How Schools Can Call a Truce in Education’s Ongoing Culture War

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How Schools Can Call a Truce in Education’s Ongoing Culture War

In April 2019, I stood with Virginia’s governor, education minister, and state inspector to declare “Virginia is for students.” It was the crescendo of a multi-year education reform effort spanning two governorships, led by a host of state and local education leaders.

Since then, a growing group of non-partisan education leaders has worked hard to deliver on this promise. This has included the establishment of the Commonwealth Learning Partnership, a coalition of more than 40 educational groups and universities committed to modernizing Virginia’s public education system; the launch of EdEquityVA, the state’s roadmap for and training in education; and more recently, the formation of a nationwide education fund, Virginia Learns.

These training leaders have offered constant support to the training fronts throughout the pandemic. Still, extended crisis schooling led to heated disagreements between parents and schools, which were fully demonstrated at school board meetings and on social media. Virginia, like so many places, has cultural wars that dominate the discourse of public education, which has removed attention from the needs of schools, educators, and students.

It is no surprise that education ended up being problem with hot-button campaign in Virginia’s most recent gubernatorial race. The Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, campaigned on his record. The Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, took a different approach, taking advantage of the fears and frustrations of his constituency. Youngkin won on the promise of more parental control in education, saying his first action would be to fire the state’s head of education and that he would promote school choice.

While this was an effective way to win a race, it lacks the complexity of the issues affecting training in COVID recovery. In addition to phrases and promises, we need decision makers who bring people together to work toward the common good of students’ learning, healing, and improvement. Using education as a wedge to arouse anger, rage and deepen division will only make things worse.

Youngkin’s victory and the public debate on education that took place across Virginia and the United States before his election highlight three issues we face in education: issues of trust, truth, and trauma.

Pandemic experiences have made parents less confident in their children’s schools. Campaigns and conversations have focused on who should have the power over a child’s education, when the reality is that parents and educators share that responsibility.

For many children, the adults who support learning go beyond the household and school. Extended family, counselors, service providers, and continuing education programs are also part of the equation. Adults must work in partnership to support children’s learning and well-being. Parental and family engagement along with school-community partnerships must be a top priority for states and schools. This requires professional development of effective engagement, working with parent groups, and providing ways in which parents and community partners can have a voice in educational decisions.

Parents have their own role to play. This starts with adopting an attitude of empathy and openness towards the people who run schools and teach children. The last two years have been tough for everyone, but the pressure and demands on the educators have been extreme. Formal parent groups, such as the PTA, and informal organizing groups, can establish and enforce a culture that upholds the dignity and worth of all human beings.

Exacerbating these trust issues is alarming disagreement about the truth. The culture wars are getting worse. CRT and school curriculum debates reveal disturbing differences between what people consider “truth” in the current circumstances and American history. We can not move around on this issue. We have to work our way through it. Schools and communities need the help of experienced facilitators and mediators to conduct difficult and necessary conversations about racism, inequality and our history. This is work of reconciliation and it is essential for the health, healing and well-being of students, families and communities. If we do not do this, our children – especially those who are black, brown and native – will fall into the fault lines created by these cultural wars.

Trauma has been an accelerator to problems of trust and truth. We are almost two years into the most disruptive period many of us have ever experienced, and trauma abounds. Without addressing, it will require a continued toll on students ‘learning and mental health, educators’ well-being, and the community’s capacity for collective care. Healing from trauma takes time, training and focus. This is especially true in places and with people who already experienced trauma before COVID. It is time for managers to prioritize and invest in mental health, be trained in trauma-informed care, and work to improve care systems.

The future of our schools and the long-term recovery of COVID education is about more than power, progress and choice. It will last longer than a campaign cycle and even a governorship period. True recovery is about care, connection and healing. For students to learn and schools to function, we must work and heal together.

For nearly eight years, I have worked with Virginia’s most inspiring educators and educators. They know that Virginia is for students is a promise that extends across political and societal divides and that it must hold true, even in times of disruption or disagreement. This is the way forward that supports students, builds good schools and a future of learning where young people can thrive.

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