red building on a school campus
Photo by Matthis Volquardsen on

It may seem unnecessary to begin with a question as basic and as fundamental as, “Why are we here?” However, at least two factors motivate this introductory thought. First, students and the world for which we are preparing them have changed. We will describe these changes in more detail during this and other chapters. Given these changes, reflections on the functions, the purpose, the desired outcomes of education seems entirely appropriate, even necessary. Second, educators and schools are suffering from initiative fatigue – each year, we attempt to implement a new good idea. Our fear is that these initiatives or solutions are not sufficiently connected to thoughtfully-identified and well-defined challenges. By revisiting the function of education, we hope to gain greater clarity on the needs and our goals so that our solutions, good ideas, and initiatives-to-implement match a school’s raison d’etre.

Given that the curriculum is already crowded, a major political challenge is articulating what to deemphasize in the curriculum – and why – in order to make room for students to deeply master core 21st century skills.

Dede, 2009, p. 3

The skills required for success in life, from one reliable source, are listed below. It’s reasonable to assume that these skills represent the capacities and attributes for which schools are preparing students from pre-Kindergarten early education through Grade 12 (Conley, 2014):

  • Think
    • Beyond retaining and applying information, students process, manipulate, assemble, reassemble, examine, question, look for patterns, organize, and present.
    • Students develop and employ strategies for problem solving when they encounter a challenge. Five key strategies are:
      • Problem formulation
      • Research
      • Interpretation
      • Communication
      • Precision and accuracy
    • Know
      • Students possess foundational knowledge in core academic subjects and an understanding of:
        • Connections and structures between and within subjects
        • The necessity for, and implications of, effort and a growth mindset
        • Organizing content
        • Identifying key ideas
        • The inherent value of learning
      • Act
        • Students employ skills and techniques to enable them to exercise agency and ownership as they successfully manage their learning.
        • Students gain expertise through the regular and integrated application and practice of key learning skills and techniques. Student agency rests upon the following:
          • Goal setting
          • Persistence
          • Self-awareness
          • Motivation
          • Self-advocacy
          • Progress monitoring
          • Self-efficacy
        • Students develop habits that allow them to succeed in demanding situations:
          • Time management
          • Study skills
          • Test taking
          • Note taking
          • Memorization
          • Strategic reading
          • Collaborative learning
          • Technological proficiencies
        • Go
          • Students preparing for a career or additional education develop skills to navigate potential challenges, including:
            • Contexts: Their motivations and options for educational programs after high school.
            • Procedures: The logistic of admissions and application processes.
            • Finances: The costs of further education and financial aid options.
            • Cultures: Differences between cultural norms in school and the workplace or postsecondary settings.
            • Interpersonal: Advocating for oneself in complex environments.

We propose that the function of education is to teach, model, and nurture these skills with and within students so that they are happy, successful, and productive citizens of the world.




How do you make sure to tell each student’s WHOLE story?

Let Mr. Elmer’s Intervention Compass guide you along the way.

The Economist’s Intelligence Unit (Tabary, 2015), in collaboration with Google, surveyed business executives, teachers, and students, to assess the skills most needed in today’s workplaces. The skills identified most were (the percentage of respondents who selected each skill is reported in parenthesis):

  1. Problem-solving (50%)
  2. Team-working (35%)
  3. Communication (32%)
  4. Critical thinking (27%)
  5. Creativity (21%)
  6. Leadership (18%)
  7. Literacy (17%)
  8. Digital literacy (16%)
  9. Foreign language (15%)
  10. Emotional intelligence (12%)

The function of education and schools, then, is not necessarily limited to core academic content. The function of education is to motivate, nurture, and prepare for success in life.

Proficiency in 21st skills is the new civil right of our times…The new social contract is different: Only people who have the knowledge and skills to negotiate constant change and reinvent themselves for new situations will succeed.

Kay, 2009

Based on the preponderance of achievement results, evidence suggests that schools have not been entirely successful in fulfilling the objectives represented by this function of education. This is particularly true for our most vulnerable students. We will report on a sampling of this evidence later in this chapter.

We fear, and research supports, that low expectations for students’ ability to grow and learn at high levels (again, particularly our most vulnerable students) – in combination with a overly broad curriculum that too often addresses only traditional academic areas – is a major contributing factor in students’ underperformance:

The normal curve is not sacred. It describes the outcome of a random process. Since education is a purposeful activity in which we seek to have students learn what we teach, the achievement distribution should be very different from the normal curve if our instruction is effective. In fact, our educational efforts may be said to be unsuccessful to the extent that student achievement is normally distributed

Bloom, 1971, p. 49

We are convinced that we can do better – that we possess the people, the skills, and the resources necessary. We must start by examining the function of education and our beliefs in students. The paradigms of grades, percentages, and fixed timeframes for learning are inconsistent and incompatible with high levels of learning for all – particularly when the demands of society and the workplace are evolving. While much of the focus of this book will necessarily be on systems, we believe that culture, as much or more then structures, is the key to education’s success.

How many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of all children? If your answer is more than one, then I submit that you have reasons of your own for preferring to believe that basic pupil performance derives from family background instead of school response to family background. We can, whenever & wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us; we already know more than we need to do that; whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.

Edmonds, 1979, p. 23

Why haven’t we been more successful? This sensitive question will serve as a subtext throughout this book. In addition to the critical importance of culture, beliefs, and expectations, we believe that educators and schools must:

  • Work more collaboratively
  • Organize more systematically
  • Serve students in more differentiated and personalized ways

Designing and implementing collaborative systems of support that directly address these three “musts” will be the topic of the remainder of this book.

Before we go any further, we’d like to establish some universal concepts that we hold true and that provide a foundation for our work within schools. Each of these universal concepts represents a fundamental principle of a collaborative system of support. For example, collaboration and the collaborative practices of professional learning communities are not simply gimmicks to employ when we have the opportunity or inclination; collaboration is a mandatory and integral component of systems of support and of our success in serving students.

These universal concepts are not optional; they must be present in schools that adequately serve all students and all student needs. Moreover, these universal concepts must be organized logically, interdependently, and systematically into a cohesive whole – a collaborative system of support.

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