This article was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on 24 May 2017.
co-authored by Secretary Pedro Rivera and Mairi Cooper
Too often in policy debates, each side comes to the table with talking points and an agenda, rather than an open ear and a commitment to find common ground. When it comes to schools, whatever differences we may have on issues like Common Core, testing, and accountability, our unifying goal must always be to ensure that all children receive a quality education, regardless of zip code, and to find solutions that accomplish that.
In order to move educational equity from a shared priority for policymakers and practitioners to a reality for students in our state, education leaders and advocates have pushed for more intentional conversations and actions to address the underlying problems that prevent so many of our students from working on a level playing field.
This commitment to equity reflects many of the recommendations outlined earlier this year in the joint report from the Aspen Institute and the Council for Chief State School Officers titled "Leading for Equity: Opportunities for State Chiefs." The suggested policy and engagement actions include pushing for greater funding, investing in professional development, and proactively engaging and listening to communities so they can hold state leaders more accountable in meeting goals.
The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act gave us an opportunity to reignite conversations in our state about what it will take to create quality educational opportunities for all students and how we can work together to achieve that vision.
As part of our effort to design a new state education plan, we created stakeholder workgroups made up of educators and the broader community to inform our efforts. We knew it wasn't simply about changing policy or talking to community members - it was about listening to those who have been most affected by inequities and working with them to meet students' needs.
Teachers have been at the core of that engagement. They are the ones who, on a day-to-day basis, educate, mentor, and bolster our children. In Pennsylvania, we've been fortunate to have exceptional teachers from across the state come together to form the Pennsylvania Teacher Advisory Committee, which will serve as a pipeline for teacher voices and input into our collective work.
Giving teachers a seat at the table allows them to share their stories and those of their students and provide timely insight on how changes in state education policy could make a positive difference in classroom practice - or where it might not have its intended effect. Policy makers must understand how their work might alleviate or exacerbate systemic inequities statewide for students most impacted by a legacy of inequitable access and opportunity.
Equity is also about assessing and meeting all the unique needs of our children, and not just the ones that can be measured in test scores. One of our state's more successful ventures in this arena has been the launch of Pennsylvania's Superintendents Academy, a two-year professional development program that addresses challenges faced by students, including poverty and mental health. This setting provides an important opportunity for superintendents to discuss how inequities outside of the classroom affect schools and what can be done to systematically support the whole child.
If we want to change students' lives for the better, everyone - from the secretary of education to teachers to anyone in between - must not shy away from the difficult conversations that a discussion about equity sometimes surfaces, or avoid pointing out the real inequities that continue to affect many children.
With so many advances in technology, we have more opportunities than ever before to engage and connect with others that don't share our own background. Let's keep talking. More importantly, let's keep listening, and work together to act on what we're hearing.