Have you found your educational gold?


Does your school have a shared sense of what “educational gold” looks like?

I came across this term in Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine’s excellent new book, In Search of Deeper Learning. These two did the research I’d always dreamed of doing — they went out and found schools that are succeeding with challenging student populations and tried to figure out their magic.

A ton of valuable work, by the way. Their insights are well worth reading.

The high schools they feature have vastly different approaches to teaching and learning, ranging from Project-Based Learning to “No Excuses” to International Baccalaureate.

One thing these highly effective schools have in common is a shared mission — from the admin to the teachers to the students and their parents. In each of the successful schools, everyone knows what success looks like, even if they wouldn’t define it exactly the same way at another school.

At the PBL school, educational gold was students creating original, high-quality collaborative projects, like a documentary film or a field guide to a local bay. The school wasn’t so concerned about standardized test scores, AP scores (they don’t have any AP classes), or eliminating failure (failure is part of the process).

At No Excuses, educational gold was high performance on SAT IIs and AP tests, as well as high college acceptance rates. The school wasn’t as concerned about student-centeredness, relationship-building, student creativity/autonomy or intrinsic motivation.

At IB, educational gold was metacognition, cross-disciplinary thinking and students creating original intellectual/academic work. The school wasn’t as concerned about broad coverage of every topic or new technologies, and despite the IB exams, it wasn’t focused on test scores either. 

At each of these schools, their educational gold drove everything — school policies, teacher hiring decisions, professional development, how failure is addressed, what courses and activities are offered, how resources are used, how time is managed, and so on. 

So what is our educational gold — or your school’s educational gold

In my case, I don’t really know. 

At my school, we talk a lot about connectedness and about preventing failure. We talk about balance and mental health, though our students continue to pile on AP classes. We talk a lot about grading and technology.

But our mission statement doesn’t talk about any of those things. Our mission statement says we are “building an inclusive community of responsible, respectful and resourceful citizens who value learning.” 

If this was our educational gold, building responsibility/respect/resourcefulness would be our central mission. We would judge our own success by things like our students’ ability to take on challenges, be responsible for their own learning, and solve problems. 

Our school’s PR materials wouldn’t talk about college credits and graduation rates — but about responsibility, respect and resourcefulness in action. Our professional development wouldn’t focus on grading, technology use and failures — unless those helped us achieve our central focus.

I haven’t finished the book yet, so I’m not sure what conclusions the authors draw about the importance of finding your school’s educational gold. Maybe it’s not something a comprehensive high school, with its many competing goals and purposes, can even do.

But it is worth thinking about. In any successful organization, the mission drives the strategies and behaviors, and these drive the outcomes.

We won’t get the outcomes we want if we aren’t clear about the mission.

Martha Rush is a teacher, author, curriculum developer, speaker — and occasional blogger. She’s working on her second book, a joint project with Quarter Zero to bring lean entrepreneurship to more high school students. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information on Martha’s projects. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom