One Small Step

Charlie DePascale

Forty-seven years ago today, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the surface of the moon.  Their successful Apollo XI mission fulfilled the challenge proposed by President John F. Kennedy in a 1961 speech to Congress that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”  The Apollo program has been hailed as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century, perhaps one of the greatest achievements of all-time.  It serves as standard against which other significant challenges and programs are compared, one of the most recent examples being the Cancer Moonshot 2020 program to develop an effective vaccine-based approach to combat cancer by the year 2020.

We are not without similar challenging, ambitious goals in education. Fifteen years ago, President George W. Bush and Congress, proposed the challenge under No Child Left Behind that states should commit themselves to achieving the goal, by the year 2014, or having all students proficient in reading and mathematics.  The nation was not quite as successful at achieving that goal as in landing a man on the moon.  Results of the 2015 NAEP tests in Reading and Mathematics indicated that approximately half of U.S. students were proficient in reading and mathematics.  An improvement from pre-NCLB results, to be sure, but far short of the moon.

Although the NCLB goal of 100% of students proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014 was almost universally regarded as unattainable, it was by far a much less ambitious goal than those that preceded it.  Twenty-two years ago, President Bill Clinton signed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act into law.  Among other things, the act set the following goals, to be achieved by the year 2000:

  • The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.
  • All students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, the arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation’s modern economy.
  • United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.
  • Every school in the United State will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.
  • The nation’s teaching force will have access to programs for the continued improvement of their professional skills and the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to instruct and prepare all American students for the next century.

Like the NCLB goal of 100% of students proficient in reading and mathematics, progress has been made on some of the goals set forth by Goals 2000, but in 2016 none have been accomplished.

In a 2011 commentary in EdWeek, Salvaging Race to the Top Assessment, I suggested that goals such as improving instruction and student learning to ensure college- and career-readiness were more challenging than landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth because a) the Apollo program had a clearly defined outcome, and b) the effort to land a man on the moon was largely self-contained.  In contrast, our goals in education are often much less well-defined (e.g., what do we mean by college- and career readiness?) and are by no means self-contained.  As I stated in the EdWeek commentary

The success of the assessment program now being developed by two multistate consortia with Race to the Top money will require extensive infrastructure changes in schools; the active support and involvement of states and local educators across the country; and the active support and involvement of students, parents, and perhaps communities. Additionally, the project will require significant behavior changes and resources for long-term, sustained implementation. In this regard, the War on Poverty may be the more appropriate 1960s comparison than the Apollo project in terms of RTT assessment’s scope and complexity.

Of course, the same can be said of the goals set forth in NCLB and Goals 2000.  Bringing about any major change in education requires the long-term commitment and active support of all parties, including the general public (i.e., taxpayers).  For some reason, however, the country no longer engages in discussions of long-term commitment and sacrifices needed to accomplish goals.  That was not the case, it appears, with the space program in 1961.  In the same speech to Congress in which President Kennedy called for a commitment to reach the moon, he also expressed this caution

I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year.

This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.

New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further-unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.

We have not had a similar conversation about what it will take to achieve goals such as ensuring that all students graduate from high school college- and career-ready, closing achievement gaps, or improving the nation’s teaching force. Unfortunately, I do not expect that conversation to happen any time soon.  There has certainly been nothing in the current presidential election campaign to suggest otherwise.

So, let’s set aside the grand long-term goals for a minute and in commemoration of Neil Armstrong’s historic step from the lunar module to the surface of the moon, let’s focus our attention on “one small step” or a few small steps that might lead the way to a giant leap forward for education.  Let’s commit to taking a few key steps that certainly can be accomplished in the three years between tonight and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo XI moon landing in July 2019.

  1. Develop a clear and complete definition of college- and career-readiness.
  2. Agree on the limited amount of content area knowledge and specific skills that are critical for all adults to possess.
    1. Acknowledge that much of the content taught in schools is intended to support the acquisition of complex thinking skills, but could be interchangeable with other content.
  3. Meet President Clinton’s 1996 technology goals for schools:
    1. All teachers and students will have modern computers [devices] in their classrooms.
    2. Every classroom will be connected to the information superhighway.
    3. Effective and engaging software and on-line resources will be an integral part of every school curriculum.
    4. All teachers will have the training and support they need to help all students learn through computers.

Perhaps those three steps are not really that small, but they are worth our commitment and our effort because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them. (Source unknown)


Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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