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Our Moral Imperative

Our public education system is one that thrives on standardization. We develop "one size fits all" curriculum standards and resources that support the achievement of common goals for a main stream student population. This shot gun approach seeks to target the central majority of student needs, while allowing that some of the "spray" munition will reach those on the fringes of this central population. In the extreme, we may offer accommodations or personalized opportunities as required by law. It's an approach that seemingly works for many, perhaps most, of the students in our classrooms. However, this standardized approach fails to meet the academic and personal needs of all students.

Why would we subscribe to a public education experience that proves to be adequate for only most kids? We do, and we shouldn't. It's short-sided. It's wrong. It ignores our moral imperative that all students deserve the opportunity to thrive.

Anyone who has known, or has followed, my professional journey over the last nineteen years of my active career will appreciate and understand a reference to Anthony. For those who do not enjoy this insider's perspective, here is my reference to Anthony in the Introduction of my book, The Education Kids Deserve. "Some students . . . may be emotionally fragile or might come to us with life experiences that would never suggest to them that they might have a voice. . . This was never more true than my relationship with Anthony, a young man who was sent to me for a disciplinary intervention nearly twenty years ago. Unfortunately, his behavior required more than a single intervention. I got to know him well, and I did my best to support him through some pretty dreadful situations. Anthony was damaged: overlooked and disadvantaged by every societal system that should have protected him."

Anthony held a powerful influence over my professional obligation and pursuit of assuring a quality and relevant education for all students under my care. My relationship with him forged a cornerstone of my professional practice of tasking all instructional decisions through the lens of equity. "As a direct consequence of my relationship with him, it would not be unusual for me to ponder aloud during a staff discussion, 'How would this serve Anthony?' The answer would hold tremendous influence over the eventual course of action."

I had lunch with Anthony this week. I hadn't seen, or communicated with him, for fourteen years. Now thirty-two years old, he continues to exemplify the damage I had first observed. He is drug effected, and is facing yet, another, incarceration for his involvement in this underbelly culture. He has fathered three children. He suffers from a zero degree of self esteem and has no concept of any self worth or value. At thirty-two years old, he has no idea of what he "wants to to be when he grows up" other than 1) be out of jail, and 2) be unlike his father.

Anthony reminded me that he had received 170+ office referrals and that I had suspended him 93 times during his two years at our middle school. He wept when I shared that I had taken him with me as a dynamic metaphor of inclusion. He was humbled to know that his story had directly influenced decisions made by me or my staff. He openly cried when I shared photographs with him of staff members, and students, engaged in learning activities while heralding a sign proclaiming "We Are Anthony."

He professed that our luncheon, on that day this week, was the first time in his life that he felt that he may have made a positive influence - on anyone.


What remains true over our fourteen year silence is the certainty of his reality. Yes, he's damaged and he is angry, with very good reason. Given this, he continues to make poor decisions; a trait that he is acutely aware of. At the same time, he is still stunningly intelligent, openly compassionate and enviably creative.

A message that "damaged" does not equate to "broken" is a hard sell after all of his experiences to the contrary over thirty-two years. (I won't give up. I only hope that he doesn't.)

Our standardized approach to education failed Anthony, as it has failed hundreds (if not thousands) of students just like him across the country. Do we have it backwards? Rather than trying to figure out how to make a standardized system work for marginalized students, those who do not or cannot fit the mould, what if we began with their needs in mind? What if we actively engage the learner in crafting an experience that they might relate to, see purpose in and find relevant? I regret that the system that Anthony and I found ourselves working within did not ask what he wanted, or needed, to learn. Nor did we inquire of a learning environment that would best serve him. Rather, we thrust him into a situation that overlooked his strengths while focusing on his deficiencies. Rather that countering his accumulated messages of self-loathing and non-worth, we re-enforced them through a standardized, blind, and frequently dispassionate, approach.

We have a moral obligation, an imperative, to do a better job for all students. We cannot afford to let another Anthony slip through the grasp of opportunity that a quality and meaningful education is uniquely poised to afford.

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