Posted by: ACFE Inc | August 16, 2011

Making a Difference

The National Education Association isn’t happy with the Secretary of Education.

At its annual meeting in Chicago recently, the NEA passed a list of complaints against Secretary Arne Duncan, many of which found fault with the Department of Education seeing fit to proscribe reforms and policies well beyond even the state level—in effect, micro-managing school districts, Jim Stergios at the Boston Globe points out. The final item on its list of Secretary Duncan’s errors seems most cutting to me: “Perpetuating the myth that there are proven, top-down prescribed ‘silver bullet’ solutions and models that actually will address the real problems that face public education today, rather than recognizing that what schools need is a visionary Secretary of Education that sets broad goals and tasks states, local schools districts, schools, educators, and communities with meeting those goals.”

That “vision” the NEA wants Secretary Duncan to possess is what fascinates me. As an educational advocate, I am passionate about educational reform. But what does this actually mean? It’s often easier to say what doesn’t work than what works—and although this is a negative light to view things in, sometimes identifying what you shouldn’t do can be just as valuable as what you should.  It is easy to become overwhelmed by educational fads, data that can be spun and seem to mean a dozen things at once, anecdotal “evidence” and competing experts. It is easy to become discouraged, to think that perhaps our educational system is fundamentally flawed and can never be fixed the way we might dream and hope it could be.

However, I think this is giving up too soon. Yes, our educational system is flawed. Yes, it has been for a long time—maybe even since we as a country created the vision of public education. But I would argue that this very decision—to provide a free public education to every child—is one of the greatest things about our country.

I want to ask you a hard question. It’s hard for me to answer, I know. Wherever you are right now, whether you are a parent, grandparent, teacher, therapist, school administrator, or aunt or uncle to a student—what grade would you give yourself on your efforts for educational reform? Do you attend school board meetings? Write letters to your editor or elected officials? Did you submit comments on President Obama’s proposed edits to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?

I know you are probably busy. That’s what often gets in the way for me. It can be so difficult to make time for efforts that can seem very small, where you may not see any immediate response. Someone else will step up. I know other people agree with me, and they will say what I do not have time to say. Or—things will work themselves out. The politicians will figure it out. Or—what difference can I make?

I am going to tell you now that I think we can make all the difference. Whether you have children in the public schools or not (or no children at all), you will be affected by whether or not our educational system is forever tied to standardized assessments that do not accurately measure students’ progress, whether we are forever attempting new models of reform that are shiny and exciting but not based on proven success or methodologies shown to be effective, whether we are putting too much pressure on teachers to sacrifice their personal lives to be superheroes. The Wall Street Journal had a great article recently about some incredible teachers—and how they are not enough. We expect too much from our teachers and cannot be surprised when the truly amazing ones burn out.

We are a huge country with thousands of school districts. Even though these districts are widely diverse in terms of the struggles they face, the budgets they have, their students’ needs, their location and size, surely we can find a way to combine forces across the country to figure out who is educating children well, and how they are doing it. Surely we can find enough common ground to allow districts to share their best practices and take from each other’s, to come up with something that will work for them and their students. But we cannot agree to allow our children to be held to bottom-of-the barrel standards as other countries sweep by us in international achievement measures.

I would like to end on a bright note: a story about educators getting creative and going out of their way to meet children’s needs. Marcia Ely, the assistant director of the NY Transit Museum, created an after-school program for children with autism based on her observations of the overwhelming number of children on the spectrum fascinated by her museum. The program focuses on the history of NYC trains but secondarily works to help the children feel more comfortable in social situations. This is just one example of someone looking around them, seeing a need, and doing what they could to meet that need. It is not a sweeping educational reform, but it makes a difference to the children who participate. You don’t have to start an after-school program to make a difference. Just find ways to stay informed and involved about important issues occurring in education. Even writing a letter to your congressperson can make a difference.

Click here to read about the ESEA reauthorization. If you would like to comment on the proposed changes to the ESEA, or encourage your congresspeople to reauthorize ESEA, click here to find and write to them: Senators, Representatives.

If you want to write about your thoughts on the proposed No Child Left Behind waivers, click here to write to Secretary Duncan and here for President Obama. If you want to read more about the waivers, my blog post is here.



  1. […] Making a Difference ( […]

  2. […] August, I took some time to stress the importance of doing our part to make a difference.  All school districts are having their 2011 School Board Elections tomorrow.  As you know, ACFE […]

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