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Student Counsel

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Reform Broth

Educators should stay focused on what's important to students and help them and their families put the acrimonious public debate on education in proper perspective.

At a recent conference that I attended, I learned quite a bit about the development and implementation of online courses in public schools. However, I left the workshop feeling a bit discouraged, even disgusted. Not with regard to online learning; in fact, I am cautiously optimistic that online coursework will benefit students in many different ways. But the more I heard, the more I felt disillusioned. An administrator from the state education department and a nonprofit educational reformer seemed to square off on the many complex issues, such as delivery, accountability and supervision, surrounding these emerging pedagogical technologies. But it wasn't the conversation related to technology that fascinated me; it was the underlying dynamic—the power conflict—that made an impression on me.

Too Many Competing Forces

As I sat there listening to the debate, I drew a circle in the middle of a piece of paper and put the word "child" in the center of it. Then I began to list, around the circle, all of the competing forces vying for power over children's education. As the workshop moved along, I kept noting myriad competing forces: government, nonprofit organizations, business and industry, politicians, special interest groups, teacher unions, higher education and more. It seems as if everyone has an idea about how to reform or improve public education in America. The list could go on and on: Bill Gates, the College Board, the tea party, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Mike Bloomberg, the U.S. Department of Education, the National Education Association, Superman (for whom we are waiting), Oprah Winfrey, Race to the Top, and of course, the education documentary Race to Nowhere. I feel confused. But more importantly, I can't imagine how our students and teachers feel. Maybe it's the cynic in me, but I'm not sure if all these influential and powerful people and agencies have the welfare and development of our children and adolescents as their priority.

Many of these folks, who keep clamoring over how our public school system is failing, have never spent a day teaching in a public school. But they have the fix. The resignation of Cathie Black as chancellor of New York City schools after just 96 days on the job serves as a timely and prime example of the brazen and unbridled arrogance that anyone, regardless of experience, can be an expert in instruction and schooling.

Even President Obama seems perplexed by the bipolarity that exists in the educational debate. On one hand, he appointed Arne Duncan and approves of the Race to the Top program, which among other things requires states to implement evaluative practices that rate teachers using student test scores as a measure of job performance. On the other hand, when discussing ESEA reauthorization, Obama comments that we test too much in this country and that we must consider alter assessments. Well, which is it?

Pointing Out the Contradictions

When speaking with students, families and teachers about academic planning, testing and college admission, I try to point out the acrimony and contradiction in the public debate over education. I advise students to cultivate their passions and seek answers to their questions. With colleagues, I discuss doing what they know is best: connecting with youths, challenging them to explore life's wonder and beauty, and encouraging them to grow into fully developed individuals. I try to steer families away from the nonsense that so often seems to have overtaken the national debate on public education and to refocus their energies toward providing support and love to their children. And for my own peace of mind, I'm just going to stop reading the news and turn off the television, at least for a few days.

Christopher Griffin is the director of guidance for the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District.