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To the new administration: Declare détente in K-12 education wars

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COVID-19 began a tumultuous period for K-12 education, especially for millions of vulnerable parents and students, and created a daunting challenge for the incoming Biden administration and Education Secretary-nominee Miguel Cardona. Fortunately, Cardona has “a biography tailor-made for this moment,” according to Andrew Rotherham, who served in the Clinton administration as special assistant to the president for domestic policy.

This gives the Biden administration an opening to call for détente in the K-12 school wars, allowing it to focus on doing everything possible to fulfill the president-elect’s pledge: reopen most of the nation’s schools for in-person instruction in his first 100 days, and help students and families recover educationally from COVID-19.

A détente proposal should champion the current agenda of many different education stakeholders, including governors, education leaders at state and district levels, leaders of community organizations, education donors, and employers: an opportunity agenda inspired by K-12 career pathways programs. These programs connect schools and students with employers and work, creating alternatives to the “bachelor’s degree or bust” pathway that is so much a part of education today. 

The goal of this opportunity agenda: ensure every American — especially young people in K-12 schools — regardless of background or current condition, has multiple pathways to acquire the knowledge and networks they need for jobs and careers that prepare them to access opportunity and live a flourishing life.  

Here’s a proposal for a two-part “bully pulpit” opportunity agenda.

First, link K-12 success with a shared civic language about adult opportunity. The nearly three-decade K-12 policy focus on education standards, accountability and choice has produced improvements in student academic achievement, especially among minority students. On the downside, it has created a “test scores agenda,” leading many to link education success with quantifiable and technocratic endeavors such as adequate yearly student progress, teacher ratings and school closures, much prescribed by the federal government. Today’s education wars are an outgrowth of this agenda.  

Current research on education’s role in social and economic mobility raises wide-ranging issues for K-12 beyond the quantifiable and technocratic to how schools lay the foundation for mobility and adult success. This approach requires a fresh, shared civic vocabulary for talking about life success in general and education success in particular.

A key source for developing this civic vocabulary is the American Success Index. It describes how Americans view personal success, contrasted with those same individuals’ perceived notions of how others define success. First, Americans generally say their perceived societal view of success is based on rank, prestige and status. But conversely, their personal view of success entails relationships and the networks and institutions that nurture and multiply relationships — what analysts call “social capital.” Second, Americans view personal success as crucial to achieving opportunity. Finally, Americans believe school is one of the key institutions that help individuals achieve success and opportunity.

So, Americans’ perspective on personal success is neither technocratic nor oriented to rank or status. It’s focused on opportunity, especially how schools, relationships and networks have key roles to play in laying the foundation for pursuing opportunity. In short: Opportunity = Knowledge + Networks. This equation is the basis for a new civic vocabulary, story and positive narrative on how schools must be at the center of community efforts to prepare young people for opportunity and adult success.

Second, convey that this approach connects to a broader sense of an individual’s self and civic responsibility. These programs provide individuals with knowledge and networks that assist in developing an occupational identity and vocational self. This growing awareness of oneself as a worker within a broader sense of one’s abilities, personality and values is an important foundation for adult success and opportunity. It’s also a central way that individuals prepare for responsible citizenship.

This suggestion for détente in the K-12 education wars can be a basis for creating new, robust and lasting coalitions of diverse policymakers, advocates, funders and other stakeholders built on three value propositions: knowledge and networks are key to preparing young people for accessing opportunity; local initiative and institutions are fundamental to creating these programs; and an important aspect of preparing for adult life, work and citizenship includes cultivating an occupational identify and vocational self.

An unwillingness to try détente shows a lack of imagination on how to unite a host of partners whose goal is ensuring that young people acquire the knowledge and networks they need for jobs and careers that help them access opportunity and live a flourishing life.  

Bruno V. Manno is senior adviser for K-12 education at the Walton Family Foundation. He previously was with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and before that, the Hudson Institute. From 1986 to 1993, he held several senior positions in the U.S. Department of Education, including assistant secretary for policy and planning. The views expressed here are his alone.

Tags Career Pathways K-12 education Miguel Cardona Socioeconomics

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