Speaking at the University of Baltimore’s commencement last month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reflected that, “we will do well to first listen, study, ponder, then speak genuinely to engage those with whom we disagree.” She continued, “voices that are quiet at first, grow in strength while those who rush to shout are humbled.”
The start of a new year is often viewed a a time to reset and to offer resolutions that result in improvement. Yes, we can spend our time ranting about what was — or was not done — under the first year of DeVos’ leadership at the U.S. Department of Education, but instead we should take this time to reflect on how we can improve public education. We should use this opportunity to highlight the big ideas that we can speak genuinely about, the ideas that, while they may face fierce disagreement, are ideas that could have real impact.
So instead about mocking the threat of bears or wringing hands over the perceived belief that we continue to privatize and profiteer from public education, let’s put forward some educational resolutions in 2018.
Let us resolve to recognize that learning — and learners — are not homogeneous. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to student learning and achievement. All students come to the classroom with varied skills, knowledge, perspectives, and life experiences. They enter the learning process at different points with different abilities and challenges. Because of this, teaching and learning must be personalized. In 2018, we need to seek out far more ways to ensure that learning is matching the needs of the student, and that teachers are empowered to tailor their teaching to meet the needs of the classroom. To do this, and in recognizing it all can’t be done via technology, we must ensure that all teachers are provided the pre-service and in-service education to deliver such differentiated instruction.
Let us also resolve that the learning environment itself is no long homogeneous. The days of the little red schoolhouse are over. Learning today is a 24-7 environment. Just as we must ensure that our traditional schools are properly resourced and supported, so too must we acknowledge the need to support out-of-school-time learning. Be it in a museum, a community center, a place of worship, or an online environment, what happens outside of school is just as important to the academic development of today’s learner as what happens in the traditional classroom.
Let us resolve to transform pre-service teacher education to meet the needs and opportunities of the classrooms of tomorrow. With each passing year, we ask more and more of our teachers. We look to them to educate, guide, assess, and support. We place greater and greater emphasis on the outcomes of their practice. That means ensuring pathways to preparation that emphasize what they will experience in the classroom, that focus on outcomes and demonstrating that they can apply all that they are taught, and that give them every opportunity to succeed as a teacher from day one. We can’t shortchange teacher education, nor can we expect that the preparation pathways of decades past will still meet the needs of classrooms in 2018.
Let us resolve that school choice is not the magic elixir that will solve all that ails k-12 education. Yes, options are important for families. But we cannot overlook that the vast majority of school-aged kids today attend traditional public schools and will continue to attend them. Our attentions and resources – both financial and human – should be directed proportionally, based on where kids are today.
Let us resolve that a college degree in the liberal arts is not the solution for every child. Yes, postsecondary education is a non-negotiable today. But that education can be found at community colleges. It can be discovered in career and technical education programs. It can be found in STEM and computer science. College is just as much about equipping learners with career skills and opportunities as it is helping them become lifelong learners. We mustn’t let our focus linger on the latter, to the detriment of the former.
And most importantly, in the words of Secretary DeVos, we must resolve to engage those with whom we disagree. As we look to 2018, there are many big ideas on which we can and should be focused. Building the schools and classrooms of tomorrow. Personalizing learning for all, based on both learner interests and needs, and doing so beyond just the computer screen. Expanding our worldview of assessment beyond the summative. Strengthening our educational systems to best serve special education and ELL students. Enhancing career/technical education and STEM offerings to keep up with the ever-changing reality of our digital, Information Age. Real investment in these areas only happens when we are able to break down the walls, and engage in tough yet meaningful dialogues on what our schools, our educators, and our learners need to succeed in the future.
Such dialogue on these essential issues is required if we are to look to the bigger, bolder, dream issues that education can face. How do we empower educators to design the right learning opportunities for all those they are teaching? How do we effectively use assisted and augmented reality offerings to improve the learning process? How do we demonstrate that learning is about mastery and doing, and not just about ticking off items on a prescribed checklist? How do we bring educators and parents together as partners in the learning process? How do we enlighten all those in the process to see the value in high-quality assessments? How do we embrace the notion that standards — whether for teachers or learners — are intended to be floors and not ceilings?
When it comes to education, the new year is one chock full of both challenges and opportunities. Yes, we can muddle through another year, making some incremental gains or slippages, based on the perspective. Or we can acknowledge that we, as a community, agree on far more than we disagree with. Even the most hardened status quoer and the most indignant reformer can and should agree on 75 percent of all that faces education today. It is in that remaining 25 percent that we have our most robust discussions and disagreements.
In that 25 percent, we must heed the advice of the EdSec and speak genuinely and engage on those important topics. No, we won’t agree. We probably shouldn’t agree. But we if disagree in a respectful and thoughtful manner, and continue to have those dialogues over the areas of disagreement, we can move toward a better teachers, better learners, and a stronger educational tapestry for virtually all.
It may seem awfully simplistic, but our big idea for education in 2018 should be improved communication. Our resolutions for the new year should focus on how we improve the substance and depth of our conversations. And our engagements should reflect active listening, where we actually hear those we may disagree with, rather than think about what our next dazzling talking point should be. If we are serious about improving education, the simplicity of communication may be our most effective tool.
(A version of this post appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)