Mission Accomplished? What the U.S. Can Learn from China

I just returned from my first visit to China in 15 years, and I still can’t get over how aligned the Middle Kingdom remains around its core “mission statement” – and how misaligned we remain in the United States.

In China, the mission that directs the priorities of its private, public and social sectors is the one first laid out by former premier Deng Xiaoping back in 1984 – “building socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Deng’s vision was an unlikely pairing – on one hand, robust financial freedoms and a willingness to welcome foreign economic influences (like McDonald’s and Microsoft); on the other, sharply circumscribed social freedoms and a determination to forbid foreign cultural influences (like Facebook and Twitter).

Back in 1994, when I taught at a university in Beijing, this shared purpose was already well ingrained: the schools existed to instill a dialectical pair of aspirations in young people: the homogeneity of ideas, and the heterogeneity of the marketplace.

Regardless of how one feels about its mission, China’s ability to align the myriad aspects of its society around such a clearly defined goal is a major contributor to its current position as an ascendant power. And not surprisingly, this sort of clarity is characteristic of other global success stories. Take Finland – just thirty years ago a Soviet backwater, and now, after steadily following through on a thoughtful 20-year vision of reform, the unquestioned home of the world’s best schools.

When I look at countries like China and Finland, I see more starkly the misalignment between America’s historic vision as a nation and the current mission of its public schools. Ask anyone to describe the former, and you’ll hear slight variations on the same foundational theme: E Pluribus Unum – Out of many, one. Ask folks to describe the latter, and you’ll hear everything under the sun.

To some degree, mission misalignment is to be expected in a country of 50 states, 15,000 school districts, one overarching federal policy, and a chaotic, inchoate marketplace of reforms du jour. Yet if we take federal policy as our guide, the central mission of public education since 2000 has actually been quite clear: to eliminate the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Will such a mission help America move closer to its larger vision of an equitable democratic society? In theory, definitely. And yet in a new article for National Affairs, education policy expert Rick Hess carefully chronicles how our decade-long obsession with the achievement gap, and our willingness to evaluate that gap based on a single metric – basic skills standardized test scores in reading and math – “has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. And it has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.”

Unquestionably, these efforts have crippled our collective capacity to enact a shared mission for the public schools that is aligned with our shared vision for the public good. We all know we need schools that help children become more confident and creative – and yet we overvalue a small subset of academic skills to the detriment of all other forms of learning. We all know we need schools that nurture the needs of all children – and yet we pursue policies that prioritize the needs of some children more than others. And we know we need schools that pledge fidelity to the same overarching mission and fulfill that mission in myriad ways – and yet we impose stifling evaluative controls that hinder the ability of educators to make real-time decisions about how best to engage and inspire the children under their care.

The good news, I believe, is that we have reached the point in our history where the pendulum’s motion is about to swing back. A growing chorus of unlikely allies, from a wide range of perspectives, is saying ENOUGH – it’s time to restore our collective focus on the intellectual, emotional and vocational needs of children, and it’s time to align the overarching vision of our society with the shared mission of our public schools.

How do we get there? I propose a simple starting point: Since the main factor hindering our efforts is the ongoing exclusive emphasis on reading and math scores – and since the fecklessness of our elected officials suggests it may take a while before we see any serious revisions to federal education policy – let’s invite schools and communities across the country to do two things: opt out of the current system and its myopic metrics of success, and opt in to an open network of innovators that all pledge to find – and share – a better way of evaluating their capacity to equip young people to fulfill our shared vision as a nation? The goal would be twofold: to free schools from feeling like they can’t be innovative; and then, by doing so, to challenge ourselves to proactively chart a better way forward.

I say it’s time for the United States to align itself more proactively around the vision that has animated our history and inspired the world. So who’s in? And what simple structures would such a movement need in order to be effective, inspiring, and mission-driven?

Categories: Democracy, Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change

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One Comment

  1. Posted September 21, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Adam Burk posed a similar prompt on the Coöp, weaving in a deft speeding-abatement metaphor. The post and my response are over here.

    I would also ask us to consider what school would look like if we threw everything out the window first, and then tore down the windows, doors, and walls, before we threw out a single kid.


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