Julia Steiny: Dreary American Education Goals Yield Dreary Results

by Julia Steiny

Today we’ll compare and contrast.  We’ll compare the Australian Education Ministers’ goals for “Young Australians” with the U.S. Department of Education’s goals.

Goals are statements of what we want.  As such, they drive our efforts and are responsible for producing the desired outcomes.  Or not.  Often we reach for goals and miss; that’s life.  At other times the goals themselves are not well thought-out and lead us astray.

Julia Steiny

A nation’s educational goals say a great deal about that country’s cultural relationship to their kids.

First, why pick Australia?  We could look at Finland, whose kids are at the tippy top of the international achievement rankings.  But Finland is so unlike the U.S., they don’t even have national or state assessment programs.  They don’t obsess about accountability at all, never mind to the extremes we do.  They’re content to spend their resources directly on teachers, kids, and families, and to roll the dice on their kids’ performance in the eyes of the international community.

That’s so not us.

Australia, on the other hand, has 6 states, like our 50, each of which has its own testing program and a state Ministry to run the program.  The independent Ministries have collective goals, but carry them out in their own manner, similar to the U.S..  Australian students aren’t at the very top of the international rankings, but close enough.

An important difference, that relates to our goals and where we’d like to be, is that Australia has a robust economy.  Their public was appalled to hear of a recent rise in unemployment to 5.4 percent.  We should be so lucky.  Judging from the rhetoric pouring from the upcoming U.S. presidential election, Americans are most concerned with improving the economy, and that includes improving the workforce.

So here’s how Australian leaders are thinking about their students:

In 2008, the 6 Aussie Ministries and their staff got together and hammered out the “Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians.”  As with every other nation, Australia is in a froth of school reform because technology is forcing educators everywhere to re-think how they do business.  But that Declaration is still the foundation of their current efforts, which are articulated this way:

“Improving educational outcomes for all young Australians is central to the nation’s social and economic prosperity and will position young people to live fulfilling, productive and responsible lives. Young Australians are therefore placed at the centre of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals.

Goal 1:

Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence

Goal 2:

All young Australians become:

– successful learners

– confident and creative individuals

– active and informed citizens

Achieving these educational goals is the collective responsibility of governments, school sectors and individual schools as well as parents and carers, young Australians, families, other education and training providers, business and the broader community.”

In other words, to become an educated person, the Australian education Ministries ask that schools consider the development of the whole little human being.  Students can’t segment themselves and become academic performers without also building character, confidence, and their responsibility to the community as a whole.  The Australian education leaders clearly state that their schools should be keeping the long view in mind because the point of education is that kids have “fulfilling lives.”

The Declaration is short.  I recommend reading the whole of it.

And frankly, I wish Americans could just be humble, adopt it for our own schools, and say thank you.

Because below are our ambitions for children and youth as set forth by the U.S. Department of Education.  They are expressed as “priority performance goals.”  And no other mission statement or document of theirs mentions anything other than performance goals.  Which are:

* Improve outcomes for all children from birth through third grade.

*  Improve learning by ensuring that more students have an effective teacher.

*  Demonstrate progress in turning around the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

*  Make informed decisions and improve instruction through the use of data.

*  Prepare all students for college and career.

*  Improve students’ ability to afford and complete college.

Huh?  Did you see any kids in all that?  Humans?  It’s not clear what they mean by “outcomes” in the first goal — perhaps health indicators or reading readiness.  But the explanation that accompanies that goal refers only to collecting and reporting disaggregated data on the status of kids entering kindergarten.  On behalf of the youngest children and their well-being, we’re shooting for good data.

We’re not aiming for pink-cheeked, insatiable little learners who know how to play nicely in the sandbox.  We’re not supporting the innate curiosity, creativity and love of learning that will produce the innovators our economists and parents say we need.

Be careful what you ask for because you might get it.  We are asking for “priority performance” data hoping that it will take us to the promised land of hitting the international test scores — yet more data — out of the park.

I’m a good American.  I want us to be the best, the winners, the ones to show up fusty old Finland.  But we’ll never get there if we continue to narrow our dreams and goals for kids to their ability to perform for us academically.

Bloodless goals naturally produce anemic results.  Our bad.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.