A powerful question. A question that has stayed with me. A question that deserves our attention.
Before continuing to read, I challenge you to think for just a minute about the characteristics, skills, mindsets, and behaviors of a successful graduate for yourself. From your perspective. From your experience. From your reality. What does this look like for your kids? What did this look like for you? Who is this ideal student given what you know about the “real world”?
When I responded to this prompt, I framed it around what I know now that made me successful then. My off-the-cuff response of random phrases included traits such as: critical thinker, problem solver, confidence, ability to listen more than speak, comfort in living with ambiguity, can navigate arbitrary systems and jump through hoops, grit, self advocacy, not afraid to ask for help, independence, fortitude, open mindedness, self awareness, purpose driven. And that is only part of my list -- we had a lot of time to write.
What do I realize now about my list in looking back at it? What is glaringly missing? Content knowledge. Nowhere on my list did I mention, or even allude to, knowledge of nouns and verbs, the Pythagorean theorum, dates from historical events, the organization of the periodic table, or formats of business letters.
Please don’t misunderstand. As a teacher myself, I understand that knowledge is important. But as a citizen of the world and a functioning member of our society, I also understand that what has made me successful in navigating my life didn’t come from memorization or drill-and-kill. I’ll bet most of you would agree. And I’ll bet many of your lists look like mine.
My question is this: How does our school system ensure our graduates will successfully transition and navigate the world?
This time I’m going to stop the question early and eliminate the “beyond high school” portion. Not because it isn’t important, but because I want us to consider the question for ALL our “graduating” kids.
Kindergartners need to be able to successfully transition to and navigate first grade with its bigger playgrounds and longer hours.
Fifth grade graduates need to be able to successfully transition to and navigate middle school with its bell schedules and increased homework load.
Eighth grade graduates need to be able to successfully transition to and navigate high school and its myriad demands.
And then our senior graduates -- the toughest transition of them all.
Are our schools doing what it takes to ensure success with these key transitions year-over-year? Do the classrooms reflect these needs? Are our teachers building students who will lead the world? Or are our students being tortured with arcane grading systems and irrelevant assessments that beat down rather than elevate?
In addition to our celebrations of college acceptance letters, internships, and scholarships, I am ready for our district to share the data that matters even more -- the data that reports on our alumni. Did they actually make it to college? Did they stay in school? Did they graduate? Are they employed? And how does that data breakdown by demographics? Are we serving the needs of all our students? Have we actually educated students who are successfully transitioning and navigating the world beyond?
If not, what are we doing system wide to fix it?
I want our leaders to be vulnerable. I want our leaders to admit we have potential gaps and room for improvement. I want education to reflect the needs of this new generation of kids -- our kids.
It’s time we ask the tough questions, see thoughtful reflection from our educators, and have collaborative discussions between our schools and communities to ensure we fulfill the contract we made with these kids back in kindergarten. The contract that promises if they participate in the system as we’ve designed, then their education is the foundation for their success.
Let’s revisit our end of the contract to ensure our kids will find their best-fit successes “to and through college” -- and ultimately beyond.