Feature                                                    Pages 38-41


Accountability for What

Matters Most  

The author of Global Achievement Gap touts one district’s strategy as a model for ensuring college, career and citizenship readiness


During my travels all over the United States speaking to a wide variety of audiences and my visits with leadership groups in the Middle East and Far East, I have encountered diverse audiences who share my concern that the majority of students are leaving high school without the skills that matter most — even in those school districts that score well on Advanced Placement exams and state tests.

The most common question I’m asked is: “What can we do about the problem?”

Tony Wagner
Tony Wagner

Fortunately, because of some important work that has been done over the last several years, exciting new answers are emerging.

As I consider the essential steps to overcome the global achievement gap, I begin by examining what communities can do to create a higher level of accountability for schools and districts — beyond standardized test scores. The story of how the 70,000-student Virginia Beach City, Va., Public Schools set about transforming teaching and learning offers a powerful example of a school system ensuring all students graduate from high school with the skills they need to succeed.

Laudable Engagement
The first critical step in creating a communitywide focus on the skills that matter most for students’ success is to engage in a very different kind of strategic planning. Typically, districts create new strategic plans every few years in a process led by school boards with little community involvement. All too often, these efforts result in lengthy documents with lists of five-year goals (such as improving test scores by a certain percentage), which rarely result in any real change in classrooms.

Once in a great while, though, a superintendent sees a strategic planning effort as an opportunity for community engagement and adult learning and as a way to create a road map for significant improvements. One such leader with whom I have worked is Jim Merrill, who has just started his seventh year as superintendent in Virginia Beach.

The third-largest school district in the state, Virginia Beach has a diverse minority population making up 45 percent of total enrollment. When Merrill was selected for the top post, the district enjoyed a reputation as highly successful, with all of its schools having made adequate yearly progress on state tests.

However, he was concerned that Virginia’s tests (like those of most other states) assessed only basic skills with a minimum level of proficiency required to pass and, hence, success on these tests was not a reliable meas-ure of students’ career and college readiness. In his second year, Merrill and his senior administrators met with me for a daylong retreat and decided to work on a different kind of strategic planning process, one that would involve the entire community in a conversation about how the world has changed and what were the most important student outcomes for which the school district should now be accountable.

Identifying Outcomes
With strong school board leadership and support, the school district staff set out to collect the data they thought should inform a more meaningful strategic planning process.

First, they conducted focus groups with local employers and college teachers about the skills students needed to succeed.

Second, they administered the College and Work Readiness Assessment, a 90-minute online assessment of critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving and writing skills developed and administered by the Council for Aid to Education to a sample population of their 12th graders. They learned that, despite having scored well on state tests, the top 50 percent of these seniors who took the test were in the lowest quartile of college freshmen taking the same test.

Third, they took a hard look at the state-mandated formula for computing the district’s high school graduation rate and concluded it resulted in inaccurate and overly optimistic reporting of the percentage of students who successfully completed high school in the district. Although it turned out that the district’s 82 percent graduation rate was more than 10 percent higher than the national average, Merrill declared that this was unacceptable.

Finally, the school district subscribed to the National Student Clearinghouse, which provided data on district students’ enrollment and persistence in postsecondary-degree programs. To better understand these quantitative data, district staff conducted subsequent focus groups with recent Virginia Beach graduates about some of the ways they felt most and least well prepared by the schools for their futures.

The culmination of this effort was a communitywide meeting to talk about these and other district data and to consider what were the most important outcomes for Virginia Beach graduates in a changing world. Nearly 1,000 people — educators, parents, community members — gathered in the Virginia Beach Convention Center on a warm summer evening in 2008 for discussion at tables seating 10.

After an hour of presentations, which included looking at data as well as videos of the focus groups that had been conducted, participants were asked to consider a long list of possible learning priorities for the school district and to select the ones they considered most important. These “votes” then were quickly tabulated electronically. To the surprise of many, there was a virtual consensus on the outcomes that should be the highest priority for the district: The skills of critical thinking and problem solving were at the top of nearly everyone’s list.

Attributes Shared
Merrill, his staff and the school board then took this information and created a different type of strategic plan. Instead of the lengthy laundry list of mashed-together goals, priorities and initiatives that often turn up in districts’ strategic plans, the Virginia Beach strategic plan, called “Compass to 2015: A Strategic Plan for Student Success,” has been streamlined to one strategic goal, four outcomes for students and five strategic objectives with a few key strategies and measures identified for each. Notably, it fits on the front and back of one page. (See related story: "One Simplified District Strategic Plan.")

The school district leadership’s next step was to begin working on creating accountability for teaching and assessing the four essential student outcomes that had been identified. They started by defining what critical thinking means and, more importantly, what it looks like in the classroom.

Central-office and building administrators conducted learning walks to help everyone be clearer about what critical thinking looks like when it’s happening. The results of their efforts are summarized on the district’s website, but, in part, this is what the leaders shared: “This school year, the leadership learning walks will still be looking for the hallmarks of critical thinking, but we will ask principals to specifically point out their areas of focus as the result of the ‘Compass to 2015’ strategic plan. The goal is to support schools as they work on the needs inherent in their schools. All learning walks are followed by a conversation with the school leadership.”

Anticipating that stakeholders would want to know what critical thinking looks like in the classrooms, the district developed a list of attributes that were identified collectively by the principals in Virginia Beach. Their list comprises a dozen attributes, including these:

  • Students articulate a meaningful response to “so what” (what if, why);
  • Students defend positions with justification based on factual evidence and data;
  • Students adapt learned knowledge to more complex/ambiguous situations;
  • Students evaluate and communicate their own thinking; and
  • Students select, create, use and communicate effectiveness of a variety of tools, such as graphic organizers or grid paper.


One Simplified District Strategic Plan

Scaling Up Changes
Education no longer deals only with teaching Johnny and Juanita to read. It’s about teaching them to think critically about what they read, interpret what they read and relate what they read to their own circumstances. If we are asking students for critical examination and reflection, we must be willing to do the same.

The school district’s learning walks represented a journey to better understand the needs of children, to improve teaching and to clarify what is expected of students and educators.

“It’s the hardest work I’ve ever undertaken in my career,” Merrill said. “We’re trying to effect change at scale, and we have to play on two playing fields at once. We’re still being judged by the criteria for adequate yearly progress and state accountability standards, while we are holding ourselves to a much higher standard. We have to succeed at both. It’s hard, but it’s the right work to be doing.”

Tony Wagner is the innovation education fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University. E-mail: twagner@seas.harvard.edu. This article is adapted from his book The Global Achievement Gap (Basic Books, 2010). His latest work is Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World (Scribner). 


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