Schools for the future, part III

Today, let’s resume our discussion of ideas for improving Chesterfield’s public schools.  Thus far, we’ve focused on ways of improving STEM education, with discursions into education for the extremely gifted and preparing disadvantaged children to start school.

Today, I’d like to get truly bold, by suggesting something which is likely politically impossible – at least, in a state and county as little given to leadership as ours.  Still, because it would likely do more good than any other single reform we could make, it deserves mention.

We should consider splitting Chesterfield’s schools into two, entirely separate systems – one elementary, one secondary.


In this space and others, I have raised the proposition that Americans – including the experts who are supposed to think about these things – cannot define the mission of public, K-12 education.

And please, this is not idle speculation on my part.  Twenty years ago, I was finishing my third year as a Ph.D. candidate at UVA’s Curry School of Education.  I had taken all the required courses for my doctorate – the program future superintendents take.   All that remained was to take a couple of tests, write a dissertation, and defend it.

Now, I’m not diminishing the work involved in writing a dissertation.  I had at least a year of long, thankless labor ahead of me.  My point here is that I had taken all the substantive courses.  

Which is why I dropped out.  Three years at a top-notch graduate school had persuaded me that America’s public education system was run by people who didn’t know what they were trying to accomplish.  And I didn’t want to become one of them.

Why would anyone want to devote his life to a mission with no clear goals?  

It’s a question Americans have asked repeatedly in other contexts:  Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq.

Our country has gotten very good at committing endless resources – including human lives – to titanic efforts with no clearly-defined goals.  

And our educational system is just like that.  Like the presidents and generals who have conducted our endless modern wars, our educational leaders don’t know what they are trying to accomplish.

They cannot define their end product.  

Carefully read the mission statement of any public school – or school system – and you’ll quickly notice its vagueness.  You’ll get language like this:  to provide an environment of acceptance and excellence for every student.

Which sounds lovely.  But notice that the whole focus is on means, not ends.

There are no goals.

There are many reasons for this.  Our schools have become the battleground for an extraordinary number of special interests, each demanding different things.  Schools have far too many stakeholders, and – as they are ultimately run by politicians, elected or appointed – they attempt to satisfy everyone.

And that’s the fundamental reason why they fail.  Like the two humans in Aesop’s fable, “The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey,” they try to please everyone, and end by pleasing no one.

That said, there is one aspect of our public schools which undoubtedly makes things worse – the essential  incompatibility of elementary and secondary education as parts of the same enterprise.  

Think about it.  Everyone who has raised a family knows that pre-pubescent children – little kids – are entirely different from teenagers.  If you didn’t know better, you could mistake them for entirely different species.

And little kids and teenagers need to learn different things, in different ways.  

Children, as our ancestors understood, need common things.  

America’s first schools – the models from which our elementary schools were drawn – were called “common schools.”  They brought together children of many different backgrounds and levels of ability to teaching skills that every adult will need: reading, writing, arithmetic.  

And the common behaviors that help us all get along:  wait your turn; don’t interrupt; play by the rules; share.

And because all children still need to learn these things, our elementary schools still work reasonably well.

America’s secondary schools developed later, and on an entirely different model.  Indeed, we borrowed our model from Bismarck’s Prussia, where the high schools were designed to turn farm kids into disciplined factory workers and soldiers.

It’s a desperately outdated model and – in its indifference to the individual – entirely at odds with America’s individualist spirit.

Secondary education needs drastically to be revised – if not entirely reinvented.  But to focus on that, we shouldn’t neglect improving elementary schools where that’s possible.  

In the corporate world, it’s common for a growing company to recognize that two of its operations have become so different in nature that it’s time to spin one off, or divide the company into two.  The purpose is to liberate each component to focus on its “core business.”

In K-12 education, that time has long since arrived.  Educating young children and teenagers are entirely different enterprises – and should have different goals.

We need different systems to carry them out.


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