I began my teaching career three months before the turn of the century, at a time when the baby boomers were starting to retire and bipartisanship was still a thing. We looked forward to a millennium of changes beyond our imagination, in education and in the world at large.
Three years into my career, the 21st-century educational changes began. No Child Left Behind ushered in a seismic shift in education. Standardized testing, school accountability and educational standards became required, unquestionable aspects of every state and district’s educational landscape, and the use of data to evaluate school success became a fixed part of how we run schools. It took years for school districts to adjust to this method of evaluation, and many are still struggling to produce data that reveal a quality commensurate with the education that district leaders believe they are seeing in the classroom.
Change can be exciting, but it also can be all-encompassing. In their classic scholarship on organizational leadership, Lee Bolman and Terrence E. Deal describe four frames of leadership – the structural frame, the human resource frame, the symbolic frame and the political frame. A seismic shift in education hits all four frames at once. No Child Left Behind, for instance, altered the very nature of what schools do (structural), the job requirements of educators (human resource), the messages we send about educational equity (symbolic) and the fixes legislators had made to that inequity (political). For institutions as complicated and bureaucratic as school districts and school buildings, a seismic shift takes a lot out of everyone. After all of the meetings, professional development, and readjusted lesson plans, we hope we’ve found a way to pivot toward improved education for the students we serve.
Another seismic shift arrived after the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting of 2012, this one focused on much stricter school security. In the first decade of the century, yet another seismic shift began as both smartphones and social media arrived in students’ lives, bringing technology into our classrooms every minute of the day. And a fourth shift took place over the course of the first two decades of the 2000s, as many colleges maneuvered toward higher tuitions and lower acceptance rates, thereby turning the promise of higher education on its head and leading to a near-obsessive student/parent focus on the K-12 finish line.
All of these shifts led to countless research and policy changes, as well as deep challenges to the daily lives of educators. We know that big changes are coming in our careers, and we know that rigidity will be of no use. But we do hope that these changes can be spread out a bit, so as to make the essential job of educating students more manageable. Four huge changes in 20 years was a lot. But it was actually easy to handle compared to the past several years.
In this last 5-10 years, the frequency of seismic changes has increased at a pace few could have expected. While I identified four such changes over my first 20 years as an educator, four more have fully developed over the past half-decade or so. For one, we have a mental health epidemic affecting our children, which existed before the Covid pandemic and continues to exist after it. Two, we have ever-increasing polarization that leads to intense divisions and lines in the sand on virtually every topic you can find. Third, we have rapid increases in the development of artificial intelligence, coupled with a widening mistrust of source material. And fourth, we are expected to produce quality education in the midst of catastrophe, whether it’s from infectious disease or climate-induced crises.
In essence, these four current shifts are challenging the very nature of wellness, the very nature of truth, the very nature of learning, and the very nature of survival. With changes this wide and deep and disturbing, it’s no wonder some are choosing not to pursue careers in education. These are tough times all over, and the classroom is no exception.
My doctoral dissertation focused on two tough yet critical topics in education – media literacy and racial literacy. One day, while I was conducting my research in an eighth-grade classroom in New Jersey, students were discussing sources related to immigration. In a small-group conversation, two boys offered differing views on how much is too much when it comes to U.S. open-border immigration policies. When we gathered for full-group discussion, a third boy from that group quietly shared that he’d been listening to his two friends as they had disagreed over whether this country should accept more immigrants. He said he heard both points of view, he believes both classmates to be really good people, and he was having trouble determining who was more correct in their points of view, and what to do about it.
We listened to this student, and the class quietly reflected on his point. He was addressing an issue that has no quick fixes. And yet he was listening, learning, and sharing. He was engaged in respectful conversation with his peers as they studied up on the topic. He was ready to keep learning and talking about the issue. He wasn’t shying away from it, but he also wasn’t expecting easy answers.
Bolman and Deal’s four frames were all on display here: the structure (student-centered learning); the human resource (respectful discussion and discovery among peers); the symbolic (democratic learning with free exchange of ideas); and the political (fearless entry into the tough topics, with mutual respect). This was just one conversation, for sure. But for me, it shone a light on an educational path that can seem dark and foreboding in 2023. Just as seismic changes can hit all four frames, so can collaboration and our commitments to learning and growing together.
The changes are abundant and they are overwhelming. But I have to figure that if these kids can find a way forward, one step at a time, so can I. And so can we.