Opinion
Leadership Opinion

My Hope for the New Education Secretary’s Agenda

We must rethink our local and national education goals
By Wendy Kopp — January 27, 2021 5 min read
A paper airplane flies toward a flag high atop a mountain

As we enter a new chapter in our nation’s history with a new administration at the helm, we’ll have the chance to reconsider our priorities. One of the most important of these should be to engage in a collective discussion—nationally and in local communities—about what we’re working toward in education. We need to rethink our very purpose.

As we consider how to tackle the deep polarization of our nation, its systemic injustices, a fast-degrading environment, and growing economic inequality, we need to remember the maxim that what we foster in classrooms today is what we’ll have in the world tomorrow.

There is much discussion about how education can “build back better” after the pandemic. We must resist the temptation to tinker around the edges and instead embrace a larger vision.

That is to say, educators, students, parents, employers, policymakers, and civic leaders across all sectors must come together to consider our collective future and what we want it to look like. What are our values and aspirations? What are our challenges and opportunities? And what characteristics must we develop in our young people if we’re going to achieve our vision of the future? The answers to these questions should frame what we do next.

I write this having spent the last decade building Teach For All, a global network of independent partner organizations similar to Teach For America, in 59 countries around the world. In 2015, there was a loud call from CEOs and staff members across these organizations to define the vision Teach For All was working toward through our collective efforts. We took stock of the significant challenges in the path toward peace, inclusiveness, and sustainability—and concluded that we must dedicate ourselves to developing students’ leadership so they are able to navigate a changing world and solve these increasingly complex problems. We came together around a vision that all children should have the education, support, and opportunity to shape a better future for themselves and all of us.

This evolution has had huge implications for our work. It has meant that we have had to do a lot more than catch students up within our current education systems. Across diverse communities from Armenia, to Peru, to Uganda, to Pakistan, our network partners have worked collaboratively with community stakeholders to consider the local values, aspirations, challenges, and opportunities to determine what student outcomes were most important in these different contexts.

And then we have had to rethink how to accomplish these holistic outcomes. As our vision of success moved beyond simply catching students up, we’re working on changing our teacher-development frameworks, for example, that were originally based on studying the teachers most successful in closing those academic achievement gaps. We conducted new studies to understand the mindsets and actions of teachers who foster students’ agency, social and political awareness, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, mindsets, and values.

The new American education secretary could lead the charge in fostering dialogue about our local and national education goals.

It’s been hard to work with educators across the world who are focusing on developing these holistic student outcomes necessary to reshape their societies while knowing that in my own country, we seemed to be oriented far more narrowly—as evidenced by the decision of the former administration’s U.S. Department of Education to opt out of the first-ever assessment of global competence in 2018 by the Program for International Student Assessment.

Most know PISA as a survey that provides comparative data on 15-year-olds’ performance in reading, mathematics, and science to inform education policy discussions at home and abroad. Its new global competence test aims to go further by ascertaining students’ readiness to build a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world. The test looks at whether students can think critically about local and global issues, understand and appreciate multiple cultural perspectives, are prepared to interact respectfully across lines of cultural difference, and take action to make a positive difference. Of the 79 economies participating in PISA in 2018, 66 took part in the global competence portion of the assessment.

The United States’ decision not to participate is particularly concerning given the inequities raging within our country—which demand the engagement of citizens who can work across lines of difference, understand the full complexity of the nation’s history, and have the agency to solve serious problems facing our communities.

The PISA results reflect that the efforts that some countries have made toward global competence have paid off. For example, Colombia, which I’ve come to know through our network organization Enseña por Colombia, scored higher on the global competence assessment than their performance in reading, math, and science would predict. As a country seeking to overcome decades of civil strife, Colombian policymakers and educators put issues of social cohesion at the center of rebuilding their school system, and it’s encouraging that this has yielded positive results. We could take a lesson from their example, among others.

The new American education secretary could lead the charge in fostering dialogue about our local and national education goals. If he does, he could prove to be among President Joe Biden’s most important appointments—one who could help unite the country and give us a fighting chance to revitalize our democracy and contribute to a peaceful, sustainable world.

He could put together a national commission of diverse leaders to consider what’s been at work when our country has been at its best, as well as our challenges and our aspirations. This group would reimagine the purpose of education by developing a vision for the future for our country and a vision for what our young people need to know and be able to do to realize it. The commission should inspire and inform similar processes in communities across the country.

Meanwhile, the secretary could call upon mayors, school district leaders, students, parents, community organizers, and civic leaders to steer local efforts that would consider these same questions. The federal department of education could build a network of these local leaders so they could share their learning.

As we work to move our country forward, there will be calls to rethink our political processes, strengthen our civic institutions, and address the pitfalls of our social-media landscape. Let’s not forget that as educators, we have the most central role to play in shaping the future.

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as My Hope for the New National Agenda

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