K-12 Education

From a Tiny SEAD, an Aspen Agenda Grows

January 14, 2020  • Ross Wiener

The Aspen Institute was created to catalyze leadership on profound challenges — where competing values are implicated and trade-offs are inevitable, where incumbent and emerging leaders need to learn together across lines of difference, and where progress is essential to realizing America’s promise of a just and inclusive society. That’s why we sponsored the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD), which one year ago issued its final report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.

The National Commission’s remarkably diverse and distinguished coalition developed recommendations that channel growing demand from families and educators and build on established science about how learning happens. Recommendation #1 calls for a new and richer vision of student success; Recommendation #2 calls for a focus on improving school climate to support healthy learning and development. For the last year and continuing into 2020, the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program is energetically advancing these recommendations, and putting this work in service of a larger agenda for reinvigorating public education’s mission of excellence and equity.

When the National Commission completed its work in March 2019, The Aspen Education & Society Program capitalized on the momentum with the SEAD Action Guide for School Leadership Teams. The SEAD Action Guide supports local leaders with relevant research, a strong focus on equity, and high-impact actions for school leadership teams.

Supporting this bottom-up leadership from schools and communities is vital, but we also need leadership from the top. Achieving positive change for students at the scale and depth envisioned by A Nation at Hope requires rethinking collectively how we define success, invest resources, and assess progress.

The social contract that public education represents needs renewal: Measures of student success are not aligned to the interpersonal, evergreen skills — like adaptability, teamwork, and communicating in diverse settings – that experts on the Future of Work are calling for, even as economic inequality continues to rise. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts recently remarked on the weakness of schools preparing students for citizenship, noting that political discourse is highly polarized and rife with calculated misinformation that then is metastasized through social media. As Senator Lamar Alexander noted in and Aspen Institute interview last year, decades of accountability for only reading and math scores narrowed the curriculum, undermining civics and character education; students also don’t get enough practice discerning the veracity and motivation behind the many sources of information that bombard them everyday. Only one-third of high school students are engaged in school – with another third just going through the motions and the rest actively disengaged. Most high school students don’t think what they’re learning in school is relevant to life outside of school – and they’re not wrong.

Without abandoning our commitment to academic excellence, public education needs a more holistic approach to preparing students to thrive in college, work, and society. In 2020, the Education & Society Program will frame an agenda for renewing public education’s role in the social contract:

  • What is the role of public education in a self-governing, pluralistic society and market economy?
  • What shared values do we want schools to reflect, and who should decide?
  • How does public education reflect the best of our pluribis and unum, so Americans learn to be proud of our shared history and the great contributions America has made, to celebrate the diversity of heritages and cultures that make us unique, and to grapple with our shared inheritance of oppression and violence, to foster healing and reconciliation?

These are consequential as well as contentious issues, implicating values and judgment calls that aren’t susceptible to a single or simple solution. In this raw political moment, leaders need space to examine tough issues, debate alternative approaches, and set coherent, systemic strategies for moving forward. As a nation, we must wrestle with the fact that decisions we’ve made about public education are related to the current rancor, mistrust, and rampant misinformation affecting our politics and broader society.

The roadmap established by the National Commission identifies tangible action steps to put us on the path to renewing the social contract that public education represents.

Healthy school climate is both an enabler and an expression of the social-emotional competencies we hope students will learn through instruction (Recommendation #3 calls for teaching SEL skills explicitly and embedding them in academic instruction).  Exploding investment in school climate surveys can be a very good thing, but to realize their promise the field needs equally ambitious and urgent efforts on using school climate data to improve learning conditions. A focus on school climate advances equity by situating responsibility at system- and policy-levels, rather than focusing on individual students’ skill acquisition, which runs the risk of a deficit-based, fix-the-kids approach. In 2020, Aspen Education is convening principals and central-office staff from our urban district network along with national experts to support the use of school climate data for improvement.

Taking school climate seriously leads directly to a focus on principals, who have a singular role in creating conditions for learning among adults and students. University of Chicago research shows that principals’ primary contribution to student-learning gains is through strengthening school climate. But principals have been freighted with too many reform priorities to enable school climate to get the priority attention it deserves. Principals’ responsibilities need to be redesigned with a focus on the unique role only a principal can play, with a commensurate focus on distributing leadership among teachers and other adults. That’s why in 2020, Aspen Education is bringing together scholars, policymakers, system leaders – and, of course, principals – to re-envision the principalship for the future. A new vision for the principalship is vital to equity because principals have to be empowered to reflect the values and priorities of the community they are serving.

Renewing public education’s role in enabling the American Dream inevitably runs through stronger school climates and a new vision for principal leadership. Progress on these priorities can create momentum and a stronger foundation for advancing a richer vision of student and school success. Aspen Education will catalyze action on these fronts in 2020, and we’ll share what we’re learning through our networks, publications, and public events.

Public schools have an essential role in building a healthier, more just, more cohesive America. Join Aspen Education on this learning journey, and renew your promise to public education in 2020.