It is that time of year when the weather warms and those in classrooms begin longing for days of unfettered freedom.  Too often experiencing the school setting as suffocating rather than exhilarating, students, teachers and administrators alike are stuck in system that is decaying, and the only “answers” are to rearrange the content delivery instead of orienting the experience to the success and happiness of students.

The “unspeakables” of education are keeping the system mired in rapidly diminishing mediocrity while genuine solutions don’t require a gross influx of money, rather updated thinking about the issues and how to address them.  So what the truths so few are willing to discuss about the challenges facing our public education system?

  1. Those in charge of solutions have spent their entire life and career in the system: We have relegated anyone who is not an “educator” to secondary status when it comes to education reform.  While teachers and administrators have valuable contributions to make, their only experience has been in the classroom, first as students and then as educators—and far too often administrators have no experience leading before taking the reins of a school or system—only more classroom time earning terminal degrees.  (While I am all for taking the leap to new challenges, too few teachers-turned-administrators have developed their leadership in and outside the educational environment.)  Parents, community leaders and even students themselves have important perspectives that deserve equal footing in adopting new approaches.
  2. Our public school system currently reflects our economic reality—the gap of “have” and “have-nots” is enormous; most of the haves are OK with this as they are able to access other schools and resources:  For an increasing number of teachers and administrators in the public school system the answer to schools without a high rate of matriculating college students is to deem those students as “unable” not because they lack ability, rather as a result of social-economic status, they have little family history with post-secondary education.  Instead of reaching out to innovate and support their development as students, schools often lower not only their expectations of these students, but also their performance in providing them a solid education.  After all, why spend time teaching Shakespeare to kid headed to the construction zone? The result?  More and more college bound students look for independent secondary school options as a way to ensure a sound learning environment and preparation for college, in a hyper-competitive frenzy.  It is a self-fulfilling cycle dragging down our public high schools—and the entire system .
  3. What happens to one child happens to all: Perhaps the most insidious belief today is that those who have the ability to get out of public schools feel that their child(ren) will be OK, when, in reality, the truth of our interconnectedness has never been stronger.  Who will be tomorrow’s educators? Who will run our community institutions and small businesses?  Not everyone, thankfully, is going to become a Wall Street investment banker or seven-figure earning attorney.  Part of the reason the middle class is fading fast is that we no longer have an educated workforce that isn’t saddled with enormous debt that is capable of leading careers that provide economic stability—for the individual and the communities in which they live.   Instead, the choice is to find one of the small-number of high-paying jobs or be faced with years of crushing student loan payments.  The real costs of leaving more and more children and young people behind will catch up to everyone—be they in gilded towers or not

My wish for how we look at the challenges, and therefore the solutions, of public education is that we think entirely outside the box.  Why do we educate kids only nine months a year? (Yes, a very few schools are year-round) Why do we educate kids according to age-only criteria?  Why do we expect all students to excel in all areas?  Why don’t we engage more community resources?  Why aren’t we integrating more technology? The list is endless and, I am certain, well-worn in certain circles, and yet, we continue to come up with all the reasons why this can’t happen—most due to a lack of “funding.”  I know the institution of status quo is strong, but it is rapidly rotting a pillar of our democracy.

Until we begin looking at the issues in public education differently we won’t get to more creative solutions—and those solutions will likely come from brazen, bold and innovative local systems that care more about the kids than about the “cant’s.”  Leadership on this issue will not come from some all-knowing state or national source.  It will come from the wellspring of motivated individuals in a community ready to take on the challenge, improve education in their locality and change the world as a result.

Leadership at its best, begins by changing the world right in front of us.