EDITORIAL: Our Educational Landscape is Changing
by JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee
"Whether it is acknowledged or not, public education is directly influenced by the social, economic, and political events of the times in which we live. Because of the courage, commitment, and resilience of our citizens we know we can meet any challenge. Discussions are already underway in some communities about how to address the immense challenges created by COVID-19.
In this crisis, opportunity comes. All government functions and services can expect to be scrutinized and evaluated--including public education. When life moves so fast, it becomes hard to keep things in perspective. While we slowly adjust to what is now perceived as the "new normal." We have time to envision how we can better increase efficiency, provide needed infrastructure, promote equity, and promote economic stability and growth. For educators, especially those on the frontlines, any change can have an immense consequence on every level of education--classroom, school, district, state, and federal.
Contrary to popular belief, schools are not out of session for students. However, states and districts have been forced to find a different way to deliver public education. Policymakers and stakeholders have worked diligently to quickly sustain our children, continue to prepare them for success in an uncertain environment, and prepare children for an indeterminate future. The key ingredient is accessibility and convenience for parents, teachers, and students. For some districts, it means sending instructional packets and learning resources home, in others, it is digital or online learning.
States and districts that rapidly moved to online learning have discovered that is not without its unique challenges. Many students can lack the intrinsic motivation to do assigned classwork online, and for teachers, the in-person dynamic can be difficult to capture. Online learning does allow for the ability to personalize learning. Subject matter in textbooks, while not as interactive, are usually better scrutinized by experts and align closer with state standards. Teacher interaction is very critical in education, including providing direction, structure, motivation, and timelines.
Educators have been driven by health and safety reasons to work from their own homes. These dedicated, talented professionals are challenged daily by students with inadequate access to technology. Not every student has had access to technology, nor do our teachers. The technology divide is a real issue. However, even if schools were to provide technology devices or computers for all students, the use of technology and access to the internet will remain a challenge.
We must take the COVID-19 virus seriously. It has dispensed illness and death rapidly and has no known cure at this time. Also, the long-term effects could change how we live and how we educate children. There is an opportunity in every crisis. We just have to visualize what can and must be accomplished in a changing landscape. What does that look like?
Policymakers and stakeholders must commit to the foundational priorities and policies to assist students and schools. That begins by keeping our education workforce committed to the success of all learners, by maintaining a pipeline of well-trained, highly compensated educators who can flourish in the teaching profession. Our state must remain committed to success in literacy and prioritizing reading as a core value built around student success, educator quality, and parent support. We cannot back away from our support in keeping children safe and improve our funding for counselors and mental health treatment providers. Likewise, we have to ensure that our educators get the help they need to develop and implement instructional appropriate IEPs and that districts are maintained with sufficient staff to meet the needs of every child they serve.
The testing culture has killed the enthusiasm of many educators. Since 2012 Tennessee has had one misstep after another in testing, with notable exceptions. We understand testing and assessment have been waived by the state and federal government for 2020. At no point were any of the testing issues the fault of students or educators. We should pursue reliable standardized tests that provide accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students. However, when we make decisions based on unreliable or invalid test results, we place students at risk and harm educators professionally. This is especially unfair to the hardworking teachers in our state. Perhaps it is time we re-evaluate and have a public discourse over the cost of assessment and exactly what role and purpose we seek from high stakes testing and the results we seek as a society. Although we need testing to measure the progress of our students, we should recognize these tests are often unreliable in evaluating teachers and schools. No single test should be a determinant of a student's, teacher's or school's success.
During this time of reflection, we must also consider how we can modernize our school funding formula to reflect changing 21st century needs. We must have a plan and a funding formula that reflects our educational mission, priorities, and strategies. A formula that supports teachers, funds facilities, and facilitates innovation and technology, also a formula that looks to better connect K-12 education with workforce needs.
If we want all children from all backgrounds to succeed, we must give them the opportunities they deserve and we must build the system around them, rather than simply fitting children into a system. A rigid, inflexible public education system does not always pave a path for success in college, career, and life for every child. So, we should embrace some of the changes in our education landscape. We will defeat COVID-19. Tennessee will remain the best state in the nation for education and in turn, the best place to raise a family."