Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Greatest Challenge Facing Education

The challenges facing education today are vast and the solutions are just as broad. The answer to solving a particular problem rests largely in who you ask. Many times it depends perspective or ideology. Because varying degrees of perspective exist, it is often difficult or even impossible to come to a reasonable [lets say collaborative] solution. If you have ever read the comment (or editorial) section of the newspaper, you quickly realize that everyone has an opinion. Those who espouse a particular viewpoint believe wholeheartedly they are right and offer the only true answer to the question.

Our point of view is shaped by a variety of factors. A person who works inside schools will certainly have a different view than one who works in the private sector. Those who attended public school will have a different perspective than those who attended a private school. And someone who works in school administration will have a different view than someone in the classroom. What about that parent who had a bad school experience as a student? Certainly they may view public school with skepticism and distrust if they perceive their child is being treated unfairly. Sometimes I wonder if we are so entrenched in our worldview that it makes it difficult to view these challenges from an alternative perspective.

I ask the question: What is the greatest challenge facing education? Indeed it depends on who you ask. Some of the more immediate challenges that come to mind include meeting the needs of students with mental health issues. Schools aren't equipped to handle these type of complex needs from students. As highly trained as our guidance counselors are, they are not trained to deal with mental health issues in our schools. 

Poverty is another challenge in our public schools. There are reams of research that suggest students living in poverty are at a disadvantage when it comes to their academic achievement. Ensuring those students are on par with their peers is an incredible challenge. Further, the creation of arbitrary benchmarks to ensure that students are on track only adds to the challenge.

Measuring the success of our students against a test that doesn't align to the state adopted Iowa Core standards is another significant challenge for our schools. And speaking of testing, does it seem like we do a lot of it? I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky, after all it is not as bad in Iowa as it is in some other states--of course one could reasonably argue that is in they eye of the beholder.

Since I mentioned the Iowa Core Standards, we should briefly discuss this challenge. The implementation of the Iowa Core Academic Standards is a flash point of controversy for many people. It would seem that any type of learning standards that either use the words "Core" or "Common" are met with controversy and resistance. Some content standards are met with deep skepticism and downright anger because of a belief that they either are inappropriate for the grade level in which the concept is introduced, or they are based on a fantasy.

How about ensuring that our students are career or college ready? Prepared for the 21st Century?

Then there are the many schools in Iowa facing significant budget cuts this year, after making significant budget cuts last year. A continued austerity plan for Iowa schools isn't going to solve the multitude of challenges that were mentioned above. Some schools have lower per pupil allocations than others, while carrying reserve fund balances they can't touch because maximum spending authority won't permit it under current Iowa law. Some districts spend an inordinate amount of capital on transportation because although they have consolidated, now instead of a school district that encompasses 200 square miles they now encompass 400 square miles. At the same time enrollment continues to diminish.

We could certainly go on. There is no doubt there are other challenges that appear equally insurmountable that didn't even get a mention above. Indeed, the catalog of challenges described here rests largely in the eye of the beholder. I further admit that some of these issues are not critical at this time in Hudson schools. And what I view as a challenge others may view as a non issue or a mere nuisance. That is kind of my point. Everyone comes from a different perspective and lives in a different reality. Perspective.

However, I would argue the challenges mentioned above are not the real problem. They are instead symptoms of what really ails us. I submit the challenge facing education: our political divide. Unfortunately it seems as though the Iowa Legislature has become a microcosm of Congress: complete gridlock based on partisan politics.

Since education is the biggest piece of the state budget, it tends to grab the most headlines. The more polarizing the issue, the bigger the news story. These stories tell the tale and explain the challenges that we are facing in education. But when you read these stories the real fireworks can be found in the comment or blogging section at the end of the piece. The tone and context of these comments is many times vicious, mean, rude, and in some cases narcissistic. Compromise is pretty hard to find when it comes to these issues. The position on both sides is, in many cases extreme and inflexible. There seems to be no real sense of urgency, and while the prime example is the never ending saga of supplemental state aid, it is only one of many issues that leaves school districts to wonder if there are solutions to these problems. Or the political will.

The rubber meets the road in the legislature. That is where the decisions will ultimately be made. I might suggest that gridlock and inaction itself is a decision. Taking positions that are inflexible do not solve problems, but only serve to exacerbate and anger people.

What is your perspective?

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