Dear Lawmakers, Education is Not War

Make positive change this session.

Dearest Lawmakers,

As many state legislative sessions begin across the nation this week, let’s keep this in mind: education is not war and it is not a competition. Education is lives, real lives.

One of my motivations to entering policy work is, that my state is consistently ranked last or close to it. As I began my research I began to notice the way legislation was written, the tone it took on. It’s always a race, a race to the top, always a competition, a crisis. I then began investigating why education became this way. In light of the most recent State of the Union Address, it is stil relevant. It began with Sputnik.

In 1957 the Russians launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite that was sent into space, and all of a sudden the U.S. was viewed as behind. The media loved it. Life Magazine added fuel to the fire, when in 1958 they published an issue titled “Crisis in Education”. The piece featured two boys Alexey Kutskov from Moscow and Stephen Lapekas from Chicago. Kutskov solved difficult physics problems, conducted experiments and studied a plethora of subjects while Lapekas struggled in school and was pictured dancing and spending time with his girlfriend. The widely discussed piece seemed to confirm the need for action. Congress passed the National Defense of Education Act in 1958. This defined education as a matter of national security. The space race was the justification. After the U.S. “won” the race the justification for federal involvement in education shifted to globalization. When the 1983 A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform report was released it seemed evident schools were going to have to change and it was important government interest that forced that change from a federal level. Thus, the greater standardization that led to No Child Left Behind.

What was the result? A war on education.

School climate today, is not much different than a war zone. The school has become a 13 year bootcamp to prepare students for “battle” or “real life”. There is no doubt GPA, class rank, SAT/ACT have all fostered competition; but is that what we want? Our top students despise one another and fight to be crowned Valedictorian. A culture of collaboration is virtually non-existent. If we really want to “lead the world” it is essential we learn to work together. Students, teachers, even admistrators have been silenced in this war. They’ve kept their heads down and marched forward forced to adhere to strict schedules and tight standards but now it is time to speak up.

We must stop training students like we train soldiers. Education is not war, it is life. Nothing is pleasant about war but education can be so incredibly beautiful. In its current state it is anything but. The school has to empower its students. It must recognize the voices of its teachers and allow administrators to cater to the needs of their school. We cannot afford to spend days upon days studying for high-stake testing. States should not be forced to compete rather than collaborate. The culture NCLB fostered has been truly devastating. America’s strength is exactly its perceived weakness. Creativity, while perhaps not easily measured, is key to innovation and “winning” this global competition. Creativity is not forced, and certainly not standardized. Creativity is fostered and nurtured. Our schools are failing miserably at this. Under the new Every Student Succeeds Act states have a greater opportunity to transform education and treat the PTSD of NCLB. Legislators should take this freedom and run, work to come up with out of the box solutions that launch us to the moon.

Here is my proposal for this session:

  • Talk with students! Before you vote on any education-related bill ask a student for their opinion. You will be amazed by the honesty and authentic advice students will share when given the opportunity.
  • Visit schools, experience first hand what’s going on in the places your decisions effect.
  • Remember, one size does not fit all. That was the mentality of prior legislation but move away from that thinking. Stand out for good!

Sincerely,

A student who wants to see education transformed.

Note: Over the next few weeks I will be collecting questions for a monthly series. I want to start engaging students in conversation on policy and learning. As a part of this series I along with some friends across the country will be going into schools and asking students questions that readers send in. Send questions to merrit@stuspace.org or @merritjones on twitter. You can catch student voice pieces every Friday on The Synapse.