“We have seen how an increasingly test-obsessed public has led our school systems to narrow their curricula, diminishing attention to many of our important public education goals to devote inordinate attention to test preparation,” Domenech writes.

“Learning Leadership” column, June 2013 edition of eSchool News—The members of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, are committed to guaranteeing to every American child a public education that develops his or her achievement in each of the areas that traditionally have been goals of American schools. First and foremost, our schools should promote good citizenship, including the habit and practice of participation in civic life by voting—as well as by contributing to community well-being in voluntary association with fellow citizens.

High achievement includes the organizational and collaborative skills needed to participate effectively in our democracy and practice in the nonviolent resolution of conflict. It depends on familiarity with public issues, a commitment to address them with reason and from consideration of evidence, and the ability to learn from our community’s, nation’s, and world’s historical experience. It includes commitment to our shared public values, such as equal opportunity, respect for others, fairness, compassion, and Americans’ guaranteed constitutional rights.

Productivity is another goal. This includes the ability to contribute to one’s own and to the community’s economic well-being. High achievement includes the ability to think creatively and work collaboratively from a foundation of academic mastery. It includes the appropriate use of technology, as well as self-discipline, responsibility, punctuality, and other work habits appropriate to occupational success.

We also focus on academic accomplishment in the language arts—including literacy and oral and written communication skills—as well as mathematics, the sciences, history, literature, and foreign languages. Academic accomplishment includes content knowledge along with reasoning and independent critical thinking. Creativity and appreciation of the arts, music, and literature are also goals, as is the knowledge of and commitment to the habits of good mental and physical fitness and health.

In recent years, a national obsession with test scores has distracted us from the work we must do in each of these areas to improve standards, design curriculum, train teachers to deliver it, and assess the extent to which students have performed. AASA will participate in, indeed we will help lead, national efforts to refocus on this priority. As school administrators, we believe deeply in the power of good schools to develop our youth’s high performance. But we also understand that schools cannot develop this high performance without support from the society outside our schools.

(Next page: What too few Americans realize about U.S. public education)

Too many children today come to our public schools unable fully to take advantage of what we can offer. They may come from racially isolated communities, be poorly nourished, have had inadequate early childhood literacy and developmental activities, be without routine and preventive health care, come from families without stable and adequate housing, live in fear of neighborhood crime and violence, have no access to enriching experiences in their non-school hours, or have parents under severe economic and emotional stress.

Our experience as educators teaches us that these conditions depress student performance in each of the areas we are committed to develop. AASA members pledge themselves never to use these conditions as excuses for failing to elicit the highest possible achievement from children. But we also pledge to speak forcefully on behalf of children’s needs for safe, secure, and wholesome family and community environments that provide the context for what schools can accomplish.

While we embrace the aspiration that every adolescent should graduate from high school prepared for college or fulfilling careers, we cannot avoid notice that college has become less affordable and student debt has mounted to burdensome levels. We will do our best to make all young people college-ready, but we must not neglect to provide students with the opportunity to acquire additional skills in high school that will allow them to pursue careers that may not require a college degree.

For more columns from AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, see:

Coming soon: A national superintendent certification program

What U.S. schools can learn from Russia

How to achieve true educational transformation

In recent decades, school administrators have watched too passively as politicians and media commentators characterized public schools as “failures” and tried to hold school leaders accountable for social and economic problems far beyond our control. AASA welcomes criticism for our shortcomings, and accountability for the best possible practices. But we reject denunciations that assume we operate in a vacuum and are unaffected by the vast and growing inequality in the social and economic conditions from which children come to school.

We are proud of both the historic and recent accomplishments of public education, and we have done too poor a job of communicating them. Too few Americans realize that public schools have raised the achievement of disadvantaged children at breathtaking rates—for example, black elementary school children now have higher achievement in mathematics than white children had only a generation ago, and improvements have been nearly as great at other grade levels and in language arts.

Too few Americans, hearing denunciations of public schools for failing to narrow the achievement gap, realize that the achievement gap has persisted in large part because both white and black student achievement has improved. Indeed, too few Americans realize that, despite our vast social inequalities, American schools have a smaller achievement gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children than do comparable industrialized nations.

Too few Americans recognize that Advanced Placement participation and scores are at all-time highs. Too few Americans celebrate the ability, unheard of only a few decades ago, of children with disabilities to graduate from public schools and function in mainstream society. Too few Americans are aware of the many successes of immigrant students who came to this country speaking no English and from barely literate backgrounds.

AASA, and our school administrator members in every community, pledge ourselves to do a better job of trumpeting these accomplishments, not from a sense of complacency but so that we and the public to which we are responsible can learn from what indeed has worked well, and target school improvement efforts to areas of true weakness and underperformance.

As school administrators, we must do a better job of evaluating our teachers, not for the purpose of punishing or replacing them, but to help them take advantage of research and experience with best practices that improve the performance of all students. We are dismayed by expectations that we reduce this evaluation largely to the examination of student test scores in basic skills of math and reading. We have seen how an increasingly test-obsessed public has led our school systems to narrow their curricula, diminishing attention to many of our important public education goals to devote inordinate attention to test preparation, drill, and an excessively narrow focus on the most mechanical and easiest-to-test math and reading skills.

For more columns from AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, see:

Coming soon: A national superintendent certification program

What U.S. schools can learn from Russia

How to achieve true educational transformation

We will do a better job of explaining to national and state policy makers, as well as to parents and community leaders, that test results are too inaccurate and unstable to play a major role in the identification of effective teachers—and that teachers who are effective in one year, in one curriculum area, and with some students are too often different from teachers who are effective in other years, in other curriculum areas, and with other students.

AASA and its members are working to develop effective teacher evaluation systems that can provide information to help teachers increase student achievement. The primary focus should be on improving teacher quality to raise achievement in all of the curricular areas for which we are responsible.

Daniel A. Domenech is executive director of the American Association of Schools Administrators (AASA).