’t helpful. It’s a rhetorical trick, meant to shut down debate by discrediting the non-educator who ventures an opinion. Moreover, it misses the point. One needn’t be a concert violinist to hear a sour note struck in a symphony — just as one needn’t be a teacher to see areas in need of improvement in the education system.
  2. If you want teaching to be treated like a profession, be a professional. This means knowing your customer — the child, and her parent, of course. Society is also your customer. That cute seventh-grader will need skills and a job; the hiring managers of corporate America are your customer. Listen to their feedback.

To corporate stakeholders:

  1. Lose the glibness. If there were easy fixes to be had in education, someone other than you would have suggested it.
  2. Have some respect. Teaching is probably the single most important profession, as it makes all others possible. The data show that it’s also one of the most stressful professions, with one of the highest rates of turnover. We feel respect for other careers that are deemed to be both important and difficult (think air-traffic controllers). Teaching should not be the exception.
  3. That means listening to teachers, and taking their collective voice seriously. If enough teachers tell you a thing won’t work, pay attention.

Lastly, for anyone who cares about education or has an opinion, get involved. Don’t be an armchair quarterback. Volunteer, donate, run for school board. Put up, don’t shut up. Because what we really need are educators and non-educators talking to each other, sharing perspectives and identifying common goals. We each have an interest in having a healthy, dynamic, world-leading workforce. We will never agree on every detail for achieving that goal, but let us at least agree that a collective effort will afford the best chance of succeeding.