Human beings are magnificent. We ask, wonder, reason, reflect and change. We are created to learn. As Aristotle put it, “All men by nature desire to know.”
With a divisive election behind us, we have an opportunity to move toward substantive discussion and elevated dialogue about principles and policies in our communities, especially regarding how we approach education.
While real debate about how to improve public education was lost amid both sides’ extreme campaign rhetoric, Americans continued to live the realities of our education system. They experienced, and continue to experience, excessive testing, one-size-fits-all classrooms, a lack of alternative options, teachers leaving the profession after only a few years on the job, inequities in access to quality schools, low scores on national and international tests, and heavy-handed federal initiatives.
Behind these realities is one ultimate question: Is our education system designed to encourage the learning of children, each of whom has unique interests and learning needs? It’s telling that, perhaps in answer to this question, enthusiastic education reformers exist on both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum.
The promise of a renewed education dialogue rests on two main ideas: (1) education requires that we meet the unique needs of the child; and (2) education calls for the empowerment of parents, students and taxpayers to create learning paths as unique as each student.
Noam Chomsky said, “A public education system is based on the principle that you care whether the kid down the street gets an education.” But what type of education? America doesn’t need the destruction of public education, but its transformation. Every kid down every street should have the opportunity to learn in a way that unlocks his or her innate potential. Anything less is a misuse of public funds.
To make education work for the individual, states should pursue a flexible education spending policy that allows parents to use their child’s state funds to purchase a variety of academic options like tutoring, textbooks, curriculum, exams, tuition or therapies. It should first prioritize students from families that qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, children from families experiencing intergenerational poverty; special-education students; children who have been adopted or are in foster care; or students residing on Native American reservations.
States should pursue local control through tools like “assessment choice,” where districts choose tests that best fit the needs of their students and their demographic realities from a menu of approved assessments. Excessive testing, data privacy and the influence of assessments on instruction worry many parents. The level of government closest to the student’s family — where parents are empowered, not sidelined — should determine which tests students take.
Education policies should break arbitrary barriers to learning. Instead of first seeking to raise taxes, educators should empower students to progress at their individual pace — the philosophy behind “competency-based education.” It’s worth rethinking grade levels, the Carnegie Unit, the classroom, the role of technology and the relationship between funding and enrollment. Education leaders should be investing in the ideas of the future, rather than being content to remain invested in the ideas of the past.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do … he only holds the key to his own secret.” Respecting the pupil is our vision.
Achieving a transformation requires from everyone the best creative, intellectual and interpersonal efforts. Most importantly, it requires leaders and engaged citizens willing to stand up in their own communities and reject a politics of strident voices, character assassinations, cloakroom deals and corruption. We will need space for open conversation and elevated dialogue, the seedbed for great ideas.
All human beings are created with the ability to learn, the desire to grow, the potential to improve and a purpose to accomplish extraordinary things. Education policy and dialogue ought to reflect these truths. And if we each engage in an elevated dialogue about education within our communities, it will be possible.
Christine Cooke, J.D., is an education policy analyst at Sutherland Institute, a think tank in Salt Lake City advocating for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.