It’s official. Barack Hussein Obama has been re-elected.
When it comes to public education, let’s start by recognizing that Race to the Top was well-intentioned — and ultimately out of step with a truly transformational vision of where American schooling needs to go. Yes, we need better ways to improve teacher quality and capacity; no, we can’t do it by doubling down on what we currently measure. Yes, we need to find a way to ensure equity across all schools; no, we can’t do it by ignoring the ways in which schools are inequitably funded and resourced. And yes, we need to ensure that every young person is prepared to be successful in life by the time they graduate; and no, we can’t do it by continuing to assume that the endgoal of schooling is a discrete set of content knowledge at the same time the new Industrial Revolution is removing all the barriers from knowledge acquisition — and accelerating the need for an essential set of lifeskills and habits.
The definition of leadership I offered in American Schools is the ability to balance a distant vision (“One day . . .”) and an up-close focus (“Every day . . .”). Great organizations, whether they’re schools or Fortune 100 companies, see, nurture, and respond to both mission and vision in everything they do. That’s the tension. That’s the art. And that’s the way to ensure that we’re not just solving the practical problems on our plate; we’re also working towards the aspirational goals that animate our efforts.
In Obama’s first term, we received a series of education policies that addressed the problems on our plate; and we were driven by a mission to perfect our ability to succeed in an Industrial-era system that no longer serves our interests.
What would a healthy tension between vision and mission look like in an ideal second term when it comes to public education? I’d suggest three things:
1. Vision (“One day, every teacher in America will be a special education teacher.”); Mission (“Every day, every school and teacher preparation program will work to deepen its capacity to prepare teachers for the 21st century classroom and its emphasis on greater personalization and customization.”)
Let’s begin by stating the obvious: every child has special needs, and every child deserves an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Here’s something else that’s equally obvious: we are responsible for creating the “short-bus” stigma around special education, and we can change it.
Finland is instructive here. By investing deeply in the capacity of its teachers to diagnose and address the individual needs of children, Finland helped ensure that, in effect, every kid ended up in Special Ed. This removed the stigma, so much so that by the time they reach 16, almost every child in Finland will have received some sort of additional learning support. We could do the same. President Obama can’t require traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs from overhauling what they do, but he can certainly put public pressure on them to do so. And individual schools and districts can certainly shape their own professional development calendars with an eye toward that long-term vision, and a step toward the short-term goal of equipping teachers to become more fluent in the full range of student needs.
2. Vision (“One day, every child will be equipped to use his or her mind well and in the service of a more just and harmonious society.”); Mission (“Every day, every school and classroom will identify, and assess, the skills and habits it believes its graduates will need in order to use their minds well and in the service of a more just and harmonious society.”)
As I’ve said before, it’s time for teachers to stop defining themselves as passive victims of the policies of No Child Left Behind. It’s been a decade, and no one has stopped us from identifying — and then piloting — a better, more balanced way to assess student learning and growth.
Actually, that’s not true. The New York Performance Standards Consortium has been doing this for awhile now, and with great results. Individual schools like The Blue School in New York City or Mission Hill School in Boston have been doing it. And forward-thinking districts like Montgomery County in Maryland are exploring ways to do it more.
What are the rest of us waiting for?
The future of learning is one in which content knowledge stops being seen as the end, and starts being understood as the means by which we develop and master essential skills and habits — the real endgoal — that will help us navigate the challenges and opportunities of work, life and global citizenship. This future will require us to do more than merely give lip service to the skills we value; it will demand that we find ways to concretely track and support each child’s path to mastery, while maintaining our awareness and appreciation for the nonlinearity of learning and of human development. And the good news is the art and science of teaching and learning are not mutually exclusive. We can do this. In fact, many of us have already begun.
3. Vision (“One day, it will be universally agreed-upon that education in America is a public good, not a private commodity.”); Mission (“Every day, every policymaker and decision-maker will repeat this vow: whatever the most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children.”)
In America, we hold two definitions of freedom in creative tension: the first is the capitalistic definition, in which freedom means choice and consumption; the second is the democratic definition, in which freedom means conscience and compassion.
This will never change; our challenge will always be to manage the tension between the two in ways that serve both. But it’s foolish to unleash choice and consumption in American public education and expect that it will deepen our capacity to exercise conscience and compassion. We can either see education as a private commodity or as a public good. And we must choose.
That doesn’t mean we need to get rid of charter schools or choice; in fact, I’d say it’s undeniable that almost every great school I’ve visited has become great in part because it had greater freedom to chart its own path. But it does mean any investments in school choice need to be proactively made in light of the original vision of charter schools, and that we stop pretending that schools with smaller class sizes, better-trained teachers, and richer learning options are only appealing or viable for the families of the wealthy or the well-located. Simply put, a great learning environmentis challenging, relevant, engaging, supportive, and experiential — no matter who the kids are, and no matter where the community is located.
If I were in charge, those would be my marching orders.
What do you think?
(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)