An Education President for the 21st Century

Fall 2008

By Patrick F. Bassett

When my granddaughter, Avery, was five and entering kindergarten, I called her after her first day in school to ask what it was like. She replied, “I loved it, but it’s a long time to keep your shoes on.” This pretty much sums up the experience of too many kids in too many schools: the fit is not all that good, since, increasingly, so many of America’s schools are standardized programs constructed and framed for the convenience and predilections of adults, including government authorities, rather than customized to meet the needs of kids.

One of my greatest concerns is that another “education president” could make this reality much worse by imposing wider and more detailed prescriptions upon what is basically a non-receptive patient, the school and its teachers, most of whom have more experience and better ideas than the federal government about what works and what doesn’t. While strong intervention in schools that fail kids is critical (as Finland, for example, does so successfully [see my "Independent Perspctive" column from this issue]), a general anesthetic like the No Child Left Behind Act, applied to all patients, those healthy and functioning and those on their deathbeds, serves no one well. 

If we are going to equip children effectively with the skills and values they need to be successful 21st-century global citizens and contributors to the economy and their communities, it’s time to let go of the flawed federal model and for America to rethink its approach to K–12 education. One quality of all schools is that they should be well resourced. Beyond that, education needs to be a customized — rather than assembly-line — experience, and parents need to be empowered with school options and engaged in their child’s educational life.

Until recently, all attempts to centralize and federalize education in the U.S. have not gained traction, despite efforts by activist politicians to push the industry in that direction. While a national (dare one even say a global?) framework or vision can inspire, localizing decision-making and control has long served other institutions well: the corporate world, the church, universities, nonprofits, etc. Why not apply the same laissez-faire approach to the schools, at least the high-performing ones? Soon we will have a new president in the United States. My hope is that whoever wins will not want to be “the education president” of old, but rather a president who places high worth on the intrinsic value (both social and personal) of a quality education, who understands the economic and social benefits to the nation of a quality education for all, and who is thoughtful enough to embrace the change in the federal approach needed to make this happen.

What needs to happen? First, the next president needs to be multi-dimensional, addressing issues that extend far beyond the classroom, but which are critically connected to a strong education framework. In other words, the preconditions for educational success require attention to other social priorities. Children need their parents to benefit from a thriving economy, to have adequate housing and health care and access to high quality pre-schools, to be surrounded by a supportive community, and to inherit a sustainable and peaceful world. These essential issues are enormous and, if attended to properly, will occupy much of the next president’s attention. As the Forum for Education and Democracy’s recent report, Democracy at Risk: The Need for New Federal Policy in Education, indicates, “the civic participation gap mirrors the education gap,” a dire trend in lessening community involvement that our next president must address if the unique American will to be involved in public and civic affairs is to survive.

It’s also important to remember that our unique American system of local autonomy for schools (relatively speaking) has served America well, at least to this point, for the vast majority of public and private schools. There are no doubt shortcomings in this system that need to be addressed, but the recent federal intervention via the No Child Left Behind Act, with its preoccupation with testing and ranking, is seriously in danger of having as its outcome No Child Gets Ahead, demonstrating that federal control does more damage than good. As a wag from one of our international competitors from the Far East noted, “When we want the elephant to grow, we don’t keep weighing it; we feed it.”

While we don’t need the federal government to manage, much less punish, schools, we do need the federal government to imagine and fund four initiatives:

  • Develop new financial models that ensure equitably funded schools for all.
  • Incentivize smart college graduates and career-changers into the field of education.
  • Expand national student outcomes assessments, including longitudinal studies, well beyond standardized testing, to really see how well schools and kids are doing and from which school environments the most successful students come.
  • Offer a pilot “gap year” program, perhaps evolving it into a mandatory service requirement between graduating from high school and entering college or the workforce. This could entail military service, community service, or some form of national or global service that would help young people develop the habit of contributing to the community, and develop the real-world skills to be successful in college and the workplace.

The organization I represent, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), provides research and trend analysis for independent schools, including seeking to point to the direction education must go to serve children well. There is an emerging consensus in the literature about this. Here’s just one sampling of that research:

  • According to Tough Choices or Tough Times, by The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, we need to foster creativity and innovation; facility with the use of ideas and abstractions; self-discipline and organization to manage one’s own work and drive it through to successful conclusion; leadership; and the ability to function well as a member of a team.
  • Harvard University’s Howard Gardner, in Five Minds for the Future, tells us that our culture needs diverse minds, including the disciplined mind (expertise in a field); synthesizing mind (scanning and weaving into coherence); creating mind (discovery and innovation); respectful mind (open-mindedness and inclusiveness); and ethical mind (moral courage).
  • In College Learning for the New Global Century, the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise highlights the importance of cross-disciplinary knowledge; communication skills; teamwork; analytical reasoning; and real-world problem-solving skills.
  • The Personal Potential Index criteria for recommendation letters to accompany a candidate’s Graduate Record Exam scores to graduate school (by ETS, the Education Testing Service, provider of SAT, TOEFL, GRE, and other testing services) point to the importance of knowledge and creativity; communication skills; teamwork; resilience, planning and organization; and ethics and integrity.
  • A survey of the public’s expectation for schools, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies (as reported in the KnowledgeWorks Newsletter, Oct. 2007) concurs with this focus on critical thinking and problem-solving skills; ethics and social responsibility; teamwork and collaboration; oral communications; leadership; and creativity and innovation.

Also in my role as president of NAIS, I travel all over the country and world to speak on the topic of high-quality education and to address teachers, school leaders, and trustees (many of whom are leaders in the corporate and civic worlds) on trends in education, in society, and in the marketplace. At scores of these presentations, I have taken a moment to ask the generative question: “What skills and values will be essential for leadership and success in one’s family, community, and the marketplace in the rest of the 21st century?” The results are always the same and match completely with the findings from the most thoughtful contributors to the debate on what should we teach: (1) character (self-discipline, empathy, integrity, resilience, and courage); (2) creativity and entrepreneurial spirit; (3) real-world problem-solving (analysis and synthesis); (4) public speaking/communications; (5) teaming; and (6) leadership.

Thus, we already know what we need to teach, and what skills students need to learn and what values they need to internalize. We already have public and private schools in America that teach these skills and values and do so exceedingly well. Many of them are independent schools, like those you and your recent opponent attended. Many of them are public schools where parents have been able to choose just the right match of a school for their child by moving to a school district that meets their child’s needs or by winning the admission lottery into a good quality magnet school or charter school, or by using a government-funded voucher to apply towards a private school tuition when their local public school is unable to serve them well.

NAIS believes that the strength of the American educational system lies in its diversity of choices. All children should have the option to find the kinds of schools that work best for them. Each school is unique, offering different approaches to education, focused on different types of learners, and in different settings. Private, independent, magnet, charter, religious, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, public magnet, home schools, and virtual schooling are all choices that need to be on the option list for all parents so they have a true choice beyond the local public school that may or may not be a good match. What the federal government can do is empower more people to have choices for the right match between school and child.

NAIS is a membership organization and the national voice of independent K­–12 education that challenges and supports its nearly 1,400 member schools to achieve the goal of providing a 21st-century education today. NAIS believes that, in order to survive and thrive in this century, schools should address sustainability on five dimensions.

  • Financial Sustainability: becoming more efficient and less costly.
  • Environmental Sustainability: incorporating sustainability practices into teaching and practice; becoming more green and less wasteful.
  • Global Sustainability: becoming more networked internationally and less parochial in outlook.
  • Programmatic Sustainability: becoming more focused on the skills and values that the marketplace of the 21st century will seek and reward, and less narrowly isolated in a traditional disciplines approach to teaching and learning.
  • Demographic Sustainability: becoming more inclusive and representative of the wider U.S. population and accessible financially and socially.

Our next president could make all the difference in the world by, on the one hand, avoiding the micromanaging instincts of past administrations and, on the other hand, embracing broad thinking about quality education based on the wealth of current research. As a nation, we especially need to re-target our energies and resources towards empowering choices among all parents and enabling and complementing school services, not dictating them.

Patrick F. Bassett

Patrick F. Bassett is president of NAIS. After 12 years at the helm, he is retiring as of June 30, 2013. This is his 48th column for Independent School.