Raise your hand if you think the main purpose of school is to get a good job.
Okay, now raise your hand if you think the main purpose of school is to shape the next generation’s understanding of the world and address its needs.
I suspect you want to put both hands in the air.
But if my prompt were, “Raise your hand if you think American schools are doing a good job of achieving either of these goals” I suspect you might not lift your hand with much conviction…if at all.
As the daughter of a teacher, education has been at the forefront of my world from an early age. I’m one of those people who thinks every problem on the planet could be solved with higher quality, universally available education. Every. Single. Problem.
I’ve reluctantly conceded that solving every problem is too tall an order, at least for now. But I refuse to accept that better quality and fully available education is a pipe dream. If we want that, we can create that. Truly. But until that day comes, at least in this country, we continue to flail.
The reason I think we’re flailing in terms of education is that there is no clear, accepted definition for either of the two main goals mentioned at the top of this post. And if we even come close to a definition of either, it’s likely they’d be at odds with one another.
Take the first goal. What do we consider a “good job” these days? Is it one where you make a lot of money so you can enjoy the time while you aren’t working? Or is it one where you do something you love, are good at, and can support yourself in your community of choice? And if we take a step back and look at the economy in which jobs matter, do we all agree that a “good job” also means being of service in some way? If so, should that “service” benefit more than the wealthy few?
Not so easy to define “good job,” right?
And then if we look at the meaning of the second goal — shaping the next generation to understand and address the world’s needs — it’s also doubtful that we’d find consensus. Are we defining the “world’s needs” in reference to the earth’s environment and physical health? Or to her people and their social health? And as for our direct role in addressing those needs, is it more about ensuring that the air, water, and land stay viable, or is about ensuring that humans thrive in the cultures they created? And when we define “culture,” do we even agree on whether we should prioritize on economic, political, or spiritual culture, to name just a few?
All of the above, you say? Shouldn’t it be all of that? And shouldn’t “good jobs” dovetail into our role in helping the world? Yet at this moment in history there seem to be conflicting beliefs on whether a healthy economy should come at the expense of a healthy planet. Furthermore, when we talk about humanity thriving, too many people consciously or unconsciously only include certain humans in that goal. We’ve been trained to accept these inconvenient, conflicting beliefs as “the way things are.”
Until we sort all of this out, our education system will continue to flail. Yet in the meantime we still need to educate our kids. That’s no easy task for parents, especially those who are in the midst of big school decisions. That includes my family, since our 8th-grader is exploring high school possibilities for the fall. When considering this post’s broad, overarching ideas about what education should be, I was reminded of the direct way these challenges manifest for parents: how do any of us boil it all down into guiding a school decision for our kid(s)?
Despite my discouraging views about the overall quality of our school systems, I actually think I’ve gotten better with how I think about education. I used to be one of those people who focused on test scores and academic rigor at the expense of well-rounded personal development. To me, a “good school” meant some kind of vague, no-nonsense trajectory toward the Ivy League.
But over the years, as I’ve reflected on my own education while watching my children and their peers develop, my thinking about schooling has evolved. In fact, for a while I was quite obsessed with how to combine my emerging ideas about education with finding the right school for my kids. I wasn’t alone in this preoccupation either.
When our kids were entering the elementary school scene here in Portland, Oregon, my teacher friend Katy and I turned our thinking, researching and obsessing into a website. The list of public and private school options in our area confounded us: All of them offered something special; all of them left things on the table. Just like the opening prompts in this post, it was hard to determine the school(s) that could provide an optimal mix of educational philosophies, priorities and approach. After we navigated the possibilities as best we could, we created a guide to help other parents through the process.
ScooponSchools.com was the go-to resource in Portland from 2011-2019. While the site can no longer be kept current, we recently distilled it down to our Top 10 Takeaways — designed to be useful for anyone embarking on the elementary school decision process, regardless of where they live. Please share our new link for ScoopOnSchools.com (which lives here on Becoming Better People) with those seeking the best educational options for their kid(s), despite the various challenges they may face (including those outlined in this post).
And if like me, you know we can do better when it comes to education, I recommend the late Neil Postman’s book, The End of Education. It asks the right questions and poses workable solutions for designing better schools. The “end” he refers to has a double meaning: it points to ending (or needing to end) the old way of schooling as we know it, and it stands for the purposeful reasons why schools exist in the end. Though the book is over 20 years old, it speaks a powerful truth for today.
If podcasts are more your thing, this recent TED Radio Hour inspired me (and fits perfectly with the theme of this blog): Teaching for Better Humans.
Best of luck to anyone making a decision about school, no matter where you are and no matter the student’s age. May your choice lay the path for a bright future, not just for your student(s) but for all of us. And if you want to do something, anything, to improve underfunded classrooms, please check out one of my favorite non-profits in the education arena.