As you read this blog, please understand I believe that the vast majority of education policy-makers on both sides of the political aisle are coming from a pure place. I want to believe their common ground is a sincere desire to grow generations of youth that are prepared to support themselves and their families while keeping our states and nation globally competitive.
The debate, at the federal, state, and local level, centers around how to improve educational outcomes and this debate is driven by many factors. Are politics at play?? Absolutely. But that is what outsiders see on the surface. What is driving the politics is a complex set of socio-economic issues, budgets, competing workforce demands, education theory, and, among many other pressure points, emotion. All these things need to be considered, but as the student outcome discussion continues, we cannot continue to risk the travesty of forgetting the humanity of each student.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that drove education policy since 2002 did two things. Number one it forced the conversation at the local level on the academic needs and growth of every child. That was a good thing. But it was the second piece of NCLB that was well-intended, but harmful. NCLB established punitive and unrealistic measures of student outcomes that would ultimately lead to the labeling of nearly every school in America as failing by 2014. Intense pressure was felt by states, districts, schools, teachers, and ultimately students to perform at exceptionally high levels in a relatively short period of time…no matter what.
As a nation, there is no question we must maintain high academic standards for our education system and the children served by that system. But as state departments of education make decisions at the intersection of education policy and student outcomes put on your “adult hat” for a moment and think on this.
When was the last time you got a bad night’s sleep, missed a meal, or heaven forbid missed that essential cup of morning coffee? When was the last time you had an argument with your spouse or encountered a life experience that took you to your knees? When was the last time you came to work with one or more of these things happening in your life? Did you have a highly productive day that day? Of course not…we are human and when “life happens” we simply aren’t as productive.
Between 2007 and 2013 our nation saw a dramatic 10% increase (41% to 51%) in the number of students qualifying for the federal free or reduced lunch program. In a 2013 report, the Southern Education Foundation also released information indicating that for the first time in recorded history more than 50% of our nation’s children qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. As a side note, internationally, the United States ranks at the bottom of all industrialized nations in terms of child wellbeing.
The fact is that life IS happening to our kids each and every day. In far too many cases our children are experiencing life events that would be debilitating to us as adults, but instead of taking a day off, they show up for work every day as they enter our nation’s classrooms with policy expectations that mandate each of them will perform at their maximum potential. It is at this juncture, if we are not thoughtful, education policy can lose its humanity. As adults in the workplace, some would call that a hostile working environment. For children in our schools, we call that accountability and high expectations.
In December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law as the result of a bipartisan effort to replace NCLB. ESSA is now the new federal platform for national education reform that will drive school improvement efforts for years to come. No question we need to set a high bar for kids. But let’s set a high bar for each of us to make sure our children have the support they need to come to school ready to meet those high expectations. As state policy-makers begin to take advantage of the flexibility and control offered under ESSA, the caution I would offer is this. As you consider student outcomes to measure progress, let’s bring forward the best of humanity by not forgetting about the humanity of the student in the process.