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What is the Purpose of School?

Posted by Jennifer Berkshire on Jun 14, 2016

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Lawrence is in the midst of a turnaround. There's a lot of emphasis on boosting academic achievement there. If you listen to the students, they envision the purpose of school as being about education through experience, with an eye toward helping them be leaders who can transform their own communities. The different schools of thought, I would say, are almost like different sizes of thought. How big your vision is of what's possible ends up determining your answer for what school is for.

You see in some communities a huge effort to tie schools to particular kinds of job training, where kids basically pick their occupation early on and get trained for it. Students who are being trained for a health career, for example, will attend a health academy. Or you might end up at a academy. Think about how much narrower that school of thought is, the school as a kind of vocational training center, versus what the kids in Lawrence are talking about, where they see school as broadening their horizons. 

I feel like you are starting to see the pendulum swing a little bit in this debate. I'm seeing more and more references to civic education, for example. We've come through this long period where there's been just immense emphasis on math and English scores. It's hard to find anyone who doesn't think that one of the unintended consequences has been the narrowing of not just the curriculum, but the vision of what school is for. You'll hear people express concern that maybe this debate we're having in our current election, for example, is a sign that we need to be thinking about what kind of citizens our schools are producing as well.

I think the tension is going to be that you see schools in different geographic areas, and schools that serve different student populations, evolving in different ways. Urban students who attend high-performing charter schools, for example, are being equipped with skills that are completely different from their middle-class peers. Students who attend middle class schools are encouraged to question authority, and there's an expectation of civic development, and even civic leadership, built into their education. In urban charter schools there’s much more emphasis on compliance and respect for authority.

Should Adults Push or Students Pull?

Our experiment in urban education reform in particular has shown that you can really drive achievement up if you have a model where adults are just pushing and pushing kids like crazy. However, the problem is that once kids then get to college and that structured environment isn't there, it becomes really hard for them to succeed on those terms. One of the reasons that I so enjoy interviewing students is that they can often tell you exactly where they would like to be pushing.

It makes a lot of sense that if students have a curriculum that they're invested in, then they're going to stay in school longer and maybe do better in their classes. But no one has really studied this in any kind of systematic way, so I went to San Francisco where there's a really cool culturally responsive curriculum in the high schools now. I talked to kids to hear what they were learning. This particular group of students had a lot of questions about how school lunch plays out at their school. It's a big urban high school. Like a lot of schools, crowding is a problem and so they have a ridiculously short amount of time to eat lunch.

The students were learning all sorts of research skills, but they were also learning these things that they weren't even aware that they were learning, about how to navigate what seemed to be a kind of insurmountable bureaucracy, including what to do when an adult tells you, "No." Then it happened that some researchers at Stanford also studied the program and were able to show that for kids who had been at risk of earning low grades and dropping out, this hands-on curriculum made a huge difference.

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I'm looking for examples like that, where kids get to exercise more freedom, and then as a result have measurable success. Maybe we can hold that up for other schools in other districts.

Nationally recognized education journalist Jennifer Berkshire is the co-host and co-producer of Have You Heard, a monthly podcast on education issues. Her articles and interviews on the debate over the future of public education have appeared in Salon, the Washington Post, the Baffler, the Progressive and on the blog that she created, EduShyster.com.

Topics: classroom challenges, standardized testing

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