Twenty-five years ago, my wife and I left Atlanta, Georgia, to drive across the country with a book called The 100 Best Small Towns in America as our guide. If you measured the success of our trip by how fast we were able to make it to the west coast, then by all accounts it was a dismal failure. But if you evaluated our adventure by the amazing small towns, historic sites, and spectacular scenery we experienced along the way, then it was a resounding success! In fact, it was what eventually led us to make our home right here in Marysville.

The point I am trying to make is that we can only measure the success of any activity or project if we know precisely what it is we are trying to accomplish. And that is why there is so much confusion around evaluating our schools— we have different opinions as to what our schools are actually supposed to be doing.

The truth is that our schools have multiple goals that sometimes conflict with each other. We aim to promote academic excellence, but also serve students of all ability levels. We require students to take specific subjects, but also seek to inspire engagement and self-direction. We encourage individual achievement, but also teach the responsibilities of citizenship and healthy community.

While all these goals have their place, the balancing act between them can sometimes cause us to miss the forest for the trees and get lost in the process. Our youth hunger for a “big picture” vision that puts their learning in context and gives them a reason to do their best, a vision that gives them something bigger than themselves to work for.

On this 242nd anniversary of our nation’s birth, I believe it is time to recommit ourselves to teaching the values that define what it means to be an American and that have made our country a beacon of light to so many around the world — the values of freedom, equality, and democracy.

How do we teach freedom? Freedom is taught by valuing each child just as they are and helping them discover their individual strengths and talents. Freedom celebrates diversity and expects every student to shine in their own special way. Freedom empowers students to take charge of their own lives and learning.

How do we teach equality? Equality is taught when every student belongs and has a place at the table. Equality nurtures the genius in every child, no matter what their ability level. Equality teaches that we are all in this together and that we all rise by lifting others.

How do we teach democracy? Democracy is taught when students have a voice in the decisions that affect them. Democracy knows that it is our differences that unite us and make us strong. Democracy has faith in the ability of each of us to contribute to the well-being of all.

A well-known philosopher once wrote that “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” If there is one thing that too many of our youth are missing, it is a clear and compelling understanding of the “why’s” of their schooling. And while each student will develop their own personal reasons for what they do, the goal of creating a world where freedom, equality, and democracy are practiced in all areas of life will provide a background of meaning and inspiration that allows everything else to make sense. And to me, that is a vision worth working for.

Jim Strickland is a teacher at Marysville-Pilchuck High School and an advocate of Student Centered Education. He can be reached at

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