Opportunity is public education’s fundamental value proposition. Because 90 percent of young people in America are educated in public schools, whatever happens in our schools has a profound impact on the democracy and society we become and has an outsized impact on the individuals and families who rely on public education for upward mobility. Forty years since “A Nation at Risk” catalyzed a focus on test-based accountability, educational progress has stalled, and support for education reform no longer holds the political center. In this watershed moment for America and its public schools, recommitting to the opportunity-enhancing mission of schools is essential for both meeting the evolving nature of students’ needs and rebuilding broad bipartisan support for public education.
No one should doubt the severity and scale of the crises confronting public education and the extent to which they are having an impact on student learning: historic declines in student achievement and enrollment; anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts at epidemic levels among youth; culture wars that feed off and further exacerbate lost trust and plummeting confidence in our public schools—all while we continue to recover from a pandemic. COVID laid bare the tremendous responsibilities we place on schools and our relative lack of information on access to essential opportunities. While it’s currently uncommon for states to systematically collect opportunity-to-learn data, there are models to emulate. For example, the National Assessment of Educational Progress asks test-takers to indicate whether they had access to opportunities that impact results, like a computer, a quiet place to study at home, and teachers they could ask for help when they struggled.
The vision for public education needs to be updated and reinvigorated to connect enduring values to contemporary challenges. Understanding that states hold the constitutional mandate that guarantees public education, in 2022, the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program invited a group of regionally, politically, racially, and ethnically diverse state policymakers to explore where their visions converge, with an explicit focus on building an agenda that could garner broad, bipartisan support.
These policymakers met for eight months to reflect on their leadership values and their visions for public education. They reviewed education research and met with experts in the fields of the future of work and the science of learning and development. The goal was not to create specific policy prescriptions since that work is state-specific but rather to identify common ground that could serve as a starting place for rebuilding a bipartisan agenda. After developing a set of principles, the group workshopped their draft with a wider group of education leaders last summer.
In September, the policymakers released a set of principles to undergird the next generation of education policy with a long view toward providing students with the tools they need to succeed.
Opportunity to Learn, Responsibility to Lead is a set of nine principles that outline a new road map for public education. They establish a baseline for what students need to succeed, the conditions schools are responsible for, and the essential role of state leadership in helping students realize fundamental—and crucial—learning opportunities.
These principles are a starting point, not an end. They center policy development and public discourse on the things that education leaders, parents, and policymakers on both sides of the political aisle agree students need and deserve. They serve to recenter conversations that have been dominated by ideologues on the right and left. And they are a tool to determine whether and how legislation can increase and expand students’ opportunities to learn.
The promise of public education is the promise of America, and opportunity is at the heart of both. While the principles focus primarily on the role of the state in accounting for opportunity, we encourage all stakeholders, really all Americans, to consider the adaptations that will make the opportunity-to-learn principles an engine of improvement and inclusion in your context. Most Americans agree on what we want to be true about our schools; these opportunity principles can help us transform these shared aspirations into reality.
A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2023 edition of Education Week as A Road Map for Education’s Future