After thirty years of significant criticism, perhaps it is time to go back to the past in search for future thinking about our schools. In 1846, Horace Mann’s 12th annual report to the Massachusetts Board of Education affirms, “… the absolute right of every human being that comes into the world to an education.” It required a national commitment to a Common School task. Next, peek into the 20th century where we see concern for schools in Dewey’s call for the symbiotic relationship between education and democracy furthered by Whitehead’s curriculum concern, “Let us now ask how in our system of education we are to guard against this mental dry rot. We enunciate two education commandments: Do not teach too many subjects, and again, what you teach, teach thoroughly.” (Whitehead, A.N. (1929). The aims of education and other essays. Macmillan Co: New York, p. 2). And, finally, twenty years ago the call to sustain four priorities in the schools: 1) School as community; 2) a coherent curriculum; 3) a positive climate for learning; and 4) commitment to character (virtue and purpose) from Ernst Boyer (1995) in The Basic School. These essential purposes are the basics required for education in a democracy. Boyer’s ideas fit very well into a Christian schools priorities on the big things that they are about.
There continues to be a significant contentiousness regarding the purpose of education in a deconstructed view of education promoted by diverse political perspectives. Many schools have evolved to utilitarian functions serving a variety of agendas. This is focused on specific issues and goals, often bypassing the essential purposes of school, personal growth, citizenship, and economic viability; suggesting the need for a typology of what is most important for the nation and for student learning in the century ahead. This becomes more critical in the light of Putman’s concern in Bowling Alone, where he claims schools have become the only intermediate social institution for a majority of young people in the midst of many voices that are critical of these vital institutions. He continues that concern in Our Kids, 2015 in discussing poverty and segregation in our schools that impact students. Political pressures, global fears of economic competition, greater societal diversity, louder federal and state voices regarding educational mandates not to mention the media and technology have all given education a confusing image for society’s perception of schools and learning. Yet, every autumn, parents with children in schools provide high marks in the PKD/Gallup Poll regarding education. The discussion is loud even messy to say the least, but then nowhere does it say democracy is calm or easy, it is simply the best process we have to shape the institutions we have to teach and model society for young people. There is a need for a more civil discussion and direction, perhaps even redefinition as we move into a new global/technological age. The recent demise of NCLB has in many ways kicked the ball back into the local and state decisions about education. Leading me to suggest the following more grounded typology for direction and decisions to aid in that discussion and development of learning and the future role for schools and learning in society. The loudest voice too often does get the attention. We need to be smarter about what our school missions must address. I am not sure of the ranking or sequence as in most typologies, (that may be part of your process in considering them), but these aspects are all important and the questions that are more vital than, which tech tool to use or how many tests to take:
- Better collaboration between federal, state, district, and the local schools (public and private); plus better media and community conversations in supporting thoughtful decisions. Strident critical voices can make for richer debate, but perhaps at times, weaker decisions. The notion of economies of scale suggests where to make the best decisions for the learner’s benefit and the school’s success. We must remember that and realize it must be variable, there is no one single thing that addresses the whole complex question. The local voice is important to the discussion and debate.
- Richer, thicker study and research regarding applications of new technology and practices; learning is too important to be a fad or a profit center for business, the important question for schools and communities is to consider and successfully review change before implementing it. Too often a complex success is reduced so it can be scaled and ramped up without really understanding all of the variables. Schools will need to be both more open and perhaps better understood to prosper. Collaboration with others is good on so many levels. It was a mistake to do away with regional educational labs. We need to recognize the need for an ongoing well supported research agenda, which is less politically controlled. A well-intended billion dollar announced gift by Walmart to charter schools may not be a helpful move.
- More appreciation for the multiple purposes of schools is needed; basic skills, critical thinking, personal growth, and wisdom; as well as work preparation and socialization for citizenship are all established purposes. Nurturing faith is a great goal for many schools, but with a different purpose in faith based schools than a general appreciation and respect in public. No one purpose can stand alone on the school agenda, when multiple expectations are placed upon schools by the society. Local discussion between citizens and schools.
- Richer discussion regarding academic standards as developmental benchmarks allowing local decisions for instruction, reflecting both convergent and divergent outcomes. It is more than basic skills, there are critical and creative goals to be addressed in preparing world class graduates. Standards should not be a shopping lists of facts or skills. These standards must reflect student needs, desires, and abilities as well as community desires and values. Yes, high standards, but standards based upon real student engagement with the curriculum, not mere test scores, but conceptual understandings allowing citizens to make thoughtful generalizations. Proclamation seldom changes reality! Media seems more interested in announcing rather than promoting thoughtful consideration. Look how students responded to NCLB. They did not! They are the learners and they have the dreams, but seldom have a political voice or considerations regarding their own outcomes.
- Broader acceptance of the school’s social and public functions. Currently choice is often a false political issue. Separate is still not equal! Society needs students with positive common experiences and choices. Local freedom and choice can lead schools to appropriate decisions, competition may not. Competition causes winners and losers. All the boats do not rise. We don’t want any losers! Schools must engage the students they educate recognizing they all need to take responsibility for learning, especially the students. The learner must be engaged and actively respond. Liberty may become chaos without respect and mutual responsibility.
- Teachers and other educational leaders must be at the table in seeking direction; collaborations within communities and among teachers and educational leaders are the way to discover better ways. Larry Cuban in, Hugging the middle, (2009), points out why teachers must be part of the solution. Pragmatic change responding to cultural needs and expectations are the real road to actual reforms that are likely to be sustained.
- Finally, understanding that education is both fluid, local, and complex; no one thing will fix it. It can only be scaled up in some of its aspects. It will require changes, over time in all of points above, underscored with deep commitment by the society to its next generation its future life. It is a continuous improvement process.
In a democracy, education tends to be a more conservative activity for most because it is supported by the existing cultural norms of that society in most cases. Schools best serve the society desiring a rich and deep education for its children. It tends to seek change when it perceives needs. A society does not seek to change for the adventure of it, but to reflect current and future perceived needs, and finally in democracy schools serve many masters, all the citizens. It is going to be complex, good order would suggest stronger more grounded theory behind the changes it supports. Too often in recent history political fads or political views have driven it. We find ourselves in the midst of a transformational age regarding social, economic, philosophical, and political issues, while our structures due to global and technological changes are called upon to provide new views of reality, perspective, and direction by our institutions. Informed changes that benefit our needs, freedom, values, and life thoughtfully made are a superior road as we define the new age even as we are experiencing it. Ah the famous question, how to design and rebuild plane, while we are still flying it? It must be done very thoughtfully!