A Site for Scholarly Commentary, Debate and Media Resources for the 2016 Election

Student Voices

Let’s radically rethink the way we talk about education

Amid all of the acrimony, posturing and ideological resentment of the current election cycle, we’re losing a great opportunity to talk about some important, timely and promising issues.

One of those issues, whose importance has historically transcended political divides, is education.  Before coming to Duke to study public policy, I taught 5th grade in one of Colorado’s lowest performing elementary schools.  As part of our school’s “turnaround” effort, we were given the flexibility and resources to pursue a number of ambitious changes to our curriculum and pedagogy.  My students were exposed to intensive tutoring, project-based learning opportunities, longer school days and lessons that emphasized the new Common Core learning standards.

All of these efforts marked a significant improvement in the rigor and thoughtfulness of the school’s academic programming, but they still weren’t enough for students like Austin.

Austin was an 11-year-old fifth grader who couldn’t read and who understood math at roughly a kindergarten level.  His life outside of school was dysfunctional, but far from the worst I had seen in four years of teaching.  He met regularly with our school therapist because he had a difficult time controlling his emotions and staying engaged during class, but he had no diagnosed learning disabilities.  Once, after a classroom meltdown, I asked Austin why he was choosing to display his frustrations in such a destructive way.  “I don’t have a good brain,” he replied.  When I explained to him that his teachers and therapist actually knew a lot about his brain and it was more or less similar to those of his classmates, he looked toward the floor and offered a different explanation that I still think about today.  “No one ever taught me how to be.

Students like Austin, who often lack supportive and stable home environments that encourage academic success, are exactly the reason we need to think in bigger and bolder ways about how our schools work.  Implementing and supporting the Common Core standards across all states would be an ambitious step in the right direction, but for teachers who work with the most vulnerable students it still feels like one more “reform” that’s treating a symptom instead of the disease.

Today more than half of students in public schools come from low-income households.  Too many of these students enter school without the non-cognitive skills and mindsets that allow classroom learning to take place.

The good news is that while this is a foundational problem, it’s not an insurmountable one.  A growing body of research is showing that non-cognitive skills and mindsets such as optimism, perseverance, empathy and mindfulness can be taught. And as Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman has pointed out, interventions that promote these mindsets are most effective when they take place early in a child’s life.

A bold, potentially transformative step for our education system to take would be to ensure that every 3- and 4-year-old in America has access to at least half a day of high-quality educational programming, and that this programming is innovative and ambitious in ways that incorporate the best of what we now know about developmental psychology and neuroscience.

For a nation that prides itself on innovation and creativity, we seem to be more than willing to allow our education system to lapse into dysfunction. When we look at our schools, we should remember that our country’s future is staring back at us. Creating schools that are as effective, personalized and beautifully designed as they have the potential to be will take a great deal of political will and creativity, but if we’re willing to think beyond the same old unimaginative, incremental changes, it can be done.

Tyler Gamble, from Ashe County, N.C., is a master’s in public policy candidate at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He can be found on Twitter — @tylerlgamble.