Published May 19, 2020
Nationwide, school lessons in personal growth and job skills have taken a backseat to preparation for standardized tests, according to new research led by Jaekyung Lee, PhD, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology in the Graduate School of Education.
The study, which analyzed the educational goals of principals at thousands of public, private and charter schools for more than two decades, found the shift in priorities was most pronounced in public schools.
The change in educational goals can be traced to the rise in test-based school accountability policies in the 1990s and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which mandated statewide testing in the United States, according to the research.
“The balanced development of both academic and soft skills is crucial,” said Lee, “not only for well-rounded child development in schools, but also for career and life success.”
“Increasing concerns about poor student performance in the United States led states to adopt high-stakes testing policies,” said Lee. “However, working under the constraints of limited resources, complex power dynamics and externally imposed policies, school principals are often faced with challenges in prioritizing educational goals. Forced to focus narrowly on academic skills measured by state tests, other equally important goals were deprioritized.”
Lee’s study, “Is ‘Whole Child’ Education Obsolete? Public School Principals’ Educational Goal Priorities in the Era of Accountability,” published in March in Educational Administration Quarterly. It is one of the few studies to examine the influence of education policies on school principals’ priorities, rather than on student achievement or teacher practices. A school leader’s perception of educational goals guides, directs and motivates the daily operations and performance of school members, said Lee.
Using data from the Schools and Staffing Survey, researchers compared the national trends of educational goal priorities between public and private schools from 1991-2012.
The surveys asked principals to choose three priorities from this list: basic literary and numerical skills, academic excellence, personal growth, job skills, work habits and discipline, human relations, moral values and multicultural awareness.
Academic excellence experienced a significant rise in ranking among public school principals, with 83 percent choosing it as one of three top priorities in 2012, up from 60 percent in 1991. The percentage who selected development of basic literacy and numeracy skills also rose, increasing from 76 percent to 85 percent.
The shift came at the expense of personal growth, a category that includes self-esteem and self-awareness. In 1991, it was chosen by 62 percent of public school principals, but only by 32 percent in 2012. The importance of job skills also declined, with the percentage of principals rating it as one of three top priorities falling from 13 percent to 9 percent.
Private school principals experienced a similar but less drastic shift in priorities. The results, said Lee, reflect the influence of educational policy discourse and media reports on private schools. Unlike public schools, they are less exposed to government regulations on curriculum standards.
The study’s findings about the NCLB policy impact on narrowing educational goals resonate with Lee’s previous studies, including "Moving to Educational Accountability System 2.0: Socioemotional Learning Standards and Protective Environments for Whole Children, a recent report published by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, which called for renewed education policy actions to improve children’s socioemotional skills and well-being.
“School leaders can and should play an important role in envisioning and realizing educational goals,” said Lee. “Principals need to develop strategies to accomplish the whole educational mission, encompassing academic, socioemotional, moral, multicultural and vocational learning to meet the diverse needs of their students as well as the larger society.”