The Purpose of Education, part 4

A friend has suggested I read Ted Sizer’s “Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School“. I also checked out his “The New American High School“. I took a lot notes, and in reflection I was mostly concentrating on how Sizer defines the purpose of schools and education. Unsurprisingly, he came back to a couple similar themes time and time again; the goal of education is get learners to grow and exercise their mind such that they can learn on their own.

 

“Horace’s Compromise”, which was one report of three back in 1984, noted the challenge to the teachers of the time, which are still present today; teachers know of a better way to teach, but because of the box the system puts them in, they are constrained to teach according to the guidelines handed down to them. As stated in previous posts (“What are public schools supposed to do?“, Purpose of Education parts 1, 2, 3), there are many people who try to lay claim to what is important for our students, what they must learn and what they must become. An observation made by Sizer caused me to consider our own “mission statements” – Sizer found that most schools’ goals or objectives were very lofty but were not reflected by the day to day operations of the school. It makes me wonder how standardized testing and assessment helps all our students gain “knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to direct their lives, improve a diverse society, and excel in a changing world.” How does social promotion and strictly regimented time periods help in that endeavor?

 

Sizer has caused me to ask several questions about the architecture of modern public education. For instance, why is public education modeled on business, with a governing Board, a CEO/Superintendent, COO, CFO, etc? Why do we have over 500 pages of “board policies”, written by legal teams in legal jargon? (Even John Carver, of Carver Policy Governance, on which the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) is largely based, asks this question)

Where is teacher autonomy? We have some, but very little. Where is the student voice? I am thankful that efforts through the conduit of Dr. Taylor’s social justice team, more and more students actually have a voice and adults are listening. While it is trickling into board meetings via official student Board Liaisons and a little bit through the Facility Planning Tier I committee, we need a lot more.

 

Sizer has also taught me that we need to question the purpose of our local schools often – for the basic reason that the purpose should be constantly changing in a constantly changing world. Sizer recognizes there are no perfect answers to the messy chaos of relationship-based communities and their schools. Raymond Callahan pointed out in “Education and the Cult of Efficiency” that we run our schools like businesses for the sake of “efficiency”, but what we lose is the richness of human relationships.

 

Between the two books, Sizer has a number of practical, relevant an eye-opening chapters. I’ll close with one on “Space and Cost”, in which he talks about the physical buildings we call “schools”, as it is directly concerned with the current focus of the school board and an impending expensive November referendum.

“First, challenge the notion that we collectively – through the state – have the obligation to educate all our children by means of a formal, school-building-based collective schooling. Might there be effective alternatives, such as a mix of homeschooling and in-school schooling? Or computer-based lessons that can engage students anywhere? Or in space shared with other enterprises, such as a community college or public library?”

 – “The New American High School” page 113

He makes four more points (pg 114-115):

  • Alternatives to a dedicated building that is completely busy from 7:30 am through 2:00 pm and mostly empty otherwise – can it be used for other things, does the learning have to only occur during those times?
  • Are the state’s educational and assessment goals legitimate? If not, what are you going to do about it?
  • Which public resources that are already available to higher education, public libraries, public radio and public television could be applicable to elementary and secondary grades?
  • Examine (question) the plans for school systems; “human intellectual activity is not orderly and some human needs and abilities are crippled by too much uniform channeling” – do our systems constrict creativity?

 

More to come.