Reimagining Education, NOW

It's a presidential election season, which means we can all be sure of two things: conversations about education will take a backseat to more "pressing" issues like the economy and foreign policy, and Congress will once again do nothing to address our desperate need for a new federal education policy.

However, just because our elected officials can't get the job done doesn't mean the rest of us are powerless to be the change we wish to see in the world. In fact, local educators could do a lot to sidestep national policymakers by committing to do just three things this coming school year:

1. Be Visionary -- Almost every school in America has a mission statement to guide its short-term decisions. Almost no school in America has a vision statement to guide its long-term aspirations. Is it any wonder that educators feel overwhelmed by the day-to-day responsibilities of their work?

One of the defining characteristics of any transformational organization -- whether it's an elementary school or a Fortune 500 company -- is an ability to manage the creative tension between a distant vision and an up-close focus. As educators, that means it's essential we keep an eye on the daily progress of our students in subjects like reading and math. And it means articulating a long-range goal to which we aspire, and being mindful of which decisions will get us there -- and which will take us off course.

As an example, consider Science Leadership Academy, a public high school in Philadelphia with a mission of "providing a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and entrepreneurship." SLA's mission clarifies the curricular focus of the school, but it tells us little about what shapes its philosophy of learning. For that, you need to consider its vision: to consistently ask and answer three questions -- "How do we learn? What can we create? And what does it mean to lead?"

That extra layer of specificity is helpful not just to prospective parents, but also to SLA students, staff and administrators. And while educators are right to feel that the last ten years of federal education policy have narrowed their work to little more than basic-skills literacy and numeracy, there's nothing preventing schools from taking the time to dream bigger.

2. Be Specific -- Everyone agrees that in an ideal school, young people acquire the skills and habits to develop not just intellectually, but also socially and emotionally. According to our lawmakers, however, the mark of a successful school is still disproportionately based on reading and math scores. That's ridiculous -- but so are we if we refuse to take the time to explicitly identify which additional skills and habits we want students to practice and acquire.

This sort of work occurs informally in most schools, which hold generalized values for things like character, collaboration and empathy. Sometimes these words may appear on a wall; other times they may get discussed during an advisory class. But there's a big difference between implicitly valuing something in a person and explicitly committing to ensure that a person embodies those values.

The good news is that in a lot of schools, this sort of work has already begun. At the Project School in Indiana, educators work every day to nurture three sets of habits in their students: mind, heart and voice. And at the MC2 school in New Hampshire, students are assessed by their ability to master seventeen habits of lifelong learning -- habits with specific rubrics and sub-skills that build a clear map for personal growth and evaluation.

Imagine if every school took the time to decide which skills and habits were most important to them, and then went the extra step by deciding how to measure what matters most?

3. Be Comprehensive -- It is both necessary and insufficient to craft a shared vision or identify which skills are most important for a young person's overall learning and growth. What distinguishes transformational schools from the rest is their commitment to align everything they do -- from student assessment to teacher evaluation to parent inclusion -- around what they aspire to become.

This is not a code our elected lawmakers are likely to crack anytime soon. So let's stop waiting. Let's use the coming school year to take back our profession by raising it to a different standard of clarity and possibility. And let's start holding ourselves accountable to a vision that actually reflects what we know is required to leave no child behind.