What's Working: A New Year, A New Conversation

I have never been one for making New Year's resolutions, but I do always take time during the holidays to look back and reflect on the past year and what it means for the road ahead, both personally and professionally. This was particularly important for me to do this year. 2016 was a challenging year for the country, and there is still uncertainty over what a new year and a new administration will bring. But the question I'm most interest in exploring as we start 2017 is this: how can we use a new year as an opportunity to start a new conversation?

As the person who leads the Gates Foundation's work in education, when I look back at 2016 I see many bright spots and promising examples of progress: students across the country are showing improvements on state assessments; teachers are connecting with one another and sharing best practices in new ways now that K-12 standards are consistent across most states; colleges and universities are using innovative technology to more effectively respond to the needs of today's college students and provide new tools for their faculty.

Over the past year I've highlighted these stories and shared other examples of "What's Working" for two important reasons: 1) it is an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the great work of students, teachers, schools and institutions and 2) it reminds us that progress comes in different shapes and that promising, replicable approaches can be found all around us if we look for them.

But while it is important to highlight successes and approaches that are showing promise, it is equally important to put the work in context. Any "resolution" to do better - made at the New Year or not - begins with an honest assessment: in this case, how our education system is serving our students overall. To set new goals or recommit to those not yet achieved, we must have a shared understanding of what is working, what isn't, and for whom. A shared understanding of the challenges we're facing is critical, particularly as a new administration comes to Washington and brings with it new ideas and approaches.

So, let us look at the facts:

The research on the benefits of quality preschool is clear: They are life-changing, and life-long. Yet when less than half of eligible 3 and 4-year-olds are enrolled in any preschool program, let alone a high quality preschool program, we are clearly not doing enough as a nation to make sure that our students start their education journeys off on the right foot.

Succeeding in college requires a quality high school education. Yet when 83% of students are graduating high school (a record high), but only 38% are ready to succeed in college, we have work to do to ensure that a high school diploma truly stands for being ready for college and a career. And when only 11% of Black students, 20% of Hispanic students, and 20% of low-income students are college-ready, our goal must be to close achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color and make sure all students receive a high-quality education.

A college degree is a bridge to opportunity like no other. Yet when a high-income student is five times more likely to have a degree by age 24 than a low-income student, our challenge is to work to make sure institutions and policies better serve the new majority of college students today - working students, older students, first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color.

By 2025, our workforce will be short as many as 11 million credentialed workers. When today only half of students who start a certificate or degree program actually achieve a credential, we can't ignore the impact this shortfall will have on future jobs, the economy, and our society.

These are the education challenges we face as a nation. And the solutions aren't simple or easy. There is no silver bullet in education that will turn these realities around in a matter of months or even a few years. To make progress, we have to commit to putting student success at the center of all of our collective efforts - above party, above ideology, and most importantly, above the fear of making hard choices.

There will no doubt be disagreements over how we get there, but all of us who work in education should focus on the goal we share - ensuring all students receive a high-quality education, regardless of where they live, the color of their skin, or how much money their parents make. This will require setting aside tired rhetoric and old debates. We have an opportunity to have a new conversation - a conversation that looks at the evidence and builds on gains we're already seeing; a conversation that holds up equity as a goal while also making clear that we are committed to ensuring all kids have the opportunity reach their full potential.

My parents grew up poor, put themselves through school, and for most of my childhood they both worked two jobs to ensure my siblings and I had options that were not available to them. They were very clear that just as it was for them, education would be a critical bridge to opportunity for my brothers and me. The challenge facing our country today is the same: to give children - no matter the circumstances they were born into - a great education.

I'm confident 2017 can be a year of progress for students, but it is up to all of us - parents, educators and principals, institutional leaders, community and business leaders, policymakers and advocates - to make sure that we create the conditions necessary for students to achieve their dreams in college, career, and beyond. That is the kind of New Year's resolution we should all get behind.