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Paying Attention


Before I address my topic, I must be transparent.


I haven’t posted in weeks. I took the entire summer off. Not necessarily to align with the academic calendar. Rather, because I was tired. Tired of speaking what I believe to be the truth into a head wind, not to be heard or even considered although the perspectives I offer are deserving of consideration in the current climate of public education. It’s hard to keep shouting into the wind. It would be easy to quit, to remain silent. It certainly would lower my blood pressure. But I can’t.


I truly care about public K-12 education. That said, how can I turn away from the challenges that it faces? More importantly, how can I silence myself on the advocacy that this enterprise is focused on, The Education Kids Deserve. Every child needs, deserves, a champion; someone that will advocate for what they need and for what is right, simply because it’s necessary and the right thing to do.


So, I’m back! I may be but one voice howling into the wilderness, but I have a voice. And I have decided that I simply must be louder and more direct. Be forewarned and prepared for shouting.


To the topic . . . If our system of public education were paying attention, it would recognize that we find ourselves in a perilous situation. However, the system remains focused on resuming normalcy following a two-year distraction caused by the pandemic and maintaining the comfort of the status quo. This rear-view mirror approach doesn’t allow for careful consideration of circumstances that lie before it, an approach that would require that it pay attention.


If we were really paying attention, alarm bells would be going off as school districts across the country face a crisis of teacher shortages. As the city of Houston, Texas prepared to open their doors to children, it found itself 1,000 teachers short. Similarly, the state of Kansas had 1,400 unfilled positions, Maryland with 5,500 and Florida is left with nearly 8,000 vacancies.


The obvious question is “why? What’s going on?” But that is not the question asked by district leaders. Instead, they focus on short-term fixes to stave off the emergency. Sign-on bonuses, relaxing licensure requirements, allowing student teachers to have their own classrooms of children full time are just a few of the strategies systems have considered to relax this pressure.


Will the application of band-aides cure the underlying cancer within the teaching profession? Consider the finding of a resent survey of their membership by the American Teachers Federation, where 40% of their member respondents reported that they are actively considering leaving the teaching profession within the next two years.


It’s time to pay attention.


It’s time to pay attention to parental decisions that are affecting student enrollment in our nation’s K-12 public education system. Recently, Bloomberg Report sounded the alarm that roughly 1.3 million students have exited the system since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a lot of kids! An article this year in U.S. News and World Report advised that nineteen states have experienced a decline in public school student enrollment by more than 3%. Nineteen states! Thirty-eight percent of our states have a 3% or more enrollment decline. According to this same report, three states (New York, Oregon, and Mississippi) are experiencing enrollment declines in excess of 5%, with New York seeing a 5.9% drop. The largest school district in my state of residence (Oregon) found itself struggling with an anticipated enrollment drop of 3,400 students as it built its budget for the coming year.


This appears to be happening with younger children, K-3. I’m not sure why this is the case, but I promise to investigate and offer some insights in future posts.


On one hand, fewer students might suggest smaller class sizes, which might serve as a positive counterbalance to the shrinking numbers within the teaching profession. But, like other knee-jerk assumptions, that would prove counterproductive. The truth is that student enrollment drives revenue, which drives staffing, which drives the number of teachers available to instruct kids. Fewer kids equal fewer dollars, which equal fewer jobs, which equals increased frustration.


The real question, again, is not “what is happening?”, but “why is this happening?”


Why are families choosing to “vote with their feet?” This, too, will be the subject of a future post.


These are but two examples of data that suggest that the status quo of our system of public education is no longer relevant to practioners and consumers. Are we paying attention? More importantly, are will willing to engage in a close examination of the apparent disconnect of where we are as a system of instruction and where our customers and practioners aspire for us to be? Finally, does the system even care? Will it do what is necessary, or will we look the other way?


Nothing will change if we fail to pay attention. Systems may believe that they are offering a relevant education, but do its consumers agree? Systems may believe that their practices are equitable, but do its consumers agree? Systems may believe that their current systems are adequately addressing student interests and preparing them for their eventual interests, but do its consumers agree? Systems may believe that the professional interests of their employees hold elevated importance, but do its practitioners agree?


We must acknowledge that the future of our proud system of public education in America doesn’t rest with what the system itself believes to be relevant and true, but, instead, it rests with the perceptions and the experiences of the people it is designed to serve – children and families; assuring each of them the education kids deserve.


It’s time to pay attention.