Today’s students will live in a world that is challenging to predict. The current notions of college and career readiness are often rooted in prior models of work and post-secondary education that may not hold true when seeking to prepare students for their own futures. 

Rapid changes in technology, demographics, workplace skills and accountability systems are pushing schools across the United States to reflect on how they truly prepare students for their roles as lifelong learners, workers and citizens of an increasingly complex world.

Future-Focused Schools are those that have put the mission of supporting each of their students’ needs to ensure success in their post-school roles. Each school is unique and must tailor their approach based on their own identify, culture, strengths and context. These schools study the changing landscape and trends impacting their students to guide ongoing improvements to their education system.

College and Workplace Skills

In the United States, there are approximately three million teachers providing instruction for approximately 50 million students in grades K–12. It is estimated that up to 65 percent of those students — or approximately 32 million students — will work in jobs that have not been created yet. Machine intelligence and automation are already disrupting many industries and are positioned to increasingly impact more areas of the economy.

Meanwhile, the percentage of high school seniors going directly into college has declined and research has shown the reading proficiency level for freshman college courses is often lower than the reading level required in entry level jobs.

Teachers and school leaders must ask themselves what students will need to know and be able to do in order to prepare them to succeed in rapidly evolving post-secondary and workplace settings. While we may not be able to predict every aspect of future jobs, it is evident that the evolving workplace will require skills and an open mindset to support solving complex interdisciplinary challenges; analyzing and applying data to drive decisions; evaluating the validity and relevance of sources and data sets.

Success in both the classroom and the workplace of the future will require skills in self-directed lifelong learning and the application of abstract knowledge and critical thinking skills. Adaptive technology skills as well as service and social skills will be of increasing importance for students.

Serving ALL Students

The United States has a proud tradition of striving for both excellence and equity in education. There is a belief, which is also supported to varying degrees by federal and state policies, that the needs of all students must be met. In order to meet this imperative, the Future-Focused School must strive to ensure they understand the evolving student body they are serving as well as how to best use instructional tools, organization design and blended learning opportunities to prepare each and every student for a successful future.

Many Future-Focused Schools serve communities with rapid changes in student demographics. Nationally, 9.3 percent of K-12 students are English language learners. The trend on that percentage is clearly upwards and in many communities that percentage is already much higher. Meeting the current and future needs of these students requires not only cultural and language-specific supports but has significant implications for family and community engagement efforts as well as ensuring that the culture of the school supports these learners and their cultures.

Over half of the U.S. K-12 student population lives in poverty. The approximately 25 million students in this situation are expected to grow nationally with significant increases in many communities where poverty has not traditionally been a significant factor. School completion rates as well as the levels of readiness of these students for their post-school roles often lags far behind their peers that do not live in poverty. Ensuring that the school culture supports these students and that focused instruction provides them with the skills necessary for success in college, career and as engaged citizens is central focus for Future-Focused Schools.

Preparing students with disabilities for their post-school roles will take on increased importance as the nature of the workplace evolves. Approximately 14 percent of K-12 students are recognized as having a disability and are being served by an Individual Education Plan in their school. That number has increased from approximately eight percent when the IDEA law was enacted in 1975. Ensuring that these students benefit from the right blend of adaptive technology, inclusive instructional practices and engaging relationships at school is a central challenge for teachers and leaders seeking to serve all students.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 20 percent of K-12 students show signs of mental health challenges in any given year. Of those approximately 10 million students, approximately 80 percent — or 8 million students — do not receive treatment of any kind. Traditional schools are ill-equipped to support the mental health needs of these students but are often the safety net when family and community resources have not been able to provide all the support needed. As a result, many schools face issues including chronic absenteeism, low achievement levels, disruptive behavior and lower levels of school completion for this population. Many Future-Focused Schools have organized their system and engaged community, family and stakeholder support to provide a safe learning environment for these students while providing targeted supports for them.

Learning Criteria for 21st Century

Successful Future-Focused Schools view the challenges described above as opportunities to create a system that meets the needs of ALL students and ensuring they are well prepared to follow their path to becoming successful, independent adults that contribute to our economy and society as a whole. There is no one path for a school to follow but a study of national best practices has identified four key components for schools to focus on and adapt to their unique circumstances:

  1. Foundation Learning is connected to indicators of the school’s fundamental academic strengths as measured by state accountability systems, assessment results, graduation requirements, dropout rates and others.
  2. Stretch Learning encourages a school to examine the degree to which all students are challenged to attempt rigorous coursework, push themselves to take specialized courses, undertake interdisciplinary projects and other related activities.
  3. Learner Engagement is a critical aspect of the learning process which results from connectedness, seeing value and active engagement in learning, and being actively and purposefully part of a safe and welcoming school community.
  4. Personal Skill Development involves development of positive character traits, good work habits, and social, service, and leadership skills that not only enhance learning, but also extend to the world beyond school.

The new provisions of school accountability allowed under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) support this approach. Implementation of ESSA will provide states, and districts, with increased flexibility around how to measure school success including specific provisions to allow for focus on non-academic factors including school culture, student engagement, social/emotional learning, access to challenging coursework and related areas.

Ultimately, Future-Focused Schools are able to build upon their traditions and cultures while maintaining a focus on connecting with and supporting every one of their students to be successful in college, career and life.

For the last 20 years, Todd Daggett has supported schools and districts across the United States seeking to prepare ALL students for success. He currently serves as president of the Successful Practices Network — a national not-for-profit organization supporting and connecting schools and districts with instructional and organizational best practices. Previously, Daggett has served in senior leadership positions in corporate, small business and not-for-profit settings with a focus on creating national impact in schools and districts through impactful strategic school improvement consulting, focused professional learning and building leadership capacity. In addition to these activities he has served as a school board member and officer as well as a volunteer to a number of organizations serving foster children in New York State.

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