In 1912 The RMS Titanic sank in the north Atlantic causing the death of 1502 people. This was only the 7th deadliest maritime disaster in history, but its’ impact on popular culture goes far beyond that status.

When the “great ship went down” the deck chairs were stowed, but that hasn’t stopped the increasing use of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic to signify “a pointless effort in the face of impending disaster“.  An excellent example of this phenomenon is found in discussions on improving education.

Current discourse on ‘improving’ education is a lot of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”.  We have  important and difficult issues to address but ignore them. Bring up “flipping the class” or “BYOD” and experts flock to tell you why and how wrong you are, but mention the big issues affecting student learning and you’re greeted by silence.

Perhaps we’re overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges we face so we distract ourselves, choosing instead to focus on where we can make an impact. But if we don’t acknowledge the big challenges, efforts to move education forward will be for naught.

These are the biggest ignored challenges affecting education today. Failing to address them resigns us to working in the fringes while allowing students to slowly sink into the frigid waters:

  1. Poverty: The UNICEF Report Card 10: Measuring Child Poverty said that 13% of Canadian children live below the poverty line, 24th out of the 35 industrialized countries studied (the US was 23%, 34th out of 35 countries). Finland has the second lowest child poverty rate at 5% and the best education system in the world. Coincidence? There’s evidence that in  US schools where poverty levels are low student learning is “the best in the world“. The problem for many low performing students probably isn’t an education problem, it’s a poverty problem.
  2. Safety: The work of Abraham Maslow (way back in 1943) said we can’t expect students to be creative problem solvers (self-actualization) if they are feeling unsafe. There’s a laundry list of threats to student safety: bullying, family violence and the fear of intruders, etc. In the wake of the tragedy in Sandy Hook schools are increasing security, adding to locked doors, video cameras, armed security guards, metal detectors and “lockdown drills”. No wonder parents are increasingly deciding that schools are no longer safe and choosing instead to home school their children (31% of homeschooling parents said they do so because of safety concerns).
  3. The Purpose of School: In his 1996 classic “The End of EducationNeil Postman wrote that the initial purpose of public education, to produce “good citizens”, is no longer relevant. Postman asserts that we need a new narrative for why we school. Ask ten educators what the purpose of school is and you’ll either get  confused looks or ten different answers. The lack of agreement on a clear purpose makes progress almost impossible. Are we producing future workers? Effective stewards of the planet? Problem solvers? Critical thinkers?
  4. Teacher Morale: 2012 could be called “The Year of the War on Teachers“. The teacher strikes in Ontario are just the latest battle in an ongoing war fought in British ColumbiaChicago, Australia, and many other locations. Teachers that aren’t striking are under attack  from government officials and religious extremists. In the US, teachers are battling against merit pay and unfair evaluation systems. All of this while research indicates that teachers are the most important in school factor in student achievement. If we want the school system to work we have to start showing ongoing, meaningful support for teachers.
  5. Funding: The global economic slowdown has led to shrinking economies and smaller tax bases. Rather than growing the economy by investing in education, governments chose job layoffs, program cuts and increased tuition in higher education. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t solve the short-term economic problem or the long-term one. When will we “get it” that public education isn’t a cost, it’s a long-term investment.

Educators work within a bigger context and it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. We need to step back from time to time, look at the bigger picture and make sure we’re sailing in the right direction.