It is somewhat of an oxymoron to suggest that educational institutions have the potential to resolve our fractured political and social issues which have polarized America into distinct ideological camps, particularly when you consider the extent of its self-imposed controversies. Parental rights, curriculum content, gender identification, and school admission practices have many leaders failing to see “the forest for the trees.”
The root causes of our fragmentation “run deep.” Some of those causes are associated with values while other factors may involve political motivations which are designed to purposefully manipulate constituent emotions. According to Jonathan Haidt, the nexus of modern technology, social isolation, algorithmic misinformation programming and media narratives have contributed to the dissolution of common bonds shared by generations of Americans. The result is tribalism and a focus on the individual.
Unfortunately, it just feels as though we have lost our way from a time when we aspired to an ideal in which it was our responsibility to contribute to the nation’s betterment. The hyperfocus on individual needs or the wants of one particular “tribe” seems to supersede the value of the collective good. Along the way, we have lost our ability to listen to each other, intelligently discuss, and critically reflect without parroting a group’s ideological narrative. Somewhere in the educational process, we have failed to instill an understanding of how to negotiate, how to compromise, and most importantly how to respect divergent perspectives. This “win at all costs” modus operandi will not sustain us.
The COVID 19 pandemic exposed many relational frailties in society, but it also highlighted the importance of how our institutions assist in binding us together. Education institutions are critical in fulfilling the aspirations of a country’s populace through well-designed programs that provide opportunity and schools that have elevated expectations for all students.
Imagine if every school required a rigorous curriculum with specific standards for grading and graduation. Imagine if every school produced graduates that are highly proficient in mathematics, science, and technology, each capable of critical analysis and possessing strong writing skills. Imagine if every school molded its students with a keen sense of civic pride and responsibility.
Rather than rhetoric, educational leaders and politicians could “Lean into the Future” by eliminating the current theater and embracing substantive reform. All too often legislative and political leaders have sought “quick-fix” solutions that are window dressing. Initiatives that focus on a segment of a problem versus the “gestalt” may have further fragmented our society by creating a perception of unfairness. Raucous board meetings regarding critical race theory, the country’s history, gender, and even bathroom usage are evidence of our inability to find common ground while highlighting our lack of strategic leadership.
Shifting our legislative agenda away from one that supports factions for political gain to one that builds universal support for academically rigorous schools is a logical step in the right direction. Simply responding to factions that are attempting to manipulate school systems to meet ideological agendas with little or no connection to student performance creates ambiguity in the organization’s mission. Student performance and ambitious standards should be a cultural value embraced by all. Without universal acceptance of this value, our students and our country will lose the ability to compete in any arena.
Developing a shared story of upward mobility and achievement through an educational system that demands performance, accountability and behavioral standards is critical to developing a sense of pride that unites, rather than one that dissects us and segregates us based on race, and ethnicity, or socio-economic status.
Much like most civilizations, our emergence as a world power is flawed with stories of inequity and mistreatment. At the same time, our history documents an abundance of perseverance, resilience, courage, and leadership. We need to consistently and accurately tell those stories to create a sense of positivity among all demographic groups. The key to reconnecting our common values to our diverse populace is for everyone to feel equally and fairly represented. Only one institution is capable of this feat, the schools.
In the Atlantic, Meira Levinson and Daniel Markovits document the assault on education by COVID 19. The pandemic impacted every facet of meaningful instruction. With classroom time lost and student online participation sporadic, learning loss took a major hit in all schools but was more significant in lower-income neighborhoods. The isolation of remote learning placed intense pressure on both parents and students. When the schools reopened behavioral problems increased. Despite these issues, schools have the greatest chance to reflect upon those issues and reinvent themselves to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.
With an emphasis on excellence that reflects a rigorous framework of courses and high-level course work for ALL students, schools can insure equal opportunity in a climate of fairness. With this framework in place “piece-meal” programs that attempt to fix a component of the system at the expense of one group or another will be unnecessary. Everyone will have the same access to excellence.
Education was conceived to be the great equalizer in our society. Regardless of economic, ethnic, racial, or social status, education is each citizen’s birthright. While court cases and governmental regulations have attempted to ensure a baseline of quality, the emphasis on performance and defined outcomes has been obscured by political and social pressures even though on the surface, all factions would agree on the concept of high-performing safe schools. All parents want their children to be prepared for the future. All parents want education to be the vehicle of opportunity.
Unfortunately, there are government, community, and organizational leaders that benefit from division, inferior schools, and poor neighborhoods. There is a sense of naivete to think that such a radical shift might be possible in the short term but there also is a sense of optimism driven by the spirit that “all people are more alike than different,” and that they deeply care about their children’s future.
Education is a value that can unite us. All families should encourage their children to “Reach Higher for Success.” Schools are the vehicles for them to “Reach Above and Beyond.” To reach this attainable goal, it will take a village that includes leaders, all forms of media, and the “will” to get it done.
Dr. Vincent F. Cotter
Dr. Vincent F. Cotter, as Superintendent of Schools, was the primary innovator of a unique school improvement program, “Reaching Above and Beyond,” which dramatically improved student performance. For his efforts he was awarded the prestigious Juran Medal (2011) for sustained systemic improvement by the American Society for Quality in the field of education.
Dr. Cotter also co-founded the Exemplary Schools Organization which was created to improve school performance and leadership capacity.