Vigil for Sandy Hook
I can’t get Sandy Hook out of my mind—nor, in one sense, do I really want to.
Photo from the International Business Times.

That it’s taken me five days to write about the horrific acts of violence perpetrated on Newtown, Connecticut, is one indication of how torn up I’ve been about it. As the father of two small boys, this one really hit home. May God bless the children, their educators, and their families.

When we—the Fordham team and many of Flypaper’s readers—pick ourselves up and turn back to our day jobs, the work of school reform, there is an unavoidable question: What does Sandy Hook mean for that work? For our mission of bringing excellence to America’s schools and ramping up opportunity for all children? For the public discourse in which we engage?

One possible answer: nothing. As tragic an event as it was, it’s only loosely related to education policy. A deranged man with access to high-powered weapons chose an elementary school as his target. He might have chosen a hospital, a summer camp, or a circus performance. As Americans, it’s absolutely appropriate to debate whether stricter gun controls or reforms to our mental-health system or greater security barriers might help to reduce the likelihood of such awful events occurring in the future. But as education reformers, it’s hard to see—despite some artless attempts to link the two—how the shooting is directly related to the major school-policy debates of the day. Testing, accountability, charter schools, teacher evaluations—these are still to be judged on their merits, and nothing that happened last Friday changes that.

Still and all, I can’t get Sandy Hook out of my mind—nor, in one sense, do I really want to. Thus far, I’ve resolved to take away two lessons from Sandy Hook; perhaps you’ll agree.

First, we in the reform movement need to tone down any rhetoric that implies that a typical teacher isn’t committed to doing right by her or his students. This isn’t a new idea, but the heroism of the Sandy Hook teachers (and administrators) brings the point into sharp relief. That’s not to say we should relax our efforts to identify and remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. Just as there’s the occasional bad cop, there’s the occasional bad teacher; like the police force, the teaching force is much stronger without them. But neither should we ignore indications from the field that many teachers, including great teachers, have been feeling unappreciated, villainized, and blamed.

Second, we policy wonks need to remember that the issues that so animate us—like Common Core standards, value-added measures, pupil-based funding, and blended learning—are not the totality of what schools have on their plates. I used to read stories of schools practicing lockdown procedures and scoff at such behavior, considering it a bureaucratic CYA performance. Now it’s clear to me that such drills saved lives in Newtown. I am going to try to remember that “raising student achievement” is one top priority that school principals and teachers should be focused on—but it’s neither their sole priority nor exclusive concern. And it’s surely not the top item on their list this week.

The sorrow remains, but the work goes on. Let us commit to bringing America’s heroic teachers and school leaders along with us on the path to reform, not to view them as the targets of reform—or of our scorn. Amen.

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, executive editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States. An award-winning writer, he…

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