The U.S. Department of Education has used the economic downturn to drive a marketplace-based educational agenda in which test scores, merit pay and charter schools figure prominently. States and districts, desperate for funds, quickly agreed to these requirements in the Race-to-the-Top and Title I School Improvement Grants. Based on the same principles, private foundations have used their economic power to sway elections, sponsor and influence the content of administrative leadership training programs and fund the opening of charter schools that draw students and funds away from regular public schools.
How to build public support for a longer-term, more broadly focused education reform agenda is very challenging. The December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut may be a tragic historic moment that provides insight into the value of the social and emotional dimensions of children’s school experience. We may never know what complex set of factors led a young man to commit such unfathomable violence against innocent children. But we do know on a deep emotional level that children’s safety, their sense of belonging and value as members of their communities are of paramount importance.
Many, maybe with some sensitivity in mind to the recent demeaning of teachers and their profession, have appropriately called attention to the heroism and selflessness of Newtown’s educators. However, this may also be an occasion for public reflection about whether our economic anxiety has caused us to get our educational priorities far out of balance.