School board candidates should show engagement with current education topics

By Kathreen Harrison | May 03, 2014

School boards make decisions that greatly influence the education students receive, yet some school board members know very little about curriculum, brain research, child development, or what is going on state-wide, nationally, or internationally in schools.

In Maine we value local control of our schools and we are reluctant to cede decision-making authority to bureaucrats. We prefer that decisions be made by school boards in our own towns — or at the very least in consolidated school districts.

I have spent some time recently reading about 21st century learning skills and I came away from my research really worried about the state of education in many schools in Maine.

Christopher Dede, a Harvard professor who sits on the Massachusetts 21st Century Skills Task Force, remarked: You can’t just sprinkle 21st century skills on the 20th century doughnut. It requires a fundamental reconception of what we’re doing.

Many school leaders across the nation and beyond are tackling what it means to transform schools — however most in Maine are not. This should matter to all of us in this state, because students who grow up in schools focused on 21st century skills will clearly have an advantage in adulthood over those who do not. We want our children as well-educated as those in other towns, states, and nations.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition supported by the U.S. government and founded in 2002 to start a national dialogue intended to move the nation’s schools forward, states:

Mastery of core subjects and 21st century themes is essential for students in the 21st century. Core subjects include: English, reading or language arts, world languages, arts, mathematics, economics, science, geography, history, government and civics.

In addition to these subjects, we believe schools must move beyond a focus on basic competency in core subjects to promoting understanding of academic content at much higher levels by weaving 21st century interdisciplinary themes into core subjects: Global awareness, financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy, health literacy and environmental literacy.

Most descriptions of a 21st century education also include reference to: creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, and comfort with technology. Diane Ravitch, noted education historian, specifies: an understanding of history, civics, geography, mathematics, and science, so they may comprehend unforeseen events and act wisely; the ability to speak, write, and read English well; mastery of a foreign language; engagement in the arts, to enrich their lives; close encounters with great literature, to gain insight into timeless dilemmas and the human condition; a love of learning, so they continue to develop their minds when their formal schooling ends; self-discipline, to pursue their goals to completion; ethical and moral character; the social skills to collaborate fruitfully with others; the ability to use technology wisely; the ability to make and repair useful objects, for personal independence; and the ability to play a musical instrument, for personal satisfaction.

Many Maine school districts mention 21st century skills in their mission statements and strategic plans — yet most of our plans of study, and classrooms, remain essentially as they were half a century ago. We have adopted the rhetoric of school change while remaining fundamentally unchanged.

School boards, administrators, and teachers all contribute to setting the direction of a school district, however a district’s school board is the final decision-maker. If we want the less forward-thinking of our schools in Maine to catch up to those many years ahead of us in the direction of positive school change, we need school board members who are familiar with the educational landscape outside their own towns.

I suggest that potential candidates for school board should be required to visit exemplary schools in Maine and elsewhere before announcing their candidacy. They should be asked to share with the electorate their vision of excellent schools and their ideas for how to help schools achieve that vision. They should be required to demonstrate an informed engagement with topics in the national educational dialogue.

Decisions made by school boards impact the lives of students in their care. Those decisions should be based on knowledge about education. I urge school boards to adopt policies that will guarantee rigorous debate and informed decision-making.

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