Last week, I introduced the idea that many of the fundamental issues in education go undebated, because the Powers That Be have declared them settled and, thus, off-limits.
Having ventured thus far into heresy, I suggested that the most fundamental problem in American public education is the utter lack of a clear mission statement.
Let me suggest a further problem, deriving from the first:
Perhaps the main reason our schools lack a defined mission is that elementary and secondary educations are - under modern conditions - entirely different enterprises.
Anyone who has ever raised children know that little kids are nothing at all like teenagers. Indeed, if one did not know better, one would hardly suppose that a classroom full of third graders belonged to the same species as a classroom full of high school sophomores.
With the onset of puberty, everything changes. Yet our public schools operate on the unstated assumption that what works for tykes will also work for teens.
“Now wait,” the thoughtful reader will exclaim. “Surely you overstate your case. Everyone knows that schools make distinctions between small children and adolescents.”
Very well. I admit that, on a certain common-sense level, some such distinctions are made.
But not nearly enough.
Research on effective classroom techniques, for example, is far too often conducted in the fourth or fifth grades. The reason is purely one of convenience: Elementary school children are not usually separated by academic ability, which makes it easier to obtain reliable statistics using elementary classrooms.
Unfortunately, research findings which are valid for children are indiscriminately applied in middle and high school situations – where they are often of limited relevance. This explains, in part, absurdities such as Chesterfield’s “Design for Excellence,” which strikes many high school teachers as a recipe for disaster.
But back to my original point: Elementary and secondary educations are fundamentally different enterprises, and should have entirely different missions.
We should know this, first of all, simply by considering the vast differences between children and teenagers.
We should also know it from educational history. In America, elementary schools originated in early colonial times, with the “common schools” of Puritan New England.
Thanks to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, this educational model spread to the Midwest and, eventually, throughout the nation.
Secondary schools for all – not merely the offspring of the well-to-do – were a product of the Progressive Era of the early 20th century. The model for America’s high schools came from, of all places, Bismarck’s Prussia, where secondary education was designed to turn farm kids into efficient, obedient soldiers and factory workers. (Anyone curious about the failure of our modern secondary schools might begin by considering what schools modeled on those of 19th century Prussia have to do with the post-industrial realities of the 21st century global economy.)
From their very different historical origins, one might easily imagine that elementary and secondary schools work very poorly when harnessed together under one management.
Even after four centuries, the mission of elementary education remains fairly well understood, if not clearly enunciated. We expect our elementary schools to teach basic skills for further learning; literacy, numeracy, written and oral communication, etc., and the essential behaviors of good citizenship, such as civility, respect for others and the ability to follow rules.
Further, we expect elementary schools to teach these things to all children, because they are essential to all adult citizens in a free society.
Secondary education, however, no longer exists primarily to serve an industrial society. In today’s inventive, entrepreneurial and technological world, the mission of secondary schools ought to be oriented toward the development of the talents, interests and personalities of individual students.
For some adolescents, secondary education should be, as it has long been, preparation for higher levels of academic work. But for many students, it should involve preparation for employment or, a point too often neglected, for self-employment.
Redefining the mission of modern secondary education will involve a good deal of thought, but this much is certain; the new mission will have little to do with what all students should learn.
While the function of elementary education, historically and today, involves common things, the function of secondary schools must now involve the development of competent individuals.
If I were given the power to make a single, fundamental educational reform, I would completely separate the elementary and secondary systems – administratively, fiscally and teleological – i.e., in terms of their respective missions.
As part of this separation, I would establish a formal admission process for middle school; one which would compel the elementary schools to assure that young students had mastered the basics before they were passed along to the secondary system.
But the key to dividing the two systems would be this: It would permit the secondary school system to evolve a clear mission statement relevant to the challenges of modernity.