Our rapidly changing world is posing unique challenges and placing unprecedented demands on all of us. In this moment, it is more important than ever that all young people have the tools and support they need to grow into confident, caring, and engaged members of society. And yet, our education systems across the country aren’t structured in ways that develop and nurture the breadth of skills every young person needs to thrive. This roadmap is about closing the gap between what all students need and what they receive.

The science of learning and development tells us that learners of all ages need a variety of healthy, engaging learning experiences. In order to optimize opportunities for success, learners need experiences that are grounded in strong developmental relationships and safe environments, and support the development of a broad set of physical, social, cognitive, creative, and emotional skills. But there is a persistent disconnect between the holistic set of skills and experiences that every child needs, and what our current education system prioritizes.

Existing educational systems that prioritize narrow definitions of student success—tied almost exclusively to academic performance measured by high-stakes testing—do not reflect the prevailing scientific understanding of learning as a holistic, engaging endeavor. Nor do such limited approaches allow for the customized, personalized experiences necessary to reach the diversity of learners in every classroom. As a result, achievement and skills gaps continue to widen; individuals, families, and communities miss out on massive unrealized potential; and our country faces serious challenges to its social health and economic competitiveness.

The challenge—in a country where opportunity and access remain inequitable—is how to ensure that every student has access to experiences that challenge and nourish them as whole learners. Far too often, current approaches lean heavily on one-size-fits-all approaches to instruction (“teaching to the test”), limit engagement with families and caregivers, and fail to focus on the depth and breadth of skills that individual learners need to build self-efficacy and successfully navigate a rapidly changing world. An essential part of the solution is a fundamental shift in how we perceive the purpose and practice of education, and how we understand what constitutes quality learning.

In order to create the systemic conditions for optimal learning and development for every young person, we must break out of antiquated, narrow notions of educational success that create a false choice between students’ academic achievement and their physical, social, cognitive, creative, and emotional development. To succeed, students need opportunities to develop and practice this broad set of skills that foster self-confidence, facilitate engagement with peers, and build the capacity to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. From birth through grade 12 and beyond, educators and policymakers must embrace evidence-based whole-learner approaches that reflect the dynamic, interconnected nature of how children learn and interact with the world, and focus on achieving stronger positive outcomes for every learner.

In this policy roadmap, we leverage the expertise of the America Forward Coalition, along with our partners, experts, and researchers, to define the key characteristics of evidence-based, high-quality whole-learner approaches, and lay out a vision for how to make them a reality for every student. Together, we can create an education system that supports healthy, holistic learning and development for every child; provides every learner with the breadth of skills necessary to thrive; yields stronger academic outcomes; and helps to ensure a better future for our children and our communities.

Next: Designing Connected, Engaging Learning Experiences