THE BLOG
08/25/2016 10:36 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2017

What's Working: Setting Goals For Success

Over the next few weeks, millions of children across the country will spontaneously take part in a quiet, private ritual. Just before bedtime on their last night of summer vacation these students, like generations before them, will carefully select and lay out their first-day-of-school outfit.

Whether a student is laying out a school uniform, the latest in brand-name gear, or simply a clean set of clothes, this simple act is full of meaning. Because in the care with which they choose that first outfit, and in the symbolism of arranging it--just so--students capture the excitement of the Back to School season; the anticipation of what the new school year will hold; and the planning required for a successful year ahead.

Planning is good, but of course there are plans to enact and goals to set that are far more central to students' success in school than the clothes they wear.

That's why over the next two weeks, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is celebrating the Back to School season by highlighting powerful examples of the thoughtful planning, the intensive collaboration, and the ambitious goal-setting that parents, teachers, and communities are undertaking this school year to set students on the path toward real and lasting success.

Working toward shared goals - in the classroom, at the kitchen table, and in our communities - is critical to making education a bridge to opportunity for students. For too many, and particularly for low-income students and students of color, that bridge has become too narrow, too hard to navigate, with a toll that is too high for too many. Back to School is a chance to remind ourselves that in order to make that bridge accessible for everyone, we need goals to help get us there.

Here's an example of what I mean: At Lindsay Unified, a school district in California's Central Valley, they are doing important work to create shared goals and a shared vision for students' success in the classroom. In Lindsay, where over 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch and over half are English language learners, the school system uses a model that provides custom learning paths for every student.

Instead of trying to force every student to learn at the same rate, Lindsay lets students advance to the next level of learning when they master specific content, regardless of their age or the time of year. Being clear about individual learning goals, and giving teachers the right tools to help them tailor instruction for students, helps students "own" their learning and make progress. The video of Laura, below, is just one example of how students are making powerful results they can proud of:

Another example is the extensive collaboration around goal setting being facilitated by our partners like Learning Heroes (whose mission is to equip parents to support their children's success). Working with community partners like Chicago Public Schools, the League of United Latin American Citizens, National Urban League, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership, and the National Council of La Raza, Learning Heroes is helping to convene "kitchen table" events to help parents understand the learning goals their child should be reaching at each grade level, as well as how to understand the assessment scores that show where their child is making progress or needs more support.

Learning Heroes has also compiled an online, interactive set of "Super 5" steps parents can take to champion their children's academic success, as well as their social and emotional health, both in and out of the classroom - a helpful resource as parents meet with teachers for Back to School meetings.

Communities are also doing vital work to set and achieve shared goals for student success, like the Chattanooga 2.0 initiative in Hamilton County, Tennessee. Four out of ten students there currently live in poverty, but there is also growing economic opportunity -- with nearly 10,000 new jobs that pay a living wage (around $35K a year) expected to come to Hamilton County over the next few years, due to rapid expansion in automotive manufacturing and other advanced industries. Eighty percent of these jobs will require a postsecondary certificate or degree, so a coalition of community partners including the Benwood Foundation, Public Education Foundation, Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce and the Hamilton County Department of Education, came together to create a strategy to improve education outcomes and workforce development in this changing economy.

Business partners, faith groups, educators and other key stakeholders in the community collectively agreed to adopt a shared goal of having 75 percent of Hamilton County residents earn postsecondary credentials by 2025. They also included participants from early childhood, K-12, and postsecondary sectors to engage in a 100-day planning process so that the work connects across the education continuum.

None of the work described above is simple or easy - and there will always be bumps in the road and lessons to learn. But we salute the parents, teachers, organizations, businesses and faith leaders who understand that the work of setting students - and particularly our most disadvantaged students - on a path toward success is possible if we can work together to meet shared goals. They also understand that this work is too important to leave undone, and that there is no time like the present to do it. After all, another school year is about to begin, and we've all got things to do to get ready for tomorrow.