From Diverse Standpoints, Experts Agree on the Need for Re-energizing K-12 Education

This story about the discussion during a program of the Marquette Law School’s Lubar Center for Public Policy and Civic Education appeared initially in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 2, 2021.

Pedro Noguera and Rick Hess talk to many school superintendents and principals around the United States. In general, they don’t find them to be oriented toward the sharp partisan divides that dominate education debate.

“When you talk to people who lead school systems, they are less ideological,” Noguera said. “They focus on practical matters.”

By “practical matters,” Noguera meant the daily things that lead to kids getting good educations, things like good teachers, good learning practices, and school cultures that offer warmth, safety and stability. Those are things he hopes will be given renewed priority as education recovers from the COVID pandemic.

“If there’s a silver lining to come from this experience with respect to education, I hope it’s a return to a focus on education that stimulates and inspires kids,” Noguera wrote in a book, co-authored with Hess, that came out several weeks ago.

Just the name of the book made me want to read it: “A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education.” Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and is generally conservative. Noguera is dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California and is generally liberal. They are among the best-known observers of American education.

American education policy is shaped by polarized divisiveness and there is little reason to think all the fighting is productive when it comes to kids.

Furthermore, if there were a way to rank states by how intense these schisms are, I would nominate Wisconsin as a likely winner, so to speak. Just look at the recent campaign for state superintendent of schools or brace yourself for the partisan fighting that will mark the culmination of the state budget process in coming weeks.

So I thought it would be good to hear what Noguera and Hess have to say. That led to a Marquette Law School virtual program with them, posted on April 27, and to this column.

Noguera said school leaders are eager to focus now on issues such as the social and emotional needs of children who have been isolated and under stress and on the quality of the experiences students have.

“And by quality, I mean something that challenges kids, something that gets them thinking deeply, that the kids resonate with and they know this is worthwhile,” Noguera said. “We have spent so little time on that in this country over the last 20, 30 years.”

Both Hess and Noguera agreed that too much emphasis has been put on measuring achievement of children through testing, and too little on setting up kids for good learning, especially kids who are given more meager resources and opportunities to learn.

Noguera talked about helping his nine-year-old daughter with some of her school work. “I was just shaking my head because the work, the assignment, was aligned with the Common Core standards and it was totally uninspiring. It was just the least creative assignment I could imagine.

“I just wondered, why has it come to this? How did we lose the creative parts of teaching and learning that seemed to be much more available when I was a kid? So I hope that that conversation comes back to education much more.

“Education – here’s what I know from my own experience. When you get a good education, you want more education. You read a book you love, you want to read another one. That’s how it works.  And we should be feeding that desire to learn in kids.”

Hess and Noguera agreed on a lot of points in the discussion. But they clearly disagreed on some, including school choice and what has been learned in 30 years of public funding of vouchers so students in Milwaukee can attend private schools.

“I’m comfortable with choice across the board,” Hess said. “It’s an opportunity for everyone to rethink how schools should do the work in ways that better fit kids.” He agreed that problems haven’t been solved, but he said school choice is a starting place to expand opportunities.

Noguera said, “In my opinion, Milwaukee is the clearest case to show that choice is no panacea. You’ve had choice for longer than anyone else and you still have so many bad schools all over Milwaukee. You’re the test case to show choice is not the answer.” He added, “I say this as someone who has spent time in Milwaukee. I have visited schools with (school choice advocate) Howard Fuller, who I know very well.“

I said that, for many years running, only about 20% of students in Milwaukee have scored as proficient or better in reading tests. That’s true both for public school and private school voucher students.

“That’s so sad,” Noguera said. “What we don’t do in education is look at where we’re getting good results and ask, how do we take what they have done and spread it around to other schools?”

Large majorities of people want to see more practical and less partisan efforts around improving education, Hess said, a conclusion backed by polling data. “What I think we need to do is to push back” against the loudest voices, he said. People such as him have platforms that allow them to be heard. “We need to stop using them to bang the table and shout that I’m right,” he said. They should “model what it looks like to reach across.”

Noguera said the country is faced with a myriad of problems. “We’re not going to get any closer to solving them if all we do is fight with each other,” he said.

The program with Hess and Noguera may be viewed at The Hottest Issues in K-12 Education: Tough Questions, Thoughtful Answers – YouTube





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