empty classroom
Photo from Inside My Classrom on Flickr

Everything old is new again when it comes to the challenges of educating our children.

Addressing those challenges was the center of a panel discussion held over Zoom on Wednesday night by Great Talk Inc and The Alexander Grass Humanities Institute of Johns Hopkins University.

Titled “How to Educate our Children for their Best Future in a Changing World,” the discussion was moderated by William Egginton, director of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute, and chair of the university’s Modern Languages and Literature department.

The panel included Rain Pryor, Baltimore resident, entertainer, writer, director, playwright, educator, and activist; Oliver Song, student rights advocate, environmentalist, and activist; Conor P. Williams, Senior Fellow at Century Foundation, researcher and writer covering educational equity and school diversity; and Joshua L. Glazer, associate professor of Education Policy at George Washington University.

The trappings of 2023’s educational challenges are different than those of 1950 or 1880, of course. Familial circumstances, technological advancements, and political discourse have all wildly different backdrops now. Given those differences, Pryor pointed out the challenge is not to focus on teaching to the test, “but to teach so that the kids are actually absorbing and learning. And to understand that each child definitely is individual and, within that, create curriculum around that that will support them, so that they can learn better and obtain the information.”

Song had a variety of areas he felt merited focus, including school design, class demographics, bridging the opportunity gaps to improve access to all courses, and on a pedagogical level, training teachers to teach students how to learn, versus how to perform a task.

Williams continued to pull that thread of access and opportunity, insisting that while a small number of things are new in education, “American public education in particular, and American education more generally, are systemically deeply biased, and they have been always so. If we have a crisis now around inequality of outcomes from kids, which we do, it’s the same crisis we had” 20, 30, or even 50 years ago.

Glazer’s view was more optimistic, noting that we are talking about inequality more now than we ever did before, and that is a positive development. “We didn’t really know the extent of unequal outcomes because we weren’t checking, and nobody was being held accountable for that. Folks weren’t banging their heads against the wall trying to figure out what we do about that in schools, but they are now,” Glazer said. “[A]t least it’s on the agenda. At least now we accept the notion that schools should be trying to produce both rigorous and equal outcomes. That’s a relatively new idea.”

Homing in more specifically on equality and access, Williams continued to highlight it as the basic crisis and challenge for American education. He defined “school choice” differently than one might hear in the typical political or educational discussion.

“If you’ve ever heard or told someone that you moved to a neighborhood or to a town or to a school district for the school. That’s what I’m talking about,” Williams said. “What I’m talking about is, can you afford school choice for you? School choice that involves a mortgage of hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars and you move different schools, but you’re building community and moving there for the schools is another person’s ‘I can’t afford that.’”

Song complemented the discussion of equity by advocating for high schools to prepare students who may not want to go to college. “It might be for personal reasons might be for financial reasons. It might be just simply they want to attend trade school or enter the military. And I think that schools are gradually beginning to realize that it’s kind of a ‘Yes, and’ situation,” Song said. He described his high school’s program called “Find Your Purpose, Create Your Path,” in which students explore what they’d like to do after high school. “[They] connect what they’re learning, what they’re doing, and extracurricular as well as in the school to how they can move past high school into their future.”

This helped Egginton segue into his next question, which was “What is the ultimate purpose of education?”

“Shouldn’t schools aim at an all-around liberal arts education intended to mold committed citizens? Or should the focus be on preparing for jobs, thinking about economic outcomes? Because you know, those sorts of issues are actually going to lead, in some cases to life or death?” Egginton asked.

Pryor described it as a “both, and” situation. She said all kinds of thinkers are needed, including the artistic, the business-minded, and vocationally-trained. Using the Baltimore School for the Arts as an example, Pryor described the longer school day, but noted that while the students were able to focus on their chosen art there was also heavy emphasis on academics.

“[I]t’s not necessarily that those students are going to be famous artists, famous dancers, singers, actors, famous musicians, but they’re also opening and expanding avenue of choice. So that you could be a music professor, you could be someone who studies art history, who teaches art history,” Pryor said. “So, there’s different avenues. Some people who were in the visual arts have gone into medicine. It’s about expanding, opening the door of opportunity, and that’s what we have to look like.”

Glazer said that for better or worse, school curriculum is driven by public sentiment, and there are many stakeholders in the system of education, which is also under local control. “[L]ocal control, which is a recipe for massive inequality, that’s what we have, barring changing the Constitution,” Glazer said. “Where complicated and yes, divisive, but meaningful topics are discussed where the disagreements are had where we pull back and forth.”

Williams said, “I do want to make sure we say that when we talk about the inequality that’s baked into our society, and then we’re amplifying with our schools, and we don’t just call it socio-economic, that it’s racial, too. Deeply racial and racist, really. But what I would say is that like we’ve had legal wins and we’ve had legal losses, those of us who are pursuing civil rights and equity for our kids.” He also made the point that racism in schools exists everywhere on the political spectrum, not just in Republican-majority cities and states.

Eddington allowed some questions from viewers, and one wrote in to ask what can be done in the short term to make sure kids are getting what they need? Glazer suggested adding time to the school day, strategic allocation of teachers to kids, and making sure those with the greatest need get the most experienced and qualified teachers. He also cautioned, “We just have to be careful that we’re not so overwhelmed by short term goals and by the urgency of the moment that we forget about the long term capacity building, long term shifts in instructional practice, leadership practice, organizational schools, that ultimately are really what are going to make a difference.”

On the question of how teachers might feel empowered to stand up to groups who are trying to dictate the substance of their teaching materials, like Moms for Liberty, Williams suggested reminding them that liberty as a value is not a univocal.

“Liberty can’t only mean people standing up for the narrowing of curricula in schools. That can’t possibly be what it means to be free,” Williams said. “The best opposition that I’ve seen to a lot of this usually astroturfed, heavily funded from some well-to-do, conservative philanthropist is authentic grassroots organizing of moms and parents, dads, families of all different kinds standing up and saying, ‘Look, I want my kid to have the liberty the freedom to go to a school where they get the full curriculum. I don’t want them to go to a school where they’ll be lied to about American history, and I want them to go to school where certain people just erased from their experience. They need the freedom, the liberty to access the whole of what education can be.’”

Glazer told Baltimore Fishbowl by phone after the talk that teachers are quite vulnerable in these situations. “They’re easy targets,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s their role. To engage in something confrontational of that nature. They’re probably very unlikely to have a satisfactory outcome from that process. So, I would be quite hesitant to advise a teacher to charge into that.”

He did say that parent groups have a right to express their ideas about the curriculum and what should or shouldn’t be in it, and battles like this have gone on for decades. They do not, however, have the right to engage in undemocratic tactics, threaten, intimidate, bully, or not allow for an exchange of ideas.

“A number of Black parents have told me they’re not interested, for example, in ‘The Great Gatsby’ being part of the curriculum. They don’t feel that that’s their cannon or has anything to do with their history or culture,” Glazer said.

When asked to clarify the comparison, and if he was likening Black parents who said “The Great Gatsby” doesn’t represent their experience to Moms for Liberty demanding there be no books with LGBTQ+ characters in them, Glazer said, “In a sense I am. Look, I don’t sympathize with their agenda. I would greatly prefer an expansive curriculum that’s representative of all Americans groups, demographics, and communities. That’s clearly where I stand. … I’m comparing them in that they are both groups who have something to say about the curriculum. And they see things in it that they don’t like. Where I personally come down doesn’t really matter. People have a right to express their opinion. What they don’t have a right to do is to vilify others and to engage in all sorts of undemocratic tactics.”