Last August I was visiting family in Oregon when I walked into a supermarket and by the front door saw a large sign that read in eye-catching print: “Give Kids The Tools They Need to Succeed.” The sign proceeds to list the “tools for success”: pencils, scissors, markers, glue sticks, erasers, crayons, colored pencils, notebook paper and hand sanitizer.
The sign, which was actually affixed to a donation drive collection box, is not a bad idea. Schools are underfunded and badly need supplies. The problem is it’s wrong.
As parents, we all want to give our kids the tools they need to succeed. We want our children to grow up to be happy, well-rounded, productive citizens. We rely on our schools to provide a foundation for academics and social-emotional development, but we know it’s our role to ensure our kids get what they need.
Every August, as anticipation for the new school year builds, retailers capitalize on parents’ excitement with a barrage of marketing for back-to-school shopping. Like it our not, back-to-school shopping is a reality for the majority of American families. Yet these marketers would have us believe that all we’d have to do to set our kids up for success is to stock up on glue sticks and markers.
Of course, the reality is far different. The painful truth is that only about 1 in every 3 kids in the country are performing academically on grade level. Only 1 in 4 are likely to get a college degree. The prospects are even worse for Hispanic and African-American students, and students from low-income families.
Yet we also know that excellent schools are the difference maker in preparing low-income kids for college and careers. We actually do know the tools that students need to succeed, and for goodness’ sake, it’s not glue sticks.
A new framework for school success released last week by New Schools Venture Fund presents seven attributes of a positive learning environment that are backed by evidence as linked to developing the “mindsets, habits, and skills” that students need. This framework provides not only a measurable definition of school success, it lays out actionable goals that schools should aspire to, and parents should know about.
What if, instead of a list of school supplies to buy, parents had a list of things that students need for success? What if, in addition to backpacks filled with binders and pencils, parents came to the first day of school armed with an understanding of what they should be expecting from their child’s school:
- A prepared and supported teacher using a high-quality curriculum.
- A safe, welcoming school culture that cultivates close relationships and a sense of belonging.
- Evidence that students are making a year’s progress in reading and math in a year’s time.
- Well-rounded learning opportunities that build college- and career-ready skills.
Parents know that school success is measured by more than test scores, yet have limited insight into how their schools are actually doing. If parents had a more nuanced, yet not overwhelming, list of attributes that they should be looking for from their schools—and an idea of how their schools stacked up against that framework—they could be smarter consumers of education, and more effective advocates for their children.
States, school districts, principals, community leaders, and nonprofits all play important roles in helping parents to navigate their child’s education. But perhaps part of the responsibility should lie with the back-to-school marketing machine, as well. Back-to-school shopping is a $27 billion industry in America. Retailers could use their marketing muscle to help empower parents to build the actual tools to success that students need, and focus those efforts within low-income communities.
Perhaps that grocery store sign, for example, could contain clear, inspiring information about what school success looks like and how parents can take action.
Let’s try moving beyond the shopping list to the “school success list.” In clear, accessible language that avoids jargon, we should help parents understand what they should expect from their schools, and provide clear answers about how their school is faring. We should provide parents with actionable guidance about what they can do to help their child thrive—and to help their school improve. Because parents play an essential role in manifesting school success, and it’s not just through #2 pencils.