The purpose of schools.

Why do we have school in the first place? What is the purpose of schooling and teaching? If we don’t know what the mission and goals of school are, it’s not possible to even know if we get there. We also don’t know if the target was missed. Interestingly, with all the focus in recent years on accountability of schools, you don’t see that much public discussion about the fundamental purpose of schools.

Two primary opposing views exist regarding the purpose of schools. Some, such as the Business Roundtable (A. Ryan, 2004) and Achieve (Achieve, 2004), an organization created by governors and business leaders, believe that the primary purpose of schools should be to create workers who have skills and personal styles to fill and perform available jobs. Others believe this outcome is too narrow (Freeman, 2005; Goodlad, 1984; Hodgkinson, 2006; Postman, 1996). For them schools should seek to develop active citizens, helping children develop their own capacity for personal achievement and contributing to society as an active citizen for democracy.

These two goals, producing workers and creating citizens, require two very different approaches. If, on the one hand, the key goal is to educate students as workers, where education essentially functions as a section of the personnel department for business and industry, schools are expected to perform two essential tasks: (1) create a pool of workers with at least minimum competence and attitudes from which businesses can select employees; and (2) provide a way of sorting workers in rank order of ability, eliminating those from the pool who do not have the perceived capacity to function as employees. The goal for businesses, of course, is to have a large pool of potentially qualified candidates with requisite skills that far exceeds the availability of jobs. This allows the business to select the best candidate. The resulting competition for jobs allows them to keep wages lower, thus decreasing costs and increasing profits. This goal becomes evident through the call for standards with higher levels of skills. The need to have a way of ranking individuals in order of basic skills, or at least certifying minimum competency, is seen in the push for standardized testing that was incorporated into the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act passed in 2004. It is notable that the Business Roundtable and other business and industry groups were intimately involved in calling for identified minimum standards and the use of standardized testing.

Following are some key strategies that may lead to schools accomplishing these personnel office functions in the societal service of business. They most often include:

• Identify basic skills that all students should achieve, skills needed in most jobs in business and industry
• Use tests to rank students or, at minimum, identify students as competent or incompetent on basic skills
• Increase the number of students meeting competence in basic skills.
• Assure that the curriculum focuses narrowly on the basic skills rather than curriculum options that address individual interests and needs
• Facilitate conditions under which students with challenges drop out of the system to reduce costs

The fact is, of course, few school districts actually state that their prime mission is to serve as a personnel department for business and industry. However, functionally many schools make this clear by engaging in practices designed to insure such outcomes. Similarly, policymakers often use language whereby an outcome is veiled by other language. If you look carefully at the list above, you’ll see a description of practices presently mandated by NCLB (No Child Left Behind) in the United States (Education, 2002) and laws in other countries as well. Some of these requirements, like the creation of standards and use of standardized tests are mandated in the legislation itself. Others, such as the increase in dropouts (Bridgeland, DiIulio, & Morison, 2006; Woods, 1995) and racial segregation (Horn, 2006), are a result of a system that does not attend well to the personalized needs of students, particularly those with substantial life challenges (J. Ryan, 2004). Similarly, as schools are evaluated based on very narrow criteria (eg. tests of math, basic literacy skills, and science), the curriculum of many schools is narrowed, de-emphasizing social studies, the arts, physical education, and even, on occasion, eliminating recess for elementary children (Karp, Spring 2003; Marshak, November 2003; Mathis, 2006; McKenzie, November, 2006).
If, on the other hand, schools seek to help students achieve personal excellence and become effective citizens, their learning activities must be organized quite differently. In such schools, the curriculum would necessarily offer many rich opportunities rather than focusing only on narrow basic skills. Students are nurtured to become adults who have skills, attitudes, and knowledge to be productive community members, leaders, parents, as well as workers. Here’s a short list that schools and teachers would be about in such schools:

• Help students identify their interests and abilities
• Support students in setting personal learning goals
• Facilitate student involvement and learning in decision-making regarding their own learning and the use of power and responsibility in the classroom and school
• Create a culture of care and community where students learn to support one another and take responsibility for the well being of each other and the total community
• Facilitate students learning together in a diverse groups where they learn how to value contributions of others and manage productive group work
• Teach students who are functioning at many differing levels of ability together in heterogeneous mixes
• Assess student skills and learning styles to facilitate learning and promote personal excellence

You might ask, “Can we not do both - educate for being a worker and for being a citizen?” From one perspective, the answer is “Yes!” This is true because in working towards personal excellence and citizenship, children and youth also learn how to be effective workers and producers. However, it’s also true that you cannot organize a school and classroom around the strategies for each approach at the same time. You can’t, for example, focus most of your curriculum around basic skills in three subjects and give students opportunities for personal excellence and learning skills of citizenship. The problem, of course, is that in the present political environment, schools don’t have much choice in participating in some of the strategies aimed towards education of workers as the goal of schooling. By law, schools must develop standards and have their students take standardized tests. The good news, however, is that there is substantial evidence that test scores in schools aiming for personal excellence and citizenship are equal to or higher than schools that focus on narrow curriculum only.

The fact is that most parents and educators, when clearly asked, do not want education for work as the prime outcome of schooling. They want much more. We often conduct workshops with educators and parents in which we ask them to describe what has made the best year and the worst year for children. Always, teachers and parents state that what made the difference lay more in how the student was treated and positive or negative relationships rather than how well they did on particular tests. In other words, in addition to cognitive learning of basic skills and even critical thinking skills, the emotional and social well-being of the child is paramount. Helping children develop in these arenas is a key expectation and goal for most people. Following, for example, are some examples of mission statements of public schools:

• Neshaminy is dedicated to empowering students to become accountable, creative, self-aware, and productive citizens who utilize the knowledge, the skills, the social consciousness and the desire for continuous learning (Neshaminy School District, Pennsylvania).

• Elk Grove Unified School District will provide a learning community that challenges ALL students to realize their greatest potential. Outcomes for students; achievement of core academic skills; confident, effective thinkers and problem solvers, ethical participants in society (Elk Grove Unified School District, Elk Grove, California).

• The Board of Directors believes that students should complete school in full possession of skills, knowledge, and insights necessary for responsible, productive participation in society (Searcy Public School, Searcy, Arkansas)

• To provide a wide array of instructional programs that assure core competencies and nurture the unique talents of the individual and that are regularly revised to meet current needs and anticipate challenges; to provide and regularly review a wide and relevant array of extracurricular and co-curricular activities at all levels that foster lifelong learning by nurturing the unique talents of each individual and promoting social responsibility (Hopewell Valley Regional School District, Pennington, New Jersey)

• The Boerne Independent School District exists to prepare its students for responsible citizenship, sound character, lifelong learning, and productive employment through programs and activities which challenge and develop language literacy, mathematical proficiency, scientific competence, and social maturity (Boerne Independent School District, Boerne, Texas).

These are quite serious statements regarding the commitment to what we call personal excellence and citizenship. However, these statements are not unusual. Go look at the mission statements of your local school districts and you’ll likely find similar language. Support for such goals are very widely accepted. What would happen if we were successful and the concepts and strategies incorporated in this book were the basis of local, state, and national education policy? What might be the impact on the individual lives of students and the broader impact of the unleashing of new levels of creativity, social critique, and problem-solving? We believe the impacts could be dramatic, on the individual lives of students and on our society and communities, which is, of course, why we’re writing this book. We hope you and others can understand more clearly and practically what is needed and possible and we can all work together to create better futures for children and all of us. We hope that the information on this website helps you in your personal mission to create such schools and classrooms.

Michael Peterson, 2009