One Size Doesn’t Fit All

by Mark A. Elgart

Are our nation’s public schools failing?

The prevailing response from parents, students, teachers and administrators is that their school is doing a good job, but that overall the nation’s public schools aren’t quite as effective. How can that be? If the local schools are effective, shouldn’t the nation’s school system as a whole be effective as well?

Parents, students, teachers and administrators are proud of their local schools. They see firsthand the successes and challenges inherent in providing a quality education to every student every day. The general public, however, holds a different view based on what they see and hear in the national media. They believe American schools are in decline.

Defining Success
So are our schools failing? To answer that question, we must agree on the factors that define school success. For example, is a school successful if a certain percentage of students take the SAT or ACT and pursue a postsecondary education? If those are legitimate measures of success, then our schools are wildly successful because every year more students take the college entrance exams and go off to college. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, 65.8 percent of high school graduates from the class of 2006 were enrolled in colleges or universities. Since 2001, the college enrollment rate for high school graduates has been trending upward.

Yet if, as the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports, only one-half of students entering college receive an undergraduate degree within six years and 36 percent do not ever attain a diploma, where is the success? If our schools are to be deemed effective, they must demonstrate that students are successful learners beyond high school.

And that brings us back to the question of what defines success. How do we determine whether students are successful learners? Do we base it on the results of year-end exams? The attainment of a four-year college degree? Our current education system measures success through high-stakes test results and admission to college. Neither is sufficient evidence on its own merits or in combination.

School success should be measured in large part by how well students transition to the next stage of learning or to a career. For younger students, the transition involves moving from elementary school to middle school to high school to college. For older students, the transition entails moving into the work force. The success of these transitions is shaped by the individual student’s skills, knowledge and aptitudes.

Maybe we should take a lesson from the way parents measure their children’s success. Their assessment is not based on one factor, but on their child’s cumulative experiences in education, work and life.

Reflecting a Nation
This leads us back to the core question: Does public schooling deserve the criticism it garners when everyone is judging schools according to different standards?

In this country, we are compelled to be the best and, as a result, we believe we always can do better, whether it’s educating our youth, providing health care or maintaining a fair and just legal system. In effect, the negative public sentiment about public schooling reflects a belief that we can and should do better.

Our nation was founded on the ideals of freedom, individuality, diversity and an entrepreneurial spirit. It is those values and others that draw foreigners to our soil to pursue their hopes and dreams. Our public schools have helped citizens fulfill those dreams.

While other nations pursue a one-size-fits-all approach, we believe in the idea that “all sizes fit.” Our public schools reflect and value the heterogeneity of our children. If we define the mission of schools as simply ensuring the admission of all students to a four-year college, then we will fail in our pursuit of excellence. We can reach more of our nation’s students if we recognize their diversity of talent, interests, skills and goals. To embrace our nation’s diversity and provide all child- ren with the skills and knowledge that support their entrepreneurial spirit, we must recognize that one size does not fit everyone.

Accountability for student success must be the driving force for all educators. We must challenge ourselves to realize success for every student in the many ways it can be measured. We must acknowledge that student success is defined by individual students’ successful transitions in pursuit of their diverse interests, goals and career objectives.

The Big Picture
Ultimately, a school’s success should be directly related to the success of each student in the learning process, the degree to which every student is able to transition from one level of learning to the next and then to enter the workforce.

No, our nation’s schools are not failing, but their continued pursuit of excellence and their recognition that all students are different are essential to ensure we provide every child the opportunity to learn and succeed.

Mark Elgart is president and chief executive officer for AdvancED, 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, GA 30033. E-mail: melgart@advanc-ed.org