Why I lose sleep at night

Recently I interviewed nominees for the board of Parents for Public Schools, a national education organization. The final interview question was “What makes you lose sleep at night?”

My own answer to this seemingly odd question is this: I lose sleep worrying about the future of our public schools! The growing influence on state and federal education policy—and on the overall education narrative—of the advocates of testing, privatization, union-busting and budget-cutting scares me to death.

The ascendance of this perspective worries me because its underlying principle is disinvestment in the common good. It promotes consumerism over democracy. Do we really want to abandon public education—and its embrace of our shared responsibility to one another—as an organizing element of our democracy?

As I watch this carefully orchestrated effort gain momentum and infect our thinking, I feel overwhelmed. How do you slow it down and turn it toward more inclusive ends? How do we acknowledge the need for change without creating a narrative of a failed system?

I consider myself a school reformer. Schools fall short of their potential and of what I want them to do. I became a public education activist because I wanted to transform this remarkable democratic institution, through which a community guarantees an education for all of its children, into an institution that serves all children well. Equity is at the core of my reform agenda, but in the 20th century the norm for public schools was to educate everyone while only providing “higher-level learning” to about 20 percent of students. 

My goals of sustaining a supported and respected institution, producing more ambitious results, and making those outcomes more equitable across communities and populations, now seem farther out of reach. They are at odds with the intentions of today’s reformers, who promote choice at the expense of funding, accountability over capacity building, and disdain instead of engagement.

My goals require changes that are not being addressed in the standard reform rhetoric. We need to provide adequate funding for public schools and address the persistent inequality among districts. We need to give all children access to a demanding curriculum that challenges them to be critical, creative and independent thinkers, and we need to attract talented teachers and give them the opportunity to construct learning experiences that help every child succeed. 

We must engage struggling children rather than exclude them or judge them as losers, and attract leaders who can create a culture of success. Educators should be evaluated and provided with opportunities to improve. Parents and communities must be mobilized to further the goals of their schools. This work is complex and requires persistence. It is rarely achieved through the blunt instrument of public policy.

Tragically, the heavy-handed solutions now being advanced disregard and undermine the most profound and valuable part of our public education tradition, our commitment to the common good.

Schools can be resistant to change, which is sometimes a problem. In this case it is their salvation, because teachers still get up every day to do their important work, even if they feel isolated and under fire. Most have the will to carry on despite the blaming and shaming and constantly changing set of demands that surround them. They focus on the task at hand—the children who look to them for a hug, help with tying their shoes, guidance on navigating the world, praise for their efforts and, of course, the development of their minds and talents.

Teachers are motivated by their students, but there is a limit to how much we can depend on intrinsic rewards when the public narrative and ill-conceived education policies undermine teachers’ efforts and perceived value.

I lose sleep because we are running out of time! There is an urgent need to push back before we make the work of teaching so unbearable that our talented educators won’t want to come to work.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 6, Issue 4, Posted 11:04 AM, 03.28.2013