The Purpose of School: Assumptions Differing

book into head.pngOn Monday, I uploaded the last three requirements for this semester—29 pages of writing. That afternoon, I reassembled a candelabra floor lamp (removing cloth-covered wires that are now considered a safety hazard), cut and primed boards for an exterior door overhang (a very long time in the design phase) and started laying out a tile floor. The first activities—researching, writing and using the internet—are indicative of the educational system. We expect students to read fluently and write coherently. Performing household chores falls into the category of independent study. For instruction, a person can use trial and error (lots of trials and errors in my case), watch YouTube videos, ask someone how to do them or pay someone to do those things. At the end of Monday, I realized that how I spent the first part of the day was representative of our educational system, performing theoretical and head-oriented tasks. Practical applications of what we learn in school are mostly incidental.

One class (RED–Religion, Education and Democracy), required writing about the purpose of public education. While considering and researching, I realized that some, perhaps even many, of the issues regarding schools relate to expectations. One hundred years ago, it was assumed that parents would teach their children and share civic values; World War I exposed that as fallacy. With draftee illiteracy revealed as a national security issue, common schools formed and compulsory education laws sought to remedy the situation. Until 1918, school was not required; and even through the 1930’s, many states had trouble enforcing school attendance laws.

studentSchools’ main purpose is to produce literate citizens, however one defines “literate” and “citizen”. That’s it—a pretty limited purpose. There are other reasons, such as keeping kids out of the workforce. The US Department of Labor has laws for those under age 16 to “protect the educational opportunities of youth and prohibit their employment in jobs that are detrimental to their health and safety.” Over the years, schools have assumed more responsibilities, but with education as a key to literacy, “The state-supported common school was supposed to serve and mold all citizens” (James Fraser, 43).

What assumptions do parents make about the purpose of school? I asked members of my book group who have kids in the local schools. Some responses included: to give basic life skills, to develop a sense of community and citizenship; to acquire basics of reading, writing, math, social studies and teach them how to find information. Citizenship is covered in social studies classes. Service is required for graduation from high school. School as purveyor of instruction on civic values seemed relegated to a somewhat minor role, instead of a main purpose.

Schools use standardized testing to measure learning. What do those results say about being a literate citizen? What does being a good citizen even look like? One way to consider literacy is that citizens are competent to evaluate candidates for election and then actually cast a ballot.

Question:What percentage of the population voted in the November federal election? Answer: around 58% of eligible US voters.

grading-scaleOn this typical school grading scale, 58 is failing. Voting percentage is one way of measuring whether schools are producing literate citizens, and perhaps a more meaningful metric that standards of learning tests. If being a good citizen mean being willing and able to serve, what does it say that less than 30% (grade: F) of young adults are eligible to serve in the military, a primary avenue of national service for young adults? The Army faces a recruiting shortfall of 80,000 new soldiers. Being overweight is the primary disqualifier, although other reasons include those who “lack a high school diploma or a GED, convicted felons, those taking prescription drugs for ADHD, with obesity as the predominant reason for failing to meet standards” according to the commander of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, who calls obesity “a national security issue”.[i] If the US expects young adults to validate citizenship by serving, and the public school system’s mission is to prepare students for democratic responsibilities, should public schools monitor students holistically, not only intellectually but physically?

Parents enroll their kids in school, making sure that they actually attend with assignments finished. (I am making some broad assumptions here.) Their students may pass second grade or complete 11th grade. But, who teaches about being a good parent, partner or friend? How are kids learning what constitutes a healthy meal and how to prepare one? How do they learn how to use tools, manage money or buy insurance? How much physical activity should people get daily? These are some basic life skills that don’t fit into schools’ missions. Who is responsible for teaching these things?

My semester is over but I have more questions than answers. To be continued…

© Joan S Grey, 23 Dec 2016
IndexCardCure™: making assumptions

Fraser, James W. Between Church and State: Religion and public education in a Multicultural America. Second edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. Print.

[i] Accessed 11 Nov 2016.



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