An Education System That Is ‘Built to Last’

President Obama shaped his State of the Union address around the notion of creating an America that is “built to last.” This idea invites us to build solid, continuing progress around a strong, stable foundation. It’s a refreshing change from the more familiar, and sometimes self-defeating, political rhetoric of “crisis” and “crash programs,” make-or-break deadlines, and heroic (unsustainable) efforts. We should bring this perspective to discussions of education, including higher education.

The Obama Administration, the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, the College Board, many states, and no doubt other entities have announced educational attainment and/or degree completion goals with hard deadlines attached. Sometimes we talk about these goals as if once we meet them all will be well. But, as we know deep down, implicit in these goals is the presumption that when we reach the goal in 2020 or 2025 or whenever, we will then outpace that achievement in the next year and progress still further the following year. Educational success isn’t a goal like beating the Nazis in World War II – when it’s done we can all go home to our farms and factories. Rather, these goals represent the kickoff to lasting and growing success.

But the deadline language by itself may not invite us to “build to last.” Our aim should be an educational system that yields growing success for decades to come.

So what does an educational system that is built to last look like? We by no means have a blueprint to offer, but we can identify some key elements of a high functioning system.

  • To get people off to a good start, we need to ameliorate the devastating impact on the opportunities for early development disadvantaged children are faced with at (indeed before) birth as a result of inadequate health care and other gaps in social support.
  • That healthy start in life needs to be followed by effective support for parenting among at-risk populations and for healthier, safer, and better supported communities where very young children can be freed from the obstacles that now plague the early development of too many. It’s hard to believe that this can be accomplished fully without addressing the problems of concentrated poverty and isolation in the inner cities of our deeply unequal nation.
  • After providing children with a decent start, we need an early-education system that puts high-quality preschool in reach of all three- to five-year-olds.
  • That strong foundation makes feasible the development of elementary schools that are effective in reaching most children, getting them ready for success in middle and high school. In all likelihood, accomplishing this goal will require great improvements in understanding how to prepare people to become good teachers and to continue to get better on the job. Better teacher preparation and stronger professional development for in-service teachers need to be joined with an employment system that keeps good teachers committed to their jobs over a career. At the same time, stronger schools have to be complemented by providing supports for families that improve aspects of home and community environments out of the reach of even the best schools.
  • More successful elementary schools can enable students to move into high schools able to succeed in more demanding high-school curricula than most students now experience in most schools. Through better advising and a curricular framework that tests their capacities and engages their interest, students will be able to learn in high school what they are good at and what they like to do, and thus be better able make intelligent choices among options after high school, whether it be further academic education, occupational training, or immediate entry to the job market.
  • With high schools working well for most students, we will put many more students in position to succeed in postsecondary education, earning either bachelor’s degrees or other credentials that fit their interests and capacities. In a high-functioning educational system, most people will be ready to enter the labor force in a viable career path before the age of 24.
  • In such a world, there would be three primary elements in the educational system for adult students over age 24. First, there will of course be people who, for one reason or another, don’t succeed in their early post-high school educational efforts, or who go right into the military or the labor market from high school, and find that later they are ready to come back to education. They will need the proverbial “second chance” to succeed. But this should be true of many fewer people than now and will be a more manageable problem when earlier levels of schooling are functioning well. Second, there will be people who have not finished their educational course by age 24, and are pursuing professional and academic graduate degrees. Finally, there will be substantial numbers of people returning to educational institutions of one kind or another throughout their lives, to add to their employment skills, to change careers, or to pursue other valuable educational pursuits, whether in politics or the arts or literature.

We expect that many readers – perhaps among them leaders who have endorsed ambitious educational goals – will see this vision of a high-functioning educational system as hopelessly utopian. And, to be sure, its full achievement is an ambitious long-term goal. But we need this fuller picture. The long-term goals for college completion are at best convenient shorthand for the more complex problem of articulating the elements of an educational system built to provide lasting success for most Americans. These quantitative goals fail, for example, to distinguish between one-time efforts, like finding older adults who could readily claim a credential with little or no effort, and more lasting efforts that are building blocks for future success. And of course the deadlines we set will if anything discourage investments that won’t mature until after the deadline passes – improved early education being the most obvious example. Building an educational system that will provide lasting success is not a project with a built-in deadline, but it is urgent, important, and demanding. This is going to take a while; let’s get started.

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