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Context cannot matter in public education

This is an election season, so there is a lot of talk about ensuring that our communities have the right mix to attract businesses, prospective employees, and new residents. Everything is about context – the conditions necessary for vibrant communities, businesses, and families. The right culture. The right climate. The right location. The right people. It is impossible to argue that context matters. 

Take location, for instance. When opening a business or buying a home, people pay top dollar for the right location. Cultural, economic and social factors are just as important, but not always as easy to measure. Together, these all impact our respective communities’ potential. All endeavors require certain conditions for success. It is true for business, politics, and education.

Business people and public educators both recognize the impact of context, but we address it a little differently. Human beings are creatures of context, and factors such as race, sex, and age impact our contextual perception of the world around us, but these are just the most obvious. The tiniest contextual differences can have monumental impact on people. Consequently, different approaches with individuals are often necessary to achieve collective results. Organizations have learned to identify how to help people perform their best based upon an endless number of factors. In education, we call this differentiated instruction or differentiated support.  

The business world adjusts its expectations based on such factors. For example, businesses choose areas that can provide the right employees or customers, and they adjust expectations accordingly. Likewise, expectations for the staff and customers change further based on context. After all, even the most talented people will struggle to sell air conditioners in the Arctic Circle. Demanding success in that context would invite failure. Nevertheless, the same adjustments are not afforded public educators. All schools are held to the same standards, regardless of the circumstances of their communities. Contextual factors are simply ignored when judging a school’s success.

Public educators do not have much choice related to context. We cannot quit serving an area because it does not benefit us, or because the population is shrinking, or because our clients do not fit socioeconomic expectations. We cannot choose our clientele (neither adults nor children), service areas, or product delivery. Regardless of the context, we must deliver the same services, and we are expected to deliver the same results. Such a business model would bankrupt any corporation, but we are not working for a profit. We work for kids. Context impacts everything in education, but we cannot allow those factors to limit expectations.    

When I say that context does not matter in public education, it is both cynical and affirming. I am a bit cynical of critics unwilling to acknowledge that schools in different contexts may expect different results. On the other hand, the same statement affirms the stubborn belief of public educators that all students can learn, regardless of their situation. Context may matter in education as much as it does in business, but we just approach it differently because profit drives a business. Children’s needs drive a public school.

Public educators are keenly aware of our students’ context, but unlike most other sectors, context does not define our expectations.  Instead, the more challenging the context, the more committed your principal or teacher is to overcoming potential barriers. Public educators cannot afford to allow context to dictate results. Our schools, staff, and students are held accountable within a system that assumes all of them come from perfect environments and perfectly ready to learn. And while we wrestle with the obvious double standard, we embrace it because we cannot allow context to determine a child’s potential. That is because public educators welcome all, serve all, and love all. No matter the context of their lives.

Tom Deighan is the superintendent of Lawton Public Schools. For more of Tom’s columns, visit

The Lawton Constitution

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