Saturday, December 31, 2016

Purpose of Schools - Preface

After 45+ years of engagement in the public schools - 5+ as a teacher, district administrator, school board member; 10+ as student; and 15+ as a parent, graduate student, and partner (vendor) - I’ve decided I have something to say about them and the changes we are seeing that I believe is important.

Schools are our most pervasive and I believe most important public institutions (beyond the constitutional ones), and debates about them and changes within them affect us all on one level or another. For some, those changes and debates seem to be accelerating and intensifying out of control. Others are deeply concerned about what they see as the glacial pace of change or the public’s complete lack of engagement, and I have some views as to why all of those perspectives make sense.

Schools also carry out some of our society’s most important tasks - including its own replication. For that reason, much has been said about their grand purpose - "public education" - by many more philosophical than me: Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, Horace Mann, John Dewey, John Goodlad, Paolo Freire, E.D. Hirsch, Nel Noddings, Martha Nussbaum, etc. I do not hope to add much to such scholarly thoughts and debates.

But my many roles have given me a practical and insider perspective on the radical changes that either are underway or are being pushed for our public schools - changes relevant to their practical purposes. I think I can explain a lot about what is happening and why it is happening, and where it might be taking us.

The word radical comes from the Latin radix or “root” - and so I will explore one set of roots: The practical purposes that schools serve. For students, I will argue, schools exist to educate, train, socialize, stratify, and babysit. I will argue schools also exist to employ adults and maintain community. I will seek to define each of these purposes both in terms of the scholarship referenced above but also in terms of what is actually happening in and around our 100,000 or so public schools.

I will then explore the ways these purposes are being pursued, the reasons for that and for the changes that are unfolding or being pushed, and the implications of that for the future of public education. You may be alarmed at what you think is changing, or frustrated by what you think is not happening, or somewhere else on our rich tapestry of perspectives about public schools.

Whatever your perspective, I hope my exploration of the purposes of public schools, their practical function around those purposes, and the radical or roots-up changes that are underway around those purposes will inform your view of what is going on, why it is happening, what it means for the future, and what you might do about it.