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Changing the Narrative of Public Education

Dr. John Draper is with the National School Public Relations Association, and has given lectures for the past two years at the Humboldt County School District.  This year Dr. Draper’s presentation was about the changing views of public education and how controlling the local narrative about how public education is viewed is important.  Last year, the National School Public Relations Association took a look at some of the myths surrounding public education, where people feel like the schools aren’t doing a good job… where in fact, public schools are better than they have ever been.  Dr. Draper grew up in the south during a time when public school were segregated.  In the 1970’s special education was added to the public school system.  All of our children have seen steady improvement up to today, we are getting better every day.

There are several factors that led to the perception that public education is failing.  One such factor is international testing.  The United States falls into the middle of the curve on international scoring.  Countries that leading in test scores are very “test oriented”.  Those schools struggle for creativity, while being able to give an answer to a question the children have issues thinking outside the box.  The middle of the international testing seems to be the “sweet spot” that produces the most balanced individual.

For decades a polling anomaly has existed.  When asked about local schools people most commonly answer that the local school is doing good but nationally schools aren’t holding up.  The perception is that local schools are good while national schools are doing poorly.  95% of the schools across the nation are good schools.  5% of the national schools do face issues as they are located in poverty stricken areas or urban areas.  “Most of the schools across this country are good schools supported by good local communities, staffed with people who live here, love this school, and work hard.”

People put forth statements such as “China produces more engineers than the U.S. does.”  China also has three times the number of people than the United States.  The argument could be made that our country is the technological leader of the world; people send their children, from all over the world, to be educated in our schools and colleges.  Our nation has changed, it used to be an agricultural society, and today more people are in service industries and manufacturing related jobs.  Certainly, there are jobs that have been moved to other countries.  It isn’t the fault of the public schools that America has a transforming demographic.

Charter schools differ from state to state.  Some, can be argued to doing better, some could be said to be doing worse, and some “better” needs to be defined.  If a Charter school requires a parent to complete an application to allow their child to attend, that simple act will filter out some of the lower scoring students and show higher achievement and test scores.  Other Charters are requiring the parents to sign a contract that they will work “X” amount of time each day with their child and volunteer “X” number of hours each month at the school.  They are also going an extra hour or two each day.  If your child is going an extra two hours a day, that is an extra 40 hours a month.  Your child should have higher test scores.

Public schools started around 1640 in Massachusetts.  At that time, schools taught reading, writing, and a bit of math.  Those public schools have been an essential part of making this country strong for hundreds of years.  “Public schools, today, are the engines of opportunity for our kids.  Public schools provide chances for children to be successful.  If we don’t educate them, we will incarcerate them…  Jefferson said, ‘if you want a country that is ignorant and free, it does not exist.’ Our children need to be educated.”

“I think change has to start at the local level.  The national conversation is one that isn’t particularly positive, but locally, parents and community members realize that their school is doing a good job,” stated Dr. Draper, “I think we have to do a better job of articulating why schools are important.”  Those groups that are against public schools have done a better job of promoting and marketing in a language that is negative.  People who are involved in public education have always believed that the community supports public education.  We need to realize that there is a public discussion building nationally and we need to value and support the increased role that public education is being asked to fill.  “If we aren’t willing to step up and support our schools they will NOT be able to produce the kind of citizens we need to help continue to make this country one of the strongest in the world,” says Draper.

There are so many things that have been added to the plate of public educators.  Beginning in 1910 health expectations and vaccinations were added, then transportation, lunch, breakfast, and so many different extracurricular activities.  Now we are asking public education to address issues that in the past have been fulfilled at home or in churches.  More than ever, public schools are being asked to raise our children.  There was a time we said every child deserves the chance to go to a public school, they should have good access, a good school.  In 2001, under ‘No Child Left Behind’ there became a strong sense that every child had to graduate proficient, nothing is taught unless something is learned.  That is a whole new level of expectation that will require new funding and support and a real effort by our schools to reach that goal.

In the last twenty years the biggest change in public education, according to Dr. Draper, has been an unhealthy fixation with test scores.  Kids are more than a test score, and when you try to define a school with nothing more than test scores in reading and math, you miss so much more that kids learn in school.  Graduating in the 80’s, children learned important things like honesty, integrity, perseverance, hard work, and many other things that can’t be tallied by a test score.  We are starting to finally pull away from ‘No Child Left Behind’.  The emphasis on just reading and math has been a detriment to extracurricular activities such as art, music, athletics, technology, career tech, and many other activities that are important to children and parents.  We want more than what can just be tested.

There are a couple big challenges facing public education today.  One of those challenges is how polarized people have become.  We don’t value working together like we used to, according to Dr. Draper, who recounts working with a congress who is so divided they can’t work across the aisle to develop solutions for all of us.  Dr. Draper comments, “I see in schools and communities today an opinion where people think that ‘I heard schools are not good or I heard about this person who was unhappy with the school,’ and we extrapolate that to everybody; when in reality the overwhelming majority of kids that go to our schools are good kids that are doing a good job and are being well cared for.”  There are some exceptions but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of making the exception the rule.  Yes, there are some schools that could do better, but that is not justification in throwing the entire system out when it has worked for 400 years to make this country great.

The interview with Dr. Draper is posted below.

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