As an educator I am guided by the belief that all people are fundamentally equal and have equal rights and by the belief that education has the power to help each person gain the skills that help them gain the autonomy and the freedom to live the life they want to live and the disposition and ability to join others in improving their communities. Schools and colleges, and the idea that they should be accessible to all people, are the best human inventions to help us improve the world.
In order to help educational institutions realize their potential it is important to have clear goals that provide direction for what it means to prepare students to improve the world. Educational improvement is team work, and teams work better when they share a vision about true north. I find true north in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a compact outlining what are the basic rights that each person has because they are human. I find also guidance in the Sustainable Development Goals, approved by the United Nations a year ago, outlining a vision of the conditions necessary for global peace and sustainability.
I am concerned that the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States might pose some challenges to advancing some of these goals. Since he has no record of public service, I can only make scenarios of what his likely educational priorities will be based on his campaign rhetoric. On that basis, I expect challenges for advancing the educational rights of ethnic and religious minorities, of LGTB communities, of students who live in the United States undocumented. I expect also challenges to educating students to behave in ways that reverse climate change. I also hope to be wrong in these predictions, and that his actions as President reveal a different set of priorities than those revealed by his campaign. It is entirely possible that he will appoint a team to oversee education that will advance educational opportunities for all. That would be very valuable, in my view, to advancing economic and social prosperity and inclusion in this nation.
But regardless of what the education priorities of the new administration are, I am hopeful that we will continue to make progress in this nation in addressing the educational challenges that we face. My hope stems from knowing that there are many avenues and institutions which contribute to addressing the educational challenges we share. While the President of the United States and the executive branch of government have significant power to influence education, this power is limited and shared with other levels of government –states and districts matter more to what goes on in schools than the federal government— and with other branches of government –the courts exert as much power as the executive, as does Congress. Civil society and private organizations exert also important influence in our schools. There are many private organizations, foundations, and groups of civil society from which we can make determined progress in addressing our educational needs. Teachers’ organizations and colleges and universities, providers of teacher professional development, and school districts all have significant influence over the educational opportunities of students. It is this plurality of institutions and avenues from which to advance educational opportunity that sustains our schools and supports our students in gaining the competencies to be self-authoring individuals and advance their human rights. There is much work ahead for this ecosystem of institutions to do in advancing human rights and sustainability through education and I am confident this work will continue, perhaps even with renewed urgency given the deep divisions in American society revealed in this last presidential campaign. For this work to continue at greater levels of effectiveness robust dialogue on the goals and purposes of our schools is essential. We need a national conversation on our educational priorities, one that can facilitate the necessary collective action for this ecosystem to be coherently aligned and to achieve synergies, so we produce deep, meaningful and sustainable educational change.
One of the urgent tasks ahead is to build the civic agency of our students and to repair the damage caused to the social fabric of this democracy by the narrative used in this campaign apealing to bigotry and suggesting that the political process was corrupt, that the elections might be rigged, that the media is biased, or that politicians are corrupt. These ideas are likely to have left an impression on the public, perhaps fueling cynicism about politics and about the democratic process, and undermining the trust in institutions and in one another, across lines of difference, which are essential for the functioning of representative democracy. This cynicism is harmful to the future of our democracy. It leaves people with no option other than marching in the streets or withdrawing from participation. Educators should work in earnest to help students develop the skills and dispositions essential to building this trust in one another, in our institutions and in the democratic process. They should help students understand that democratic politics, imperfect as they are, work best when people engage with the process, and not when they disengage. Students should learn in school what are the avenues for effective political participation, and gain the skills to participate effectively.
Educators should also create opportunities for all students to understand that there is strength in our diversity and to advance opportunities for all. We need to recommit to the civic mission of our schools and universities so they help students gain the knowledge and the dispositions that make democracy work in the acts of ordinary citizens, in how we relate to one another, in how we collaborate and in how we take responsibility to improve the communities of which we are a part, engaging in civic life and in politics. This opportunity, indeed requirement, that we all engage in democratic politics as equals, is the genius of democracy, a genius public schools were created to help realize.
The first thing our schools should do to empower students is to teach all of our students well, to help them develop the full range of competencies which enable them to participate in the economy and in society, to develop their mind and their character, their capacity to think critically, to understand and appreciate evidence, to work with others in ways that are respectful, accepting and productive. We need to look for ways to help all of our children and youth, including minority and low income youth, access high quality education that helps them develop agency and the skills to participate effectively economically and civically. In order to empower our youth in schools we need to help minority and low income students gain greater access to a high quality education, and to college, and support them so they can complete their degrees. To do this we need to expand our accountability frameworks so they foster the education of the whole child, not just focus on a few basic skills. We need to also promote personalization of learning, so each student can thrive and achieve at high levels.
To provide all students these opportunities for deeper learning we will need to commit to producing high quality teachers. State Departments of Higher Education and of Elementary and Secondary Education, as well as school districts and organizations that work with them need to see teacher preparation and professional support as one of the most important strategic options to improve education. We must invest seriously in the development of real teacher expertise, supporting teachers throughout their careers, in ways aligned to meaningful career ladders and in ways that give teachers voice to develop and rely on the expertise that should guide the practice of a true profession.
In advancing this national agenda of educational opportunity schools of education and universities can play a very constructive role, mobilizing the educational expertise which undergirds high levels of teacher professionalism at home and abroad, and preparing the teachers and school leaders with the skills to support their students’ deeper learning. In response to the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, many of our top universities made a serious commitment to developing high quality science curriculum and to preparing excellent science teachers, as a way to help advance American airspace ambitions. In the wake of an election that shows deep divisions in American society, universities need to again step up and ask again how to best contribute to bringing this country together, supporting the improvement of our public schools.
America has some of the best universities in the world, but K-12 schools that are far less exemplary when compared to those of other nations. We must connect these two sets of institutions for the sake of educating all children to advance prosperity, social inclusion and democratic governance. This will require not only efforts in initial preparation of teachers or leaders, but especially of deep, sustained and coherent opportunities for ongoing professional development, aligned with career ladders for teachers and administrators, and with helping students master the competencies necessary to participate effectively in the 21st century. Schools of education can play a critical role strengthening educational practice with expert knowledge, built in partnership with the teaching profession in service of effective learning opportunities in schools so our students are equipped to make democracy work in their daily actions. Universities have also a special obligation to create meaningful post-secondary opportunities for those currently excluded from such access. Initiatives such as the Commonwealth Commitment of public institutions of higher education in Massachusetts, which offer the opportunity to earn an undergraduate degree at a cost of less than 30,000 dollars are an example of the kind of innovation that is possible and necessary.
There is much work for educators to do in these United States educating a population that can make democracy work. I hope that the new administration will contribute to advance that agenda. I am grateful that there are so many avenues from which we can all contribute to the important and urgent task of preparing all students for meaningful work and to participate, so they can revitalize our economy and maintain our democracy advancing the human rights of all and ways to live and relate to the earth which are sustainable.