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What Do We Want Our Schools to Do, and For Whom?

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I get all big picture in a guest post over at SharpBrains. Here's an excerpt:

"Schools," Stanford historian David Labaree wrote, "occupy an awkward position at the intersection between what we hope society will become and what we think it really is." What do we want our schools to do, and for whom?

Schools, like most organizations, have many goals. These goals often compete with and displace each other. Relying heavily on the work of David Labaree, I will discuss three central goals of American schools – social efficiency, democratic equality, and social mobility. Throughout the history of American education, these goals have been running against each other in a metaphorical horserace. While they are not mutually exclusive, the three goals introduce very different metrics of educational success. More often than not, they sit uncomfortably with each other.
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I wonder how others take Labaree's implication of conflict and negotiation of the purposes of education. I imagine that most people have a kind of felt understanding of what schools are for. Perhaps it is a rational definition, but I see it more as a pre-reflective expectation, formed during their own tenure in schools. That might make it more difficult to unlock, turning this important role of mediation into a blood lust.

My point, then. What if these three objectives (and any additional ones Labaree or you or your commentators stir up) never CAN match up? What if schools have greatest efficacy by keeping the question of purpose always an issue?

Right now, I work with pre-service and student teachers. When I visit their classes, or discuss the theme of relevancy with them, I cringe when I hear them attempt to justify an answer to "why do I need this?" Instrumentalizing schools, teaching students that the endeavor of learning will lead to something valuable, might account for whatever crisis de jour. Students, and not just the achievers, are razor quick at sniffing out the endgame and internalizing it. In other words, if learning is presented at some level as not worthy for its own sake, students may perceive the lesson of delayed gratification and preparation as a morality. Those who 'get it' will adapt and prosper, but might never learn to value any act they take as worthy for its own sake. And those who understand but do not play, only engaged with something they understand as relevant to their here and now, will fade out. I might be overly pessimistic, but I doubt it.

Certainly, I do want students to embrace the fundaments of our liberalist society, as much as I want them to be ready to undertake whatever their next step in life will be. Schools can provide that background. But I worry most about our society when the questions of purpose and are answered from dogmatic rigidity. Conversation as opposed to yelling turns the democratic proces taboo.

Thanks,

Neil

I wonder how others take Labaree's implication of conflict and negotiation of the purposes of education. I imagine that most people have a kind of felt understanding of what schools are for. Perhaps it is a rational definition, but I see it more as a pre-reflective expectation, formed during their own tenure in schools. That might make it more difficult to unlock, turning this important role of mediation into a blood lust.

My point, then. What if these three objectives (and any additional ones Labaree or you or your commentators stir up) never CAN match up? What if schools have greatest efficacy by keeping the question of purpose always an issue?

Right now, I work with pre-service and student teachers. When I visit their classes, or discuss the theme of relevancy with them, I cringe when I hear them attempt to justify an answer to "why do I need this?" Instrumentalizing schools, teaching students that the endeavor of learning will lead to something valuable, might account for whatever crisis de jour. Students, and not just the achievers, are razor quick at sniffing out the endgame and internalizing it. In other words, if learning is presented at some level as not worthy for its own sake, students may perceive the lesson of delayed gratification and preparation as a morality. Those who 'get it' will adapt and prosper, but might never learn to value any act they take as worthy for its own sake. And those who understand but do not play, only engaged with something they understand as relevant to their here and now, will fade out. I might be overly pessimistic, but I doubt it.

Certainly, I do want students to embrace the fundaments of our liberalist society, as much as I want them to be ready to undertake whatever their next step in life will be. Schools can provide that background. But I worry most about our society when the questions of purpose and are answered from dogmatic rigidity. Conversation as opposed to yelling turns the democratic process taboo.

Thanks,

Neil

In 2001 I gave a talk to a group of senior citizens with nearly the same title as this post. I just pulled up the handout from that talk (partially pasted below). There is much overlap with this post and the Labaree, but I also included negotiating pluralism. I think this is important.

I'd also like to offer a different, related question: "What should we want from our schools?"

Handout Excerpt:
What Do We Want from Our Schools ?:
The Politics of Democracy, Diversity, Opportunity and Inequality

Senior Scholars: June, 2001

"Educate in order that your children may be free."

Irish Proverb
Often quoted by Margaret Haley, Educator and Union Organizer

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must be
what the community wants for all of its children.”

John Dewey, Philosopher, Educator and Social Activist

Capitalism, Inequality, Pluralism, Democracy and Opportunity

Capitalism/Inequality: Capitalism is based on an assumption of inequalities of circumstances and outcomes. Some children will have richer and/or more stable homes than others. Some students will achieve “success,” others won’t. Capitalism needs both CEO’s and minimum wage workers. Capitalist schools must produce both. Capitalism also assumes that competition and differential rewards are the most efficient way to produce progress.

Pluralism: Recognizes group identities (racial, religious, ethnic, sexual...) as significant and positive elements in our society, but also assumes that groups and individuals who belong to the society share experiences and values. Seeks a balance between the common and the diverse. What this balance should be can determine the content, structures and methods of schooling (multiculturalism)

Democracy: One function of the schools is to produce an informed citizenship, without which democracy doesn’t stand a chance. Ideally (see Dewey) this goes beyond simple literacy and numeracy to include critical thinking and a sense of community and communal responsibility: what the founding generation called “Civic Virtue.” Democracy also describes the governance of schools. There has long been a tension between popular ideas about education (as expressed by elected/appointed officials) and those of experts, a recent example is the Kansas controversy over teaching evolution.

Opportunity: Part of the bargain of American capitalism is that inequality is tempered by the promise of mobility. More so than any other institution, schools are burdened with the task of fulfilling this promise. We expect our schools to cultivate talent and reward hard work so that we can maintain the illusion of mobility and meritocracy.

Mr. Mertz--your thoughtful comments serve to direct this conversation where it needs to be. While I adhere to the democratic and pluralistic purposes of education, capitalism is the elephant in the living room. The problem with the "promise of mobility," is that it is little more than a promise.

The structure and funding of our system of public education is designed to not only meet capitalism's goals of producing both CEOs and minimum wage workers, but to ensure that the children of CEOs will likely become CEOs and that the children of minimum wage workers will likely become minimum wage workers. Recasting our "big picture" in this way is necessary to an understanding of why so many schools serving low income students "fail." They are not failing so much as fulfilling an agreed upon need. What is important to realize is that this is not the only possibility--but the one that we have chosen. The middle class--deluded by the ongoing promise of mobility--believes its own needs are best suited by a system that maintains the status quo of stratification. This is why any reforms that meaningfully redistribute the educational wealth--particularly if contact with children from lower socio-economic classes is required--are so hard fought.

You forgot social cohesion. Historically, one of the primary functions of schooling has been to promote social cohesion by ensuring that all citizens of a country have a similar experience on which to build.

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