Shaun Johnson’s article, “Climate Scientists, Educators, and Why We Avoid Consulting the Experts,” addresses an important issue that frustrates me on a daily basis—whose voices have the most influence in education? Johnson makes the parallel between non-climate scientists extolling their inaccurate expert opinions on climate change and “economists, statisticians, software engineers, CEO’s, politicians, financiers, hip-hop artists, and talk show hosts” explaining the best ways to improve education. Why do we place so much weight on these opinions? If I need expert advice on how to treat my allergies, I wouldn’t ask a celebrity, my local congressperson or a financier. I’d ask my allergist. Yet, we don’t think twice of including these voices in debates about education.
Johnson also wonders:
Is it just coincidence that global warming and education are both socially and politically charged fields? There’s a lot at stake for wealthy interests to ensure that global warming remains controversial and contested. Otherwise, we’ll finally adjust our lifestyles and that could hurt a bottom line. A similar situation might be true for education. Certain well-heeled entities are very interested in the acquisition of valuable public per-pupil dollars. This might be why the real experts get shut out: they actually know what might be best for students and not someone’s bottom line.
This is the real question—what is the motivation for debates about education? Politics? Recognizing the possibilities of entering a $900 billion market? A (perhaps unconscious) desire to maintain the social status quo? Americans like to believe in the narrative of meritocracy—public education offers the opportunity for all Americans to pull themselves into a higher socioeconomic level if they simply work hard enough. We hold tightly to this narrative, despite significant evidence to the contrary. Those in political power don’t want to admit that they might not have risen to that position if they had come from different circumstances—they all want to believe in the merits of their own hard work and labor. If we really believed in equality in education, we’d make the hard decisions that would genuinely change the educational experiences of the children attending our under-performing schools.
When I’m evaluating people’s positions on educational reform, I’ve found that looking at their record on issues of equity serves as a good barometer for determining motivation. What other kinds of projects have been their passions? Then I look to see their connections to actual educators—have they personally worked in education? If not, do they surround themselves with folks who have extensive experience in education?
There are certainly non-educators out there who fund projects for the right reasons—I’ve met a few. However, they’re the rare exception. Do I believe that only educators should be involved in educational reform or in creating new educational technology? No, what I believe is that we need true partnerships in designing the direction education should take that involve real education experts—those who have spent significant time in classrooms.
How can we shift our national thinking so that we recognize true expertise in education?