Actual reform: Part one

Recently, in this space, I have challenged our superintendent’s plan to “reform” education in Chesterfield’s public schools.  After three columns on that topic, I’m going to give it a break in hopes that parents, teachers and others with more at stake will take up the banner.

True, I have strong views on the subject, but, in a sense, I really don’t have a dog in this fight.  I left public education eight years ago, for good, because of an earlier “reform” called SOLs.  

Still, having devoted over a decade to teaching, and more years studying the theory and practice of school administration, education is a subject close to my heart.  And it occurs to me that having spent so many words on what educational reform shouldn’t be, I should begin to outline some ideas on what it might be.

Because there are a great many things we could do to improve our schools, if and when Americans ever get serious about public education.

Now, some of these ideas will surprise my readers.  In the field of education, the big issues are seldom discussed.  As in the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, most of the fundamental questions have been settled by authority.  Instead of seeking the right answer, or even a better answer, the educational establishment has simply forestalled discussion by adopting one answer and declaring all other opinions heretical.  

As a result, most of the educational debates covered by the media are arguments over detail – in effect, discussions of how to rearrange the deck chairs on The Titanic.
No one discusses changing course. But let’s try.

The most fundamental question never discussed is  this:  “Why do we have public schools?”

We don’t often ask the question, because nearly all Americans agree that schools are necessary.  But because we don’t ask the question, an interesting situation has developed:  

America’s public schools lack a mission statement.

Now, if you ask, every school  district – and every school – can dig out some sort of mission statement.  But examined closely, these missions statements are incredibly vague, phrased in terms of warm, fuzzy intentions such as “educational excellence for all children”, or “an atmosphere  of  inclusion”, or “preparation for life”.
None of which sets any goals, or, really, means anything.

In simple truth, the last time America had any meaningful educational goals was between 1957 and 1969, from the time the Soviets launched Sputnik, starting the “space race”, until we claimed victory by landing on the Moon.  

Since July, 1969, a month before I started college, Americans haven’t truly been able to answer the question:  “Why do we have public schools?”

Not even highly paid educational bureaucrats with Ph.Ds or Ed.Ds can answer this question in a meaningful way, setting forth clear goals which delineate what our schools should do, and what they should not; what our schools should produce.

As a result, over the past forty years, we have loaded all sorts of non-academic tasks onto our schools, creating an ever-more-muddled set of expectations.

We expect our schools to provide nutritious meals and fight childhood obesity on a budget of pocket change.

We expect them to teach sex education without offending parents, religious groups or secularists.

We expect them to help college-bound students choose the right schools, and help the rest of their students acquire critical job skills while studying an essentially college-prep curriculum.

We expect them to provide social services for all manner of troubled youth.  

We expect them to teach our children to be polite, respectful and law-abiding, without hurting their feelings (or their backsides) – and without suggesting that parents have some obligation to assist in the process.  

We expect them to treat all children, and their parents with absolute respect, even if those children and parents refuse to return the favor.

We expect them to provide babysitting services into the late teens for unfortunate kids whose intellectual abilities will never be equal to the demands of the secondary curriculum.  

We expect them to provide babysitting services for all young people into their late teens,  despite the fact that these kids are, during non-school hours, free to come and go as they please .

Now, to be sure, most of the things we expect our schools to do should be done by somebody.  But when we ask schools to do them, the result is that they become less and less like schools  and more like all-purpose social service agencies.

So here’s a suggestion:  We should decide what we want our schools to do, what kind of young citizens we expect them to produce, in clear, specific terms.

And, having done that, we should create other entities, non-educational entities, to take care of the other stuff.

Because, as of now, our schools are trying to do far too much and accomplishing far too little.

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