Grades Based on Age and Focus on Standards and Testing Obscures Purpose!

In the mid-19th century, the one-room schoolhouse with one teacher working with children at varying stages of learning, each pursuing different academic objectives, began giving way to Horace Mann’s vision of an education process. Mann was influenced by the Prussian education model that organized students by grades, based on age.  The Prussian model was designed for organizational efficiency and discipline. Mann’s model and focus remains the process of choice, today, in private, parochial and public schools.

If there is meaningful research to show that this is the best way to structure classrooms and organize students and teachers for learning, I hope someone will share it with me.

In a one-room schoolhouse, a teacher’s priority was to help every child get from where they were upon arrival for their first day of school, to where they needed to be when they left school to embark upon life as an adult citizen. Some students only needed to learn how to read and write; others needed to prepare to find a job or to take over their family’s farm or business; and, some  aspired to go to college to become teachers, doctors, and other professionals. Each student was guided by their inherent abilities, their unique interests, by their own dreams for the future and the dreams of their families, and by a caring teacher.  That teacher’s only purpose was to help each child prepare for whatever future to which he or she aspired.

It is my assertion that the existing education process, to which so many educators are loyal, has obscured that mission and purpose, for generations.

One of the characteristics of organizations, irrespective of venue, is that if leadership is not diligent in remaining focused on and reminding the organization and its people of its core mission or purpose, the process that was created to serve that purpose becomes the entity’s focal point. Over time, that mission or purpose becomes obscured by the clutter of the process. This is what happened when administrators and policy makers  committed to moving students from Kindergarten or first grade to twelfth grade, as a class.

The existing education process requires that “students at each grade level” be able to meet certain criteria before they are deemed ready, as a population, to move on to the next lesson or grade level. The shift in focus from preparing individual students for their unique future to preparing all students of a given age to advance as a group is subtle, but with each school year the degree of separation between the original purpose and the secondary agenda, expands.

When formal academic standards were established, teaching to the standards and meeting their arbitrary time frames grew in importance. No longer were we teaching individual children according to their unique level of academic preparedness or pace and style of learning, rather we were marching to the cadence of the Prussian fondness for order and organizational efficiency. The standards also opened the door for high-stakes testing, that was viewed as a method of assessing the effectiveness of schools and teachers. Not only did we begin teaching to the standards, we began teaching to the tests.

What high-stakes testing measures, however, is not the effectiveness of teachers and schools. It reveals, instead, the ineffectiveness of the education process in helping individual children learn as much as they are able at their own best speed; despite the efforts of public school teachers. Educators must cease viewing the results as an indictment against themselves and use it as evidence to show what they are asked to do does not work for all kids.

Can you imagine a teacher in a one-room school house telling a child, I’m sorry but time is up! I need you to move on to the next lesson, along with your classmates, ready or not?

I’m certain some of you are thinking, “but we don’t teach in one room schoolhouses!” And, of course, you are not. But, “are you teaching kids to prepare for their own unique futures or are you “teaching to the standards” or “teaching to the test?” You need not feel guilty after answering truthfully. Neither should you feel powerless to bring about a transformation.

The appropriate question educators and positive leaders at every level should be asking, is: “has our fundamental mission and purpose changed?”  And: “should mission and purpose be driven by structure and process or should it be the other way around?” It is this author’s assertion that mission and purpose should always drive structure and process and assuring that this is the case is the responsibility of positive leaders.

At one time, holding a student back so they could repeat a grade (be given a second chance to master the subject matter) was not uncommon. Gradually, educators gravitated away from that practice because it was perceived to be the greater of two evils.

A decade ago, writing about this issue in Educational Leadership, Jane L. David[i] wrote, describing the reality in public education:


“School systems cannot hold back every student who falls behind; too many would pile up in the lower grades. Moreover, it is expensive to add a year of schooling for a substantial number of students. Therefore, in practice, schools set passing criteria at a level that ensures that most students proceed through the grades at the expected rate.” (March 2008, Volume 65, Number 6).


By sacrificing so many children to preserve the process we demonstrate that the process was then and continues to be viewed as more important than our students.

Had “mission and purpose” been driving “structure and process,” educators and policy makers of an earlier time might have asked the question positive leaders should pose, relentlessly, “who exists to serve whom?”

What I have endeavored to create is an education model designed to remain loyal to “mission and purpose” amid the dynamic changes taking place around us. It offers a process that gives educators the freedom and support necessary to: form close, long-term relationships with students; elicit the support of parents; help children experience, celebrate and expect success; shield them from loss of hope that comes with repeated failure: and, to apply leading-edge methodologies, tools, and innovations for the benefit of their students.

Please examine my model at


[i] Jane L. David is the Director of the Bay Area Research Group

Commitment to Mission, Vision, & Values: The Third Attribute of Positive Leaders

There is a direct relationship between the efficacy of leadership and the level of passion positive leaders exhibit for the mission, vision, and values of their organization. This passionate commitment is the third attribute of positive leaders.

Whatever products and services an organization produces and whoever its customers may be, powerful positive leaders have a clear vision for the future of their organizations and an articulate and well-defined purpose or mission. Positive leaders convey that mission to the people of their organizations, relentlessly. There is a simple adage. If the people of an organization, irrespective of the position they occupy, do not know what their leaders are going to say before they say it, then the leaders are not communicating their message with sufficient frequency and effectiveness. Relentless is just another word for commitment.

Positive leaders never squander an opportunity to tell their organization’s story or share its mission, vision, and values. One of the distinguishing characteristics of winning organizations is that everyone in the organization, or at any link in the supply chain, can articulate its mission, vision, and values.

A mission statement is a concise representation of purpose: whom does the organization exist to serve and what needs of its customers does the entity exist to satisfy? The best mission statements also address the level of excellence to which the organization aspires, which is a measure of customer satisfaction.

At no time can anyone in the organization be permitted to lose sight of its mission or purpose. History teaches us that human beings are prone to diversions from their purpose in the midst of the natural and seemingly infinite distractions to which they are inevitably subjected. It is the commitment of positive leaders that keeps mission and purpose at the forefront of the organization’s consciousness.

The leader’s vision transcends mission and purpose, recognizing that these are fluid concepts in a dynamic universe. Vision addresses the organization’s standing in its marketplace and its future direction. Among other things, vision assures that the entity’s strategic plan is sufficiently future-oriented. What does the future hold? How will customer needs and requirements evolve? What innovations in product or service will be needed to assure the entity’s competitive advantage?

The values of the organization are the things its leaders consider most important and almost always include commitment to customer satisfaction and exemplary quality. Values must also include information that conveys esteem with which the people of the organization are held. An entity’s values are the moral benchmarks against which each and every action of the organization is gauged.

This focus on values is critical because one of the most common problems that keep organizations from optimal performance is that its actions are not in sync with the things its leaders say. A clear focus on and an unrelenting commitment to the values of the organization on the part of its leaders serves as preventative maintenance that retards the emergence of secondary agendas and counter cultures. Such commitments are nothing more than a demonstration of a positive leader’s integrity.

A member of a client organization once commented, after a discussion of values, that these sound like nothing more than time-worn platitudes. I prefer to think of them as the underlying principles that guide the leaders of winning organizations.