Putting All Students First

This is an op ed I wrote which was published in the San Mateo Daily Journal on Wednesday, October 10, 2023.

Why have a public education system? Many see it as a way of ensuring their kids have the best life possible, and a better one than they themselves did.

But the truth is it exists to serve the community, not any one individual. It’s like our police and fire departments, which we created to maintain a safe enough environment in which we can prosper as individuals. Public schools aim to create an educated populace so we can all thrive as individuals. Whether that’s through developing people ready to take on or create employment opportunities or helping ensure the body politic doesn’t succumb to misguided or nefarious elected leaders.

What’s the best way to educate children? The only thing the experts I met while spending ten years on the San Carlos school board could agree on was that no single approach works for every child.

Should we segregate children and teach them in the way that’s best for each group? Unfortunately, there’s no way to reliably determine what kind of learner a child is, and their learning style changes and evolves over time. Moreover, people learn different subjects in different ways.

There’s also an important social dimension to learning. Seeing a peer master something you’re struggling with can give you the courage to believe you can learn it, too.

The Sequoia Union High School District, along with many others, is implementing a learning environment addressing and capitalizing on this fluid diversity. The aim is to lift all boats by including a broader range of abilities and backgrounds in most classrooms. Will it work? It’s too soon to tell. But the general sense of the teaching staff – our experts, and our boots on the ground – is that it is working and is worth pursuing.

Unfortunately, it’s run into organized opposition from those who fear it will harm their kids. Under the banner of “Students First” they want to unwind the changes. I think we can all understand how parents might feel that way. In fact, we’d probably wonder about parents that weren’t concerned.

But this is where we need to remember the community’s goal is to educate everyone as best we can. If mixing children of different learning abilities helps those who need more support, then it’s worth pursuing. It’s a concept we have been pursuing, successfully, as regards special ed students, for many years.

“Students First” reminds me of the push back against “Black Lives Matter”. It’s true that all lives matter. But not every life starts from the same place or faces the same obstacles. Similarly, not all children are blessed with the advantages that come from being born into a well-educated, middle-class family that values education.

Do we just shrug our shoulders and say life’s tough? I should hope not; that doesn’t sound like a community most of us would choose to live in. We should want and expect our public schools to take such differences into account and try to mitigate them.

As for the fear that mixing students with different abilities limits some of them, my personal experience argues it doesn’t. Public schools helped me build a life far beyond that of my parents and even my own youthful expectations. But I’ve never forgotten a conversation with my high school biology teacher, whom I respected and admired. One day I complained he didn’t spend as much time working with me as he did the other students in the class.

His reply was both simple and profound: “Mark, I know you’ll figure this stuff out, because you’re smart and your family encourages you to work hard in school. But not all your classmates find it that easy, for many reasons, and I want them to learn the material, too.”

I hope those fighting for their children take a moment to reflect on this and adopt a broader view. The fight should be to help all kids, not just some of them.

After all, it’s in our self-interest. Holding the district accountable for educating everyone will make the world a better place for us as we age and give us confidence that the future will remain bright when it comes time to hand over the reins.

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