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"They're All Our Children"

Alongside discussions of mental health and gun control, we must use the lessons of Sandy Hook to reframe the debate around education reform.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Cynoclub via Shuterstock.com

 

It should not have taken the killing of 20 innocent children and 6 dedicated educators in a school, but I will not belabor that point.

At a prayer vigil in Newtown, CT, on the evening of December 16, 2012, President Barack Obama asked and answered his own question about America's children:

"And in that way, we come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we're counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we're all parents; that they're all our children.

"This is our first task — caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged.
And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we're all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

"I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We're not doing enough. And we will have to change."

While most of the country anticipates that Obama's moving and veiled speech will result in a new national discussion about gun control and mental health, and that this reframed debate may lead to policy reform addressing both, I believe Obama has also established the new paradigm for education reform: every student, our child.

When President Obama first spoke of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary school and cried, I cried also. It was not that the president of the U.S. was allowing his emotions to be witnessed by the entire world, but that I saw him as a father and in that moment trusted his humanity and the promise of his leadership.

But I often think of President Obama as a father, and as a man of color. Those details of his status as president, in fact, have been the source of my deep disappointment in his many failures to lead the U.S. as I believe he could, especially his role in the bully pulpit of how the U.S. views our public schools and teachers.

I have more than once asked why President Obama insures one type of schooling for his wonderful daughters while allowing his Secretary of Education and the U.S. Department of Education to promote and implement policies that marginalize further "other people's children."

In the first administration of Obama's presidency, we have not treated public school students as "all our children"—and we certainly haven't treated America's teachers as the teachers of our children.

If the shooting of children and educators in an elementary school was President Obama's epiphany about every child, our child, and Obama now will lead the nation to confront and change our legacy and culture of violence as well as our failure to provide every American the basic right of full access to mental (and health) care, then we must also rethink our education reform agendas to be grounded in that same principle so that universal public education in the U.S. insures that each student is our child and that this is expressed in the actions of our days.

Confronting gun control and mental health are complex and daunting agendas for President Obama and the U.S. Reframing education reform will be no less complicated, but seeking public schools as foundations of our democracy can be realized if we ask hard questions and measure our new policies against Obama's refrain, "they're all our children."

The new paradigm in education reform must include the following:

  • A national acknowledgement of the plight of childhood poverty, both as a scar on our nation and an crippling weight on the back of our public schools and teachers. The U.S. must embrace the Martin Luther King Jr. imperative from 1967:
“As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor….In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else….We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”
  • A national commitment to workers' rights, including teachers as workers, because our national workers are parents and the conditions of work are the conditions of living and learning for the children of America.
     
  • A recognition that the actions of the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary, while rightfully honored as heroic, are the essence of what it means to be a teacher since teachers enter and conduct their lives each day as if their students are their children.
     
  • A confrontation of our eagerness to police our children, creating schools-as-prisons, as well as our failure to address the school-to-prison pipeline that includes inequitable discipline policies by race, gender, and class that mirror the fact that African American and Latino males outnumber white males in prison 10-to-1.
     
  • A renewed commitment to public schools and public school teachers that rejects distractions such as charter schools and Teach for America, both of which perpetuate the marginalization of "other people's children" and institutionalize policies and practices that no one in privilege would allow for her/his child.
     
  • An examination of the rise of racial and class segregation in community-based public schools and charter schools—along with a reform agenda that addresses equity of opportunity for all children.
     
  • An immediate repeal of the accountability paradigm for schools based on standards and high-stakes testing, to be replaced by an equity of opportunity paradigm that addresses access to rich and engaging learning experiences in safe and supportive school environments.

President Obama's call for each child, our child has, as Obama acknowledged, been absent in the U.S.—as Barbara Kingsolver laments about our rugged individualism mythologies: "Our nation has a proud history of lone heroes and solo flights, so perhaps it's no surprise that we think of child-rearing as an individual job, not a collective responsibility."

It is well past time to face our culture of violence, our gun fetish, our negligence to recognize universal health and mental care as a right of free people, and our failure as a nation of parents. "They're all our children."

"Be careful what you give children, or don't," Kingsolver warns, "for sooner or later you will always get it back."

 

Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.

 
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