How Can We Make Our Movements Move?

I’m not one for big conferences. But in less than four weeks I’ve attended two national convenings aimed at accelerating movements to improve education and to better prepare our young people for healthy, productive lives. I left both events full of energy, hope – and a nagging question.

First came the Building a Grad Nation Summit in late March, where the America’s Promise Alliance gathered over 800 national, state and local leaders as part of a national campaign to increase high school and college graduation rates to 90 percent by 2020. Then on April 14, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) gathered over 100 national, state and local leaders to kick off of an initiative to make social and emotional learning an integral part of every child’s educational experience, from preschool through high school.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan headlined both Washington, D.C., events, which were packed with panels and discussions about promising and proven strategies for improving policies and practices. Many of us made connections, shared our enthusiasm and vowed commitments.

Here’s the problem: I’ve lost count of the movements our country has launched to improve youth supports and outcomes. These two events raised for me that nagging question, one that has grown into an obsession over the past decade: What would make such movements actually succeed? 

Graduating 90 percent of our high school students by 2020 is an audacious goal that we must achieve. Making social and emotional learning a core of every child’s education is equally audacious and critical. But why were these goals celebrated in two separate conferences? Because we tend to see them as “either/or” choices. When it comes time to focus our energy, we emphasize one more than the other.

What we need instead is a “both/and” approach. We need to fully commit to both goals and figure out how to carry out that commitment.


After musing about this for days, I landed on the same answer that has become the Ready by 21® rallying cry to leaders: We need bigger goals, broader partnerships, better data and bolder strategies.  If these building blocks are the essential ingredients of sustainable change at the state and local levels, then we must make them the foundation for our national movements as well.

People like John Bridgeland understand this. John, CEO of Civic Enterprises, helped to build the Grad Nation Campaign and delivered an excellent talk at the CASEL gathering. He reminded everyone of the lessons documented in The Silent Epidemic, the 2006 Civic Enterprises report that laid the groundwork for Grad Nation: that students who drop out of school do so not just because of failed courses, but also failed connections – in school, family and community.

The Ready by 21 National Partnership asserts that getting students ready for college, work and life requires us to focus on three objectives: academic and vocational preparation; social, emotional and civic competence; and management of risky behaviors and circumstances. Research shows that when we leave out the middle objective of social and emotional competence, we reduce the likelihood that students will achieve either of the other two.

Yet in our race to demonstrate that young people are on track to graduate, we consistently drop that middle objective. That’s because what gets measured gets done. We define success as academic performance and rely on early warnings – such as poor school attendance, behavior and grades – to signal an absence of social and emotional skills.

If we know that these skills are important, why wait for the alarm? Why not name them, teach them and reward their application? Consider one example.

A New Way

More than a decade ago, educators at the New Tech Network of high schools selected five 21st Century skills they wanted to ensure for all of their students by graduation: critical thinking, work ethic, teamwork, written communications and oral communications. These speak to the “soft skills” that business leaders say they look for, but find lacking in 40 percent of high school graduates seeking entry-level jobs.

At the 60-plus schools that use New Tech’s school development model, teachers build these skills into their lesson plans, documenting which activities reinforce which skills. Students are told how the demonstration of these skills will factor into their class grades. Team members assess each other. Report cards give students, parents and other teachers an opportunity to see the weighted scores behind each student’s overall grade. For example (courtesy of New Tech):    


This is a beautifully simple testament to the new 3 Rs: rigor, relevance and relationships. It allows students who may excel in soft skills but struggle with content to demonstrate their worth. It presses students who get the content to deliver the whole package. It provides employers and college recruiters with objective documentation of those soft skills. It puts to rest the “either/or” question that might be raised by the movements to increase graduation rates and to increase social and emotional learning experiences.

This blended set of bigger goals for youth provides us with reason to move forward to:

  • Create broader partnerships. Switch American History and Literature for any other content knowledge or civic or vocational skill that a youth might want to acquire, and you have a report card that could be used by extra-curricular clubs and teams, employers offering internships, youth programs offering arts, sports and service opportunities, and second chance programs offering GEDs and job training.
  • Collect better, fuller data and use it for data-driven decision making. Combine teacher and student assessments of student skills and dispositions with regular surveys (such as the Search Institute’s Developmental Assets Profile and the Gallup Student Poll) and with  broader assessments of the learning environments (through such tools as the Youth Program Quality Assessment and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System). If the data in school records focus only on academics, we miss opportunities to uncover important developmental patterns. We also miss opportunities to inform teachers and students about the important skills and dispositions that need to be taught and mastered during the school hours and to acknowledge the role that other organizations play in developing the whole child.
  • Implement bolder strategies. Integrate efforts to improve the content and contexts in which learning happens and deepen all students’ connections to them. Make the same commitment to whole-child education in the later years (K-12 and post-secondary) as we do in the early years. Bring school, business and community leaders together to prioritize and implement changes in policy, practice and public opinion.

Every time we press forward without all four of these building blocks in place, we stumble. Every time we stumble, we lose confidence in ourselves as leaders, in our schools and communities, or in our young people. Every time we lose confidence, we shrink our goals and scale down our strategies until we’re back to doing business as usual: Picking off the low-hanging fruit, blaming the victims, lamenting the economy.

If we want to make movements move, we must move them together.