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10 Critical Issues Facing Education

During my leadership training at the College of Saint Rose I took a class with Jim Butterworth (my mentor) called Critical Issues. Jim was a voracious reader, an assistant commissioner for the New York State Education Department, former superintendent, and an amazing professor. All of those combined with a 2 ½ hour class led to some of the best educational discussions I've ever had.

Every week we were required to read chapters from various books (i.e. Fullan, Senge, Hargreaves, Reeves and Greenleaf), and numerous stories from Education Week's print copy. It opened up our world from the classroom we were teaching in, or the school we were leading. The class brought together building leaders, teachers, school psychologists and social workers from urban, suburban and rural settings who were all trying to finish their degree in leadership.

I took the class 10 years ago, but never forgot about the importance of discussing issues, even if they were difficult and the people in the room held differing opinions. As educators we should always be able to debate our profession. The problem we have, as does anything that involves politics, is that we cannot seem to move forward together. There are state and national leaders so consumed with being right that they cannot, and will not, budge.

Hopefully, all of that will change this year. After the past few years of increased accountability, budget cuts, arguments and infighting, 2014 will be a different year for all of us...and I hope for the positive. In education there are some very large issues that we have to contend with, and they are not all about accountability and mandates.

Top 10 Critical Issues

Critical issues are those issues that are important to education. They are the barriers that get in the way, or the important elements that we need to focus on in order to move forward and offer better opportunities to our students.

Common Core State Standards - 46 states may have adopted the standards but around a dozen states are backing out or considering backing out of using them. Regardless of how people feel about the Common Core they have led to many hot debates about education, and will continue to do so in 2014.

Student Learning - Student learning is everything from different pathways to graduation, encouraging student voice in student learning, and encouraging them have a place at the table for larger conversations about their education (Lisa Nielsen's Innovative Educator blog that focuses on student voice). So often we focus on teaching, but it's learning that matters most.

Technology - Even after all of these years technology is still a hot button issues. Some people love it and use it flawlessly every day, while others hate it and don't see why they need to be forced to use it at all. In addition what makes it complicated is that some schools seem to have endless resources, while other schools have to use what wealthier schools disregarded as old. Whether its MOOC's, iPads, gaming or BYOD, technology will still be a critical issue to discuss in 2014.

Social Media - Twitter has exploded over the past few years. More and more educators are joining and finding members to their Professional Learning Network (PLN). What's even better is that they are sharing resources to use in their classrooms, buildings and districts, and they are also using it to connect for professional development (i.e. Twitter chats, EdCamps, etc.). Social media will be, and should be, part of a huge discussion in 2014.

Politics - Politicians have long mentioned education in their speeches but the past two years it seemed to have happened more than ever. Many politicians seem to focus on how schools are failing, and their only solution is standardization, accountability and high stakes testing. Many governors, like Andrew Cuomo, are running for re-election this year and education will no doubt make or break their campaigns. How many politicians, like Cuomo and Christie, have spoken about teachers is deplorable and this is the year when teachers continue to take control over that conversation.

High Stakes Testing - Not sure if you have heard of this before but schools across the country have to give high stakes tests to students. Some start it in kindergarten, while others begin in 3rd grade. In most states they are tied to teacher/administrator evaluation and that will no doubt continue to be a big debate this year. There need to be different methods used to assess student learning, and none of it should be "high stakes."

School Leadership - If you go on Twitter, you will find hundreds of school leaders who consider themselves "Lead Learners." This is very important because they see the important part they play in the lives of their students, teachers and staff. In addition, school leaders understand that they can have a positive or negative impact on their school climate, and too many still have a negative impact.

Pre-service Teaching Programs - How can we get the best teachers into our classrooms when so many politicians and policymakers cry that schools are failing? Under those circumstances, who would want to go into the profession? Additionally, pre-service programs need to improve because many of the graduates do not seem prepared for the profession. The real question for 2014 is how can K-12 schools work with these programs to build a community of learners who are prepared for the profession? A little less accountability tied to testing would go a long way to improve this issue.

School Climate - A few days ago Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder announced new guidelines to stop the school to prison pipeline and improve school climate. This critical issue is not just about bullying, but about creating an inclusive school climate where all students can achieve their maximum potential.

Poverty - We know around 22% of our students are living in poverty. We also know that many children who live in poverty come to kindergarten hearing 1/8th of the language (vocabulary) that their wealthier peers experienced. Many of the schools that try to educate these students lack the proper resources, and the communities where children in poverty live often lack the same resources that wealthier towns have. Poverty is an issue that is one of the most critical issues of our time, in and out of schools.

In the End

We have many critical issues facing education this year, and the larger question should be...How are we going to work together to solve them? I stopped with ten but probably could have gone on with a few more. What would you add to the list?


Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (2012. Corwin Press), Flipping Leadership Doesn't Mean Reinventing the Wheel (2014. Corwin Press), School Climate Change (2014. ASCD) and the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter DeWitt on Twitter.

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