News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

March 2, 2014

FLASHPOINT: Restoring trust, respect in schools rests in fundamentals

TERRE HAUTE — A recent Harris poll of 2,250 adults reveals a troubling educational trend. When surveyed about their K-12 experience compared to today, far fewer adults believe teachers respect parents (64 percent, down 27 points) or students (61 percent, down 25 points). Similarly, a decreasing percentage of parents (49 percent, down 42 points) and students (31 percent, down 48 points) respect teachers. So what has changed that contributes to these double-digit drops in mutual respect among students, parents, and teachers?

To be certain, the current landscape of education is marred by a negative narrative involving teacher preparation, accreditation, standards of learning, school safety, student conduct, choice, parent involvement and a litany of challenges not easily solved. Addressing these challenges from many perspectives have informed and enabled improvements on every front. And yet, these same challenges have served to polarize educational stakeholders and galvanize belief systems in a way that has the cumulative effect of eroding trust and respect for K-12 education.

Many parents express concerns about classroom management that does not meet their children’s needs, challenging expectations for achievement and attendance, demands for extended learning (e.g., before/after school, summer), and a lack of understanding about all that is going on during the school day.

Teachers are concerned that parents are insufficiently involved in their children’s learning, not “parenting” when it comes to misbehavior, and offer too many excuses for unmet needs. Teachers also say that many students simply are not motivated and willing to accept responsibility for their learning. Students comment that “real” learning begins after school lets out and they have access to their social media devices and other technology supports.

These same students cite busywork and irrelevant lessons as the source of apathy and disengagement from instruction.

Clearly, these concerns are only a small sample of the many challenging issues impacting students, parents and teachers. Yet, each is underscored by a perceived lack of trust and respect in the others’ abilities to provide the basic educational necessities. More troubling is the waning belief in each other to solve these big educational challenges. A starting point for restoring trust and respect might be found in four fundamental considerations:    

• Support a federalized system of education in which states and local communities solve their own educational challenges. The spirit of individualism and independent localism should serve to energize continuous school improvement. Nationalized systems, which begin at the federal level purporting one-size-fits-all solutions, are rarely successful and sustainable.

• School stakeholders must support high expectations for all students. Teachers must be well-trained professionals with a sound understanding of their discipline(s) and ability to demonstrate teaching excellence. Parents must provide encouragement, support and involvement in their children’s learning. Students must be responsible for their learning and actively participate in the teaching-learning process.

• Support strong school-community relations. When students, parents, teachers and the broader school community engage regularly and meaningfully in the day-to-day operations of the school, teaching and learning will flourish.

• Support education as a professional enterprise in the pursuit of excellence. Education as a profession promotes its own rigorous standards for teaching, regulates educational excellence through challenging accreditation standards, promotes the success of all students, and serves as the cornerstone of our nation’s democracy.

There is no quick fix to the Harris Poll findings. Trust and respect are not easily restored. However, the challenges of education and the students, parents, and teachers who contribute to the K-12 educational enterprise must engage for the sake of teaching, learning, and the competitive future of our great nation.

Bradley Balch is a professor of educational leadership and dean emeritus of the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University. He has served in west-central Indiana schools as a teacher, building administrator, superintendent and school board president. He also serves as a facilitator and consultant to school and nonprofit boards on leadership and governance issues.

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