“But we can’t wait”
We hear this phrase a lot in education policy when the conversation leads to discussions about how to make long-term, substantive change for all students. We hear it because it feels true, and in some ways it is true. It’s not right, fair, or just that some (and in Nevada’s case - many) students are not learning and achieving at a level that ensures that they are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in adulthood. It feels right to say that no child should have to wait on an education system to figure out how best to educate its students. And, of course, that’s true.
But more than that, it is often easier to do something - anything - than it is to commit to the work that will have the most sustained, longterm positive impact. It feels more productive to do that something than to attempt to tackle the big project. Especially when tackling that project may not produce immediate results. It’s also not always clear what work will have the most sustained longterm positive impact. The reality, though, is that there are excellent examples of how to build an education system that helps ensure that all students learn.
Much of the education reform industry rhetoric says the United States will never achieve systemic improvement because our system is too broken to fix, too big, too bloated with bureaucracy, with expensive teachers. Often the approach is to “blow up” the system. The problem is that when something gets blown up, it leaves a mess. And we believe that what our student’s actually can’t wait for is that mess to be cleaned up.
Nevada Succeeds believes that we can’t wait to start building a world-class education system in Nevada any longer. We believe, like the NCSL report that came out last fall states, that we have no time to lose in our pursuit of that goal. Nevada’s students are just as capable of learning, achieving, and being held to high standards as the students in the most successful education systems in the world. We, as a state, shouldn’t eschew the opportunity to develop the policies that ensure they are able to do so in favor of short-term solutions that only help a small percentage of kids. We must build on the momentum we began in 2013 and commit to making Nevada an international leader in education.
Many suggestions and ideas about how to improve education outcomes go back about 100 years. During the same era when medicine was refining its professional standards that ultimately allowed it to develop into the profession we know today, education scholars began calling for the same types of change and refinement in their field. Education researchers and experts in the teaching profession have long recognized that to ensure that the education system is adequately and equitably equipped to educate students, it is imperative that the educator workforce is well-prepared, highly professional, respected and supported - just like any other profession.
There are a lot of theories about why the education profession hasn’t evolved the same way as medicine. It likely has a lot to do with the fact that public education is both a profession and a public good, and when something is a public good, input from outside the profession shapes the profession more than it would otherwise.
There have been and continue to be pocketed efforts in some states, in some districts, at some universities, and at the national level to put policies and practices in place that make this professionalism happen, but none have worked on a large scale. These efforts are undermined when people and policymakers take the perspective that something like school-choice, vouchers, charter schools, later class start times, and/or fill-in-the-blank initiative will transform our education system.
The reality is that the most important in-school factor for student success is determined by professional educators. Unless our efforts to ensure that teachers, principals, support professionals, and other licensed personnel are well-prepared, highly professional, respected, and supported, we will not see the kind of educational advancements we all want for Nevada’s students.
So, when I hear people say, “but we can’t wait” for the “system” to make that happen, my first thought is that already we are, and we have been, because even though it’s extremely difficult, it is the closest thing we have to a real solution. Until we realize we can have both short-term, stop-gap solutions and a long-term vision of what a thriving cohort of truly professionalized educators looks like, we aren’t going to have the right conversations for what is needed in education policy. And we truly cannot wait for those conversations to occur.