Wicks: To Prepare Kids for an Unpredictable Future, Schools Need Two Things — a Strong Principal and Strong Accountability

On Wednesday afternoon, the Bush Center’s Forum on Leadership will host Priscilla Chan, co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, in a wide-ranging discussion about redefining student success to ensure a promising future for all children. The conversation will be moderated by Anne Wicks, the institute’s director of education reform. You can watch the remarks live, starting at 2:40 p.m. Central Time, here.

Once upon a time, a young person could graduate with a business degree and embark upon a 30-plus-year career in accounting or marketing with relative confidence. No longer.

Today, we can only reasonably predict 50 percent of the jobs that will exist in 25 years. We will say farewell to jobs that can easily be routinized — like paralegals, loan officers, and cashiers.

Companies are starting to pay attention to this coming transformation. For example, earlier this year, AT&T announced a billion-dollar effort to “retool” half its workforce to upgrade employees’ skills for the future.

So how do our education systems prepare for that kind of uncertainty? What types of schools, instruction, and curriculum are needed to set kids up for success? And what does this mean for the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who today attend low-performing schools?

Too often, those students are children of color who live near or below the poverty line. They end up in low-skill, low-wage jobs because of their subpar educations and subsequent lack of choices about their futures. Those students are also the ones who will be first and disproportionately impacted when those low-wage jobs begin to disappear.

This leads to some big questions. What does this mean for the ever-growing divide between America’s haves and have-nots? What does this mean for America’s global competitiveness?

This is not a Republican or Democratic issue — this is an American issue.

At the Bush Institute, we believe that schools — no matter the type — that successfully prepare all kids for their futures have two things in common. First, they are led by a strong principal; second, they embrace accountability.

Think for a minute about the best boss you ever had. That person challenged you but also supported you and had your back to make sure you were successful. That is what great principals do for teachers and students: They hire and retain great teachers, and they set a positive school culture for kids.

Early in my career, I taught eighth-grade social studies. It was both awesome and intensely difficult. Despite working hard, I was flying blind most days, and I needed some expert help to serve my students well. I think my principal visited my classroom only once that year.

Ultimately, I am not sure if my students were really on track, and, at the end of the year, I decided to leave the classroom despite loving many aspects of teaching. Looking back on that experience has always made me a bit sad, and it made me wonder if the experience could have been different for me and my students under the mentorship of a strong instructional leader.

I know my story is a common one. The need for better school leaders is the reason we believe in supporting districts to improve how they recruit, support, and retain those highly effective principals who foster student success.

As we believe in strong principals, we also believe in strong accountability. In education, this simply means setting high standards for what students should learn, measuring progress against those standards, and then using the data to determine and implement the right kinds of supports and interventions to help students succeed.

We believe that accountability matters because it supports the belief that all kids — regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status — can learn and succeed. Too often, that is not the case in some schools around the country.

When I worked for Teach for America, a phrase often used was that a student’s ZIP code should not determine his or her destiny. When visiting struggling schools, we sometimes hear things like “some kids just won’t do as well” or “it’s just too difficult to catch those kids up.” President George W. Bush meaningfully described this phenomenon of setting different standards for certain kids as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It was a powerful phrase then, and it remains powerful now.

We believe in helping city and state leaders understand and embrace strong accountability in their education practices and policies. We are not interested in playing a cruel game of “gotcha” with teachers, but we are interested in ensuring that all kids in their communities and states have access to a great education and real choices about their futures.

Of course, today’s rate of change means that education must and will evolve to keep up. But, as we anticipate what education will look like in the future, we should not forget what we know.

Schools, regardless of structure, will still need a strong principal. People will need to read, write, do math, and solve problems in their professional lives, so it makes sense to measure if students are on track in these areas. There is much still to discover about how children learn and how we can meaningfully measure success over time, but perhaps the core of what great schools need is not that new after all.

Anne Wicks is director of education reform at the George W. Bush Institute.

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