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Bill Tierney

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Setting Achievable Goals

Two years ago this month, bursting with foolishness and determination, I ran the JFK ultramarathon—50 miles! The course began on the Appalachian Trail at Boonsboro, Maryland, followed the Potomac for 26 miles, and ended in the rolling hills near Williamsport, which at Mile 49 felt like the Himalayas. My brother and my best friend also ran.

The event was quintessentially American, in the most positive sense. The spectators lining the route urged us on with boisterous enthusiasm—cheering for superathletes and laggards alike—including those like us, who questioned if we could finish at all. I took a tumble on the trail and two runners stopped, helped me up, and exhorted me to keep going. The event was well organized and staffed. At rest stops, helpful volunteers inquired into our needs. Cutoff times were set, and when one of us fell behind, an organizer loped up, saying, “At this rate you won’t make the cutoff. Run with me and we’ll make it.” We all made the cutoff. After 11 hours I crossed the finish line, exhausted and exhilarated.

I raise this memory because in the high schools where I work (as director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education), the environment is very different. We all know the social facts of schools where the dropout rate is north of 50% and the college-going rate is south of 30% and writing at grade level is even lower. These schools are chaotic and lonely places. Without an organized culture of learning that emphasizes success, students wander in confusion. They have no one running alongside to show them how to succeed.

The recent presidential election affords AERA an opportunity to improve our school environments. Where do we want the nation’s schools to be in four years?

Education reformers, whether business leaders like Bill and Melinda Gates or politicians like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, often push for sweeping changes. “Our goal is to transform the Los Angeles Unified School District,” Villaraigosa declared in his first term. Similar pronouncements are heard at the federal level. “Our challenge,” the first President Bush said, “amounts to nothing less than a revolution in American education.” President Clinton signed Goals 2000 and projected 90% high school graduation by century’s end. The second President Bush signed No Child Left Behind in 2002 and asserted: “From this day forward, all students will have a better chance to learn, to excel, and to live out their dreams.”

These grand statements are like saying everyone will finish the ultramarathon in six hours, when we have neither the resources to achieve the goal nor any idea how to proceed. The historian Diane Ravitch calls such thinking “the Big Idea.” Like any of us who have actually worked in and studied schools, Ravitch knows that quick fixes don’t exist. Small schools, charter schools, revolutionary teaching reforms, and other attempts at radical transformation may succeed here and there, but they repeatedly fail to create systemic change.

Yet there is nothing like a goal to push public policy in the direction we want it to go. We all have personal goals—mine is to increase college going. How can we formulate a collective goal that not only inspires, but plots a realistic path to systemic change in education? I see a role for AERA in defining this process and helping set a goal on a national level.

Could we not set forth a synthetic statement that delineates a clear, achievable public policy goal for the next four years, based on the extant literature? Surely there is one goal we can urge that is not only doable, based on our collective knowledge, but also significant for students, communities, and the nation.

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