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What Is Our Social Responsibility?

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Do you remember the last time you had a conversation about the role of education in society? Is public education serve best when it leads social change or when it reflects and preserves social values? When was the last time you engaged a conflict about exactly that issue? Was it about curriculum content, about bathroom access, about the school mascot, about free speech or about expenditures for special education? We all know these are emotional and conflict laden moments for leaders.

Compliance Rewarded. Disruption Punished.
One reason schools are so cautious about change is that we aren't sure of our answer to the fundamental question about school and social values. Of course, educators are a reflection of society ourselves and so we don't agree among ourselves, making it even more complex to lead a system into and through one of these debates. No matter whether educated in the 40's and 50's or the 80's and 90's, the large percentage of us who went to public school were taught from a bank of knowledge being transferred from teacher and text to student. High schools were broken up into subjects and periods, and junior highs and middle schools, when they came along, were as well. Success was measured by a lock step movement through grades and courses in a specific number of years. Compliance was rewarded and disruption was punished. Innovation and creative thinking were limited to clubs or events or perhaps a homework assignment. But those clubs and events were dependent upon our ability to attend after school, the system's transportation to support those efforts, or our parent's attention to sign-up dates and capacity to provide the materials needed for support. 

Most of our colleges and universities have continued to train teachers and administrators for jobs in our schools with that same foundation of a body of knowledge for transfer. Developing teacher leaders and thinking about administrators as change leaders has been a slow turning process. Our schools are not filled with educators knowing how to change or wanting to. We barely can agree on the purpose of schools, much less what they should look like.

Change Or Stay The Same?
A recently published PDK poll assumes that our schools should prepare students to think critically across subject areas, provide factual information, prepare students to be good citizens, to work successfully in groups, and to develop good work habits. They asked Americans how well they thought public schools in their community did each of these things. We believe, as those who follow our work know, that the manner in which teaching and learning takes place has to change to produce students who are critical thinkers, creative, good collaborators and communicators. Students need to have authentic learning experiences and have access to professionals in the field. We also believe that each of these aspects of education have to be examined in each school and district and their communities where a common agreement on what each term means and looks like can occur.

It is a growing phenomenon in education that people are asked their opinions and from those opinions changes are made. One can see it in other arenas as well. An obvious example is this election cycle. Candidates send out questionnaires trying to assess what is important to their supporters, they invest in polls and have a bank of analysts to interpret results and translate them into policy positions. Success is measured by winning majority support. But, school leaders never just serve the majority. We must be masters at keeping all involved. We must always keep the minority perspective in our mind's eye.

We have been in the testing ground on social issues such as integration and LGBT rights. But on issues like social media we have been business and media followers. Perhaps the public opinion supports the world inside schools remaining the same, preserving old values and norms. If so, educators stave off change, holding on to what has worked in the past, and wary of letting go in order to learn new ways to reach the students living in this century. This may define the gap with local schools beloved in their communities but public education widely criticized for lack of results.

A New Definition of Success
What exactly is considered success? Even among educators the answer will vary. The traditional markers have been grades, graduation rates and fiscal responsibility. But, if that is the standard, it is a general reality that those in wealthy areas are deemed more successful and those in inner cities and poor areas are deemed less successful. Are there different measures of success for schools in different communities? Can that be OK? And what is our part in overcoming poverty and its effects?

So asking an audience the questions from the PDK poll in two different communities not only means something different, the answers will be vastly different. But we, as a national school community have a common responsibility. Our world is changing and in that regard, we, too, must change. While all may wax nostalgic for some aspects of "the good old days", all of can agree, we hope, that those days are long gone. We have accepted the respoisnbility to navigate this territory of helping children find their way in these tumultuous times where values are shifting rapidly and even clowns, the very people we brought to entertain children and bring laughter and joy, now present danger.

Our society has and is changing. Communication has changed allowing us to spread facts and lies with equal speed, negate quiet, uninterrupted spaces and ignite fears faster than ever before. But it also allows us to stay connected to family and friends and take care of business in ways never before possible. Everything seems grey now with fewer right and wrong, black and white issues. So what are we to do? Well, without being sure whether this is a call for a new freedom for school leaders or a new definition of success for schools and our students, we turn to Steve Jobs...

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them.  Because they change things.  They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.  Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.- Steve Jobs (Apple Inc.)

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email  

Illustration by Ivelin Radkov courtesy of 123rf

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