Updating American Public Education


Public schools have long been an essential force in preparing generations of Americans to live well, contribute to community life, and build the country’s social and economic vibrancy. A strong education system has produced a nation of problem-solvers: forward-thinking innovators who have made the most of emerging opportunities, and wisely guided the nation through unpredictable times. As the pace of change increases, and the world becomes more complex, our continued national well-being depends on our education system. We need this system to develop competent and caring citizens who are willing and able to solve pressing social problems. An education system that serves these goals is a public good, an American right, and a collective necessity. These values, aspirations, and imperatives are deeply rooted in American culture, and as our nation moves forward, we must fully embrace them to guide our efforts to improve our system of education.

Just as a home must be updated periodically to maintain its value, our education system is long overdue for a substantial renovation. Five contemporary trends underscore the urgent need for assessing what we must change to meet today’s needs:

  • The modern world demands more knowledge and skills. More than ever before, full participation in social, political, and economic life requires that all Americans be educated well.
  • We know more about how learning works – and doesn’t. An accelerating science of learning provides compelling insight about significant barriers to learning and development in conventional schooling.
  • We have more information than ever before –and new ways of communicating it, sharing it, and accessing it. Technology has fundamentally altered the relationship between people and information. Some aspects of our approach to teaching and learning must change with it.
  • Changes in wealth, wages, and upward mobility are affecting the learners in our schools. Economic inequality is creating unequal childhoods, including growing gaps in the out-of-school resources and supports for learning and development. 
  • Our nation is becoming more diverse, and so are our schools. More than half of U.S. schoolchildren are children of color, and a quarter come from immigrant families. These changes challenge us to revisit policies and practices that were built in an earlier, more homogenous era.

To address the demands of this moment, there is significant work to be done. As we revamp and renew one of the most important institutions in American life, the following must become the pillars on which the teaching, content, organization, funding and other components of educational systems rest:

  • Deeper learning that cultivates academic competence, higher order thinking skills, and commitment to learning, and that readies young people personally and socially for responsible adulthood;
  • Student-centered approaches to learning that enable educators and learners to work together to ensure that all learners become deeper learners through personalized, experiential learning. 
  • Resources, conditions, opportunities, and measures of accomplishment that ensure equitable and inclusive education for all of the nation’s diverse young people; 
  • Schools that reflect and reinforce the centrality of public education to a healthy and vibrant democracy and promote the practice of democratic skills; and
  • Systems in which knowledgeable professionals work together with parents, local community members, and policymakers with trust, respect, shared responsibility, and mutual accountability to create and sustain schools where ongoing professional learning brings continuous improvement, and to construct standards, curriculum and assessments that reinforce collaborative learning environments. 

In what follows, we offer a vision of American education responsive to these values, trends, and pillars. It is an ambitious, but practical, vision of how to build policy and practice over the coming decades. It is a vision grounded in longstanding and widely shared values: we want and need our schools exist to cultivate the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for young Americans to craft meaningful lives, build a strong economy, steward a vibrant democracy, and foster equity and justice. In outlining these ideals, we hope to fuel a more vibrant, engaged national conversation about what it would mean to put these core principles into action. For our shared values to be routinely reflected in every school across the nation, regardless of where they happen to be located, we must come together as a nation to renovate our most enduring social institution. This is a significant undertaking, and we need many hands to make the work possible: communities, families, young people, educators, the private sector, and government all have roles to play. The changes we make together may unsettle the status quo, but the results in the end will be worth the “dust and noise.” We believe that the nation is ready.

We elaborate these ideas below, beginning with our brief analysis of the shortcomings of both traditional schooling and the approaches to reform that have dominated in recent years. We then elaborate on the core principles (introduced above) for aligning our school systems with our increasing knowledge about learning, teaching, and creating schools where young people grow and thrive. We also offer, for illustrative purposes, some concrete examples of our own efforts to realize this vision in education practice and policy. We end with a call for collective action in the best tradition of American democracy.

Read the full Partnership for the Future of Learning‘s Vision and Values paper.

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