Outcomes for public education: Should we set higher goals?

A message to President Obama:

Here are my


All kids …

1. Prepared for a career or job that can provide a decent quality of life for their family

2. Informed and ready to participate in our civic life and democrary

3. Enabled to live a fulfilled life

4. Information Literate, that is, able to use and evaluate information to understand and solve problems.

The explanation:

Last week, the Obama administration announced its plan to overhaul No Child Left Behind. According to the Whitehouse press release, “the plan will set the ambitious goal of ensuring that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and a career.”

For those of us in the nonprofit world who are completely absorbed in the push to measure societal outcomes, I was happy to see the President start with a “societal outcome” as the framework for public education.

In designing programs to achieve societal outcomes, every system starts with certain assumptions or theory of change on how to get there.

The NCLB theory of change might look like this:

Proficiency in reading + writing + math = preparation for college and career.

After eight years of the NCLB experiment, we have sufficient evidence of its results. Schools with parents who have high educational attainment score well. Schools in low-income areas (as income has a high correlation with parental education attainment) score poorly. Scoring isn’t standardized across the US. Grownups cheat.

In the urban district where my kids went to school, four school administrations and countless educational reforms have resulted in very limited progress.

So, maybe the NCLB theory of change isn’t enough for low-performing schools?

Maybe the path to ensuring successful college and career success is about more than proficiency in a limited number of test subjects?

And maybe the success of our society depends on more than just college and career success?Eight years of NCLB have done little to narrow the achievement gaps. The relentless focus on test scores has resulted in low-performing schools spending more and more time teaching to the test. That leaves little time for other traditional aspects of education — civics, the humanities, visual and performing arts, enrichment activities, in-school athletics and social-emotional development. Areas that were already in short supply in low-income school districts before NCLB.

The sad irony is that what’s been lost are many of the elements essential for college and career in a 21st century creative economy. Systems thinking. An understanding of how the social and natural worlds interact. A historical and political framework. New ways of seeing. Creative expression. These subjects enrich the school experience… and they help kids want to stay in school.

Low-income families already have a hard time delivering these essential extras to kids. If they don’t get the extras in school or out-of-school time, our low-test-score achievers will continue to be left behind their more well-off peers.

So, I’d like to see the President set even loftier goals for public education. While our children deserve good jobs and salaries,

the future of our democracy and planet demands educational goals set higher than career and job success.

A number of years ago, I was a  member of a cohort of facilitators working with the Best Schools project in New Hampshire, in the very early days when schools were still trying to figure out what NCLB had wrought.

Through that work, I was very fortunate to become acquainted with the work of  Tony Wagner, now Co-Director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard School of Education. I invited Mr. Wagner to speak to the school community (parents, students, teachers, staff) at the high school I was working with in Weare, NH.

Mr Wagner’s presentation that day left an indelible imprint on my brain. Instead of one, Mr. Wagner set out 4 goals for public schools. As I remember them (and I’m paraphrasing):


1. To prepare for a career or job that can provide a decent quality of life for your family

2. To be an informed and active participant in our democracy

3. To live a fulfilled life

4. To be able to use and evaluate information to solve problems – i.e.  information literacy.

I don’t think these are too lofty for public education. I think they are essential elements.And to achieve them, we have to bring back all of the missing pieces of our educational system. The ones that provide a global perspective for kids. That set high standards, yes, but standards that include solving real world problems, that expect real contributions to community, that ensure social-emotional development, that require the use of community resources, and that expect students to be active participants in their own future and the future of their ducational systems.

So Mr. President, as you continue to refine your educational plans, I hope you’ll consider adding back those three other goals. Our kids and our country need them.

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