With the controversy over who makes curricular decisions heating up in one Colorado school district, it seems important for us to take a step back and figure out who has responsibility for what in the educational system.
For the past month, Jefferson County, the 2nd largest school district in the Denver Metro area of Colorado, has been the center of media and political focus. At the September 18th board meeting, conservative board member Julie Williams proposed the formation of a committee to review curriculum. This proposed committee turned into a catalyst for protest and consternation amongst Jeffco students, parents and staff, bringing thousands out to publically demonstrate their frustrations and concerns. On October 2nd, Williams and her conservative counterparts voted a modified version of the proposed committee into existence, much to the chagrin of their constituency.
As a teacher in a neighboring district, I have been watching this story with a great deal of interest. I’m drawn in because I know that what is happening in Jeffco is not unique. This is only one more debate sparked by the disparate perspectives overwhelming public education.
What is all boils down to, though, is one key question:
Who is responsible for the education of students?
Now, everyone’s answer to this question is a little different (and a lot biased).
In Jefferson County, for example, each stakeholder group is passionately proclaiming its thoughts on the matter. Williams has said in multiple interviews, that the school board is responsible for curricular decisions. The students have taken to the streets and shown that their voices, when loud and united, can be very influential. A plethora of groups who have very little in common with each other–teachers, parent organizations, campaigning politicians and op-ed commenting trolls–all have something to say about the issue too.
The thing is, though, no one is really listening to anyone else.
While I have definitely been guilty of closing my ears to the ideas and suggestions of those I disagree with, it is very clear to me that all of these stakeholders, for good or ill, do have some responsibility and/or influence over student success. And to truly allow all students to be successful, we need to start working together towards that common goal.
Let’s look at this issue through a different lens.
Imagine, if you will, that student success is an archery target. Each child has a standard target shape and size, but each has a different colored center as success for one individual might look a little different than his peers’ (i.e. college pathways and career pathways).
Teachers and students see this target up close every day. A teacher spends time helping the student with her stance and aim to help her with strategies and practice time so she can work on hitting the center of her target.
Each student is also provided with a quiver of arrows, a bow and other materials necessary to practice her shooting and aiming skills. These materials are provided by a variety of stakeholders, such as parents, administrators, board members, and tax-payers/community members.
Each of these stakeholders can also see the student’s target, but might be looking at it from a very different perspective than the student or her teacher.
A board member, for example, can see the shape of all the targets and, therefore, decides that all students need arrows with red feathers to be successful and will require that all students use red arrows instead of the shorter green ones of the lighter yel
low ones, which might be easier for some students to shoot. This board member might have good intentions, but may hinder the very goal that both he and the student are trying to achieve.
The further from the target a stakeholder gets, the less likely he is to know what each individual student needs to be successful in meeting her goals. As good-willed as these stakeholders may be, their arrows are designed with a very general target in mind and will likely miss the target when launched from such a great distance.
Perhaps this is a stretch, but as a teacher, it can sometimes feel very frustrating to be asked to do all that our jobs require while listening to the various (and loud) ideas of a long list of stakeholders who are invested in our system, but who are standing at a distance that limits their perspective.
This makes our day to day work feel like standing really close to our students’ targets and trying hard to dodge thousands of arrows being launched from all directions at our classrooms every day. It makes it hard to know how to help our students aim their bows as our vision gets blocked by all the other arrows in the sky.
The APUSH curriculum is only the latest topic to be discussed, and potentially broken, by stakeholders standing way off in the distance. Politicians and board members who have little exposure to curriculum and pedagogy don’t like what APUSH is all about and seem to be ignoring how this curriculum has the potential to help thousands of students hit their targets.
Until all stakeholders (including teachers and students) can clearly communicate their needs and provide full access to the tools needed to meet individualized goals, these targets are going to continue to grow harder and harder to hit.
More concerning, though, is that until we realize we are all shooting at the same thing and learn to work together, an errant arrow is sure to hurt someone and soon.
Photo Credit: By Dmitry Dembowski (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons