A Vision for Public Schools: Academics Is Not Enough
By Gene R. Carter, Executive Director, ASCD
"Education's current focus on academics has a blind spot."
The first step in accomplishing any goal is to identify the goal itself. Not until you know where you're going can you determine what you need to do to get there.
Under No Child Left Behind, education's goal is set at 100 percent proficiency by 2013–14. But this goal is insufficient. Test scores are an incomplete measure of the academic knowledge we want our children to have, and they fail entirely in measuring other core work of our schools.
As a recent report from ASCD and the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) states, education's current focus on academics has a blind spot. Schools exist not only to help students gain knowledge in subjects such as reading and math but also to prepare them to become engaged members of their communities.
A number of surveys and assessments have highlighted the consequences of focusing too narrowly on academics—for example, the finding that American youth are increasingly disengaged from civic life. Many young people do not vote or stay informed about national politics. They are uninformed on the issues and uninvolved in contributing to their communities or helping solve societal problems.
This situation is exacerbated by goals that focus solely on academics. ASCD believes a comprehensive approach to learning must recognize that successful young people are knowledgeable, emotionally and physically healthy, motivated, civically inspired, engaged in the arts, prepared for work and economic self-sufficiency, and ready for the world beyond their own borders.
In the words of another recent report, education has two great goals—to help students become smart and to help them become good. The report, Smart & Good High Schools, identifies qualities students need to succeed. These qualities include honesty, respect, determination to work hard and achieve one's goals, and moral character, which includes the traits needed to develop just and caring relationships, contribute to one's community, and assume the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.
Both of these reports recognize that we must start by setting goals worthy of our aspiration, but we cannot stop there. Making these goals a reality will require a conscious effort by educators, policymakers, and the general public to create and sustain schools in which all members of the school community develop ethically, physically, emotionally, and civically—as well as academically.
We must not only eliminate the current policies that pressure schools to narrow the curriculum but also add new support structures that will refocus educators on the broader needs of all children. The Smart & Good High Schools report identifies several conditions necessary to support these goals, including strong leadership, optimal school size, time for planning and reflection, supportive scheduling, manageable teaching loads, a safe and orderly environment, trusting and respectful relationships, and adequate budgetary resources.
Graduating students with the skills and disposition to contribute to their communities must be a core focus of our schools, but it is not an either-or dichotomy that detracts from academic achievement. Our greatest goals in education—helping students become healthy, knowledgeable, motivated, and engaged—are inextricably intertwined.
Students perform better academically when they have the opportunity to learn and practice citizenship. Civic education, which includes service learning and character education, has proven successful in improving student engagement in school and community life, bolstering academic performance, and reducing negative behaviors.
No step is more important than defining our vision, and no vision is more important to reach than helping our students succeed. If we strive for academics alone, we will shortchange our students and our future. Incorporating civic engagement into a more complete vision for education is the first step toward achieving our greatest goals and aspirations.
Restoring the Balance Between Academics and Civic Engagement in Public Schools, from ASCD and AYPF, is available at www.aypf.org/pdf/Restoring the Balance Report.pdf (PDF).
Smart & Good High Schools, from the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs and the Character Education Partnership, is available at www.cortland.edu/character/highschools.
© 2005 Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development