I have held firm to this belief since my early days of teaching: Getting students to proficiency and above in reading and math is a commitment to social justice and democracy. Education can empower students to change the world, especially when it counters cycles of poverty. Moreover, academic fluency is essential to children’s cognitive development, their life opportunities, and a discerning electorate. Given the preeminence of math and reading scores in any national, state, or local “report card,” I’m confident that others share this priority.
But I’ve come to see more clearly that it’s not sufficient. Too narrow a focus on just two indicators hampers our ability to see the whole potential of our students and fully serve them. Math and English language arts accountability is still valuable, but it doesn’t address systemic bias, and it fails to point us to a rich vision for students. Some systems have remedied this by giving weight to Opportunity to Learn (OTL) data, which are more robust indicators of the conditions, content, and experiences that allow students to succeed, and which acknowledge that schooling serves a broader social context. Absent this and a commitment to integrated social-emotional and academic development (SEAD), the prevailing accountability paradigm inhibits investment in crucial elements of student life.
First, basic skill attainment won’t sufficiently address systemic inequities that extend beyond the schoolhouse. School readiness won’t correct racial bias in disciplinary action, and academic excellence doesn’t prevent postsecondary employers’ resume biases. Opportunity and access gaps have shortchanged teachers and students alike for decades. Schools that would combat these injustices earn credibility with communities by acknowledging historical and current inequities and preparing students to navigate and reform them. I was proud to be a principal in schools where interrogating adult data and behavior allowed us to uncover where we were replicating harmful trends. We became more cognizant of opportunities to improve everything, from where students were seated in classes, to staff and student reading assignments, to how we invited students and parents to discuss progress. These steps accelerated achievement, closed racialized gaps, and increased parent engagement, among other improvements.
Second, research has established the value, through and beyond graduation, of social well-being and interpersonal and intrapersonal skills—facets overlooked in myopic reports of academic outcomes. As a high school educator, I still feel heartbreak from seeing a star student wash out from post-secondary paths due to stress or social disconnection, despite having high test scores. This is why there’s no shortage of “what they didn’t teach you in school” lists, codifying the implicit, essential lessons for adult success. To address this, our district division prioritized innovation grants, affinity groups, and data dashboards that created access and active school leadership voices for students and community members. The result: inclusive dialogue, caring spaces, shared investment in academic outcomes, and measurable qualitative growth. This was authentic accountability, and fuel for the success of students, graduates, and the school itself.
Schools exist to imbue students with robust academic skills, a healthy sense of self, and responsibility as a citizen. The path to this vision isn’t through either academic skills or social-emotional learning. As a teacher, I learned to tell students, “You should know we care about you because we expect so much of you.” And students quickly taught me that rigorous content calls on intellectual and emotional competencies that I had to intentionally cultivate; when I didn’t, my best-laid plans went awry. Those derailed lessons presaged the graduates noted above, who might fall off track for lack of competencies necessary in college and work. We’ve spent too much energy trying to push and pull the pendulum between caring spaces and rigorous academics. It’s a fabricated, counterproductive dichotomy.
Our next iteration of accountability can incorporate positive developments from testing-accountability models, restructure ineffective approaches, and reconcile the artificial rift between data sets. It’s crucial that systems align accountability data, accountability mechanisms, and educator experiences. In particular, we need to make three big changes:
1. Use Opportunity to Learn data to make accountability address more of what matters. Local school improvement plans and state data dashboards can track essential social-emotional and academic outcomes for students—both the conditions for, and evidence of, thriving youth. It’s an approach that resonates widely; our team at Aspen recently convened a group of leaders from a range of regions and perspectives who forged bipartisan principles for state leadership rooted in OTL data.
2. Formalize the power of community stakeholders who inherently value a full battery of academic and personal competencies, not one or the other. The most legitimate accountability belongs to parents, students, and employers. It can be codified in local school leadership teams, seats on the board, or at the cabinet table. Civic and post-secondary partners invest in education, and in turn, provide sightlines into authentic, enduring outcomes and differentiated paths to improvement. These collaborators are also less susceptible to incentives that inevitably pervert policy within the system.
3. Prepare educators to animate classrooms with deeper expertise, and aligned supports and evaluation in social-emotional and academic development and Opportunity to Learn. Policymakers can’t drive outcomes without empowering educators while providing resources and guardrails. We’re not going to fire (more) teachers or “innovate” our way to great schools at scale. There’s no circumventing the necessity of a teaching workforce, across charters and traditional districts, that deeply understands this complex, holistic human endeavor. If teachers think social-emotional and cognitive development have to compete for attention, then we’ve sent misleading signals in training and measurement.
I haven’t mentioned the pandemic because the hard truth is that the world wasn’t fair and equitable in 2018, democracy was in jeopardy before we started arguing about mask mandates, and service to students was lacking before schools closed. Covid didn’t change the essence of what kids need, it just amplified it at scale.
When I look back across my old classrooms, schools, and offices, I’m proud that students attained new highs in test scores. But I hold most dear the times when they were happy, loving, and proud. What I know better now is that the times they were happy, proud, loving, and loved were the very same moments that they were doing their most transformative learning. Learning spaces and caring spaces are one and the same. Our dedication to justice means not only serving every student, but every part of every student.