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Why the #EdSOTU Matters

(Or, A Tale of Two Speeches)

Over at Teacher in a Strange Land, Nancy Flanagan asked, “Who speaks for public education?”

I’d answer that a lot of people do (for better, and for worse), but we don’t all get the same kind of microphone, or the same airtime.

After watching the State of the Union address last night, I found myself thinking about the differences between President Obama’s statements on education and those of California Governor Jerry Brown.

In public statements over the past year, Governor Brown has said what many educators and parents nationwide have been saying for over a decade: that current state and federal education policy has emphasized high-stakes testing so much it has distorted and undermined the learning process. And in his Address, he outlined a specific direction for policymakers: that the amount of standardized testing be reduced, that the data be returned to schools more quickly, and that more qualitative measures of school performance be developed and used. He ended his education remarks with these words:

The house of education is divided by powerful forces and strong emotions. My role as governor is not to choose sides but to listen, to engage and to lead. I will do that. I embrace both reform and tradition—not complacency. My hunch is that principals and teachers know the most, but I’ll take good ideas from wherever they come.

By contrast, in the State of the Union last night, President Obama made vague allusions to a few existing K-12 education policies. They include paying teachers to increase test scores (“merit” pay), and encouraging states to seek ‘waivers’ that exchange freedom from NCLB’s impossible requirements for the adoption of the Administration’s preferred policies, which are just as strict. Hidden in applause lines about “rewarding the best teachers” and “granting flexibility”, are unproven policies that many researchers and public school stakeholders agree are hurting education.

But, some ask, why does this matter? Neither of these leaders have any direct say over what happens in classrooms. Speaking strictly literally, school systems are typically run by local district officials and school board members (or Mayoral appointees…) overseeing schools, principals and teachers. So why should we care what a President, or even a governor, says or does about schools?

Because aside from the influence and funding at their disposal, their policy advocacy shapes public perceptions of public education, and those perceptions shape our behavior. (They have bigger microphones, and better airtime.)

It pains me to say this, but it’s the truth: Most people have no clue what goes on in their local government. Everyone knows who the President is; most people know who their Governor is. But how many people can even name their representatives on their town council or school board without a Google search? Of them, how many know what their policy positions are, or how they’ve voted to spend their neighbors’ property taxes? (Answer: Not a whole lot.)

As I talked to Denver voters during our local school board races last Fall, it was clear that– exceptionally involved community members excluded– most voters were taking their cues on how to vote from what they’d heard about education in the national media. (This is why it’s possible for the majority of people to approve of their local schools and teachers, but believe that public education as a whole is failing.)

So when a Governor says he believes principals and teachers know the most about education, and asks for policies that re-emphasize teaching and learning instead of testing, that matters. And when a President says he wants teachers to teach with creativity and passion, but uses the influence of the federal government to increase high-stakes testing, that matters too.

For starters, voters who consistently hear positive messages about how schools should be funded and teachers trusted are probably going to be more inclined to support policies that fund schools and empower teachers. And when under-informed voters hear misleading statements about “merit” and “flexibility”, they’re being set up to support policies, at all levels of government, that will hurt schools instead of helping them.

Moreover, when the most powerful and visible leaders promote a vision of schooling that works from the bottom up, they empower the local actors who do the work to do what they think is best. But when those leaders deceive the public, and position themselves as the grantors of “flexibility” and the arbiters of “merit”, local stakeholders get stuck dealing with inappropriate (and just plain bad) policy, which can create some pretty toxic circumstances where the rubbermeets the road. 

Of course we shouldn’t “blame the POTUS” entirely for bad things happening in our local schools, nor should we give a governor undue credit if and when his state’s schools improve. But high-profile leaders wield a disproportionate amount of power over the circumstances under which public school stakeholders work. And we have every right to demand that they wield that power responsibly.

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Sabrina Joy Stevens

Sabrina Joy Stevens is a teacher, writer, and activist who has worked with students in struggling communities in Philadelphia and Denver. She recently helped to o...