On the Purposes of Schooling

Mann pic

Horace Mann: "Man is improvable. Some people think he is only a machine, and that the only difference between a man and a mill is that one is carried by blood and the other by water." 


The New York Times' Stephanie Saul has a blockbuster investigative feature out on K12, the for-profit manager of virtual public charter schools. Saul finds that enrolling a child in a virtual school is, in fact, cheaper for the state than enrolling him in a brick-and-mortar school. But in the case of Pennsylvania's Agora Cyber Charter School, the modest cost savings are more than offset by a loss of quality: a learning "environment" of low standards (the lowest grade is not 0, but 50, and it is almost impossible to enforce attendance) and little or no real-time interaction with peers and teachers.

Many educators believe there is a place for full-time virtual learning for children whose pace is extremely accelerated or those with behavioral or other issues, like teenage mothers who need to stay home with their babies. But for most children, particularly in the elementary grades, the school experience should not be replaced with online learning, they say.

“The early development of children requires lots of interaction with other children for purposes of socialization, developing collaboration and teamwork, and self-definition,” said Irving Hamer Jr., deputy superintendent of Memphis city schools.

The entire piece raises the following question: What is school for? There is a disturbing tendency in the education reform debate to narrowly define "student achievement" as the goal of schooling. If our measures of success are merely graduation rates and test scores, then why not save $1500 per student and allow a bunch of disadvantaged kids to veg out in front of their laptops, indoors all day? Sure, over half of K12's 200,000 "cyberpupils" are behind grade level, but most of them are poor anyhow, and their neighborhood schools are probably failing, too. And maybe we can improve virtual schools over time–there's no reason to be a technophobe! Right?

In researching the history of American education for my book project, I've been struck again and again by the newness of the idea that schooling is primarily a matter of academic achievement. The mid-nineteenth century reformers who founded the Common Schools Movement, the precursor to our modern system of universal public education, believed that Protestant morality was the first goal of education. "Scientific truth is marvelous, but moral truth is divine," Horace Mann declared. His friend Catharine Beecher, an advocate for girls' education and women teachers, believed that the role of the teacher was "to instruct in morals and piety."

As the student population diversified at the turn-of-the-twentieth century, "Americanization" became the major goal of public education. In later years, reformers focused on vocationalism and then on racial healing. It is only really since "A Nation at Risk" that we've had a national dialogue about academic excellence for every child. This is a much-needed development in American culture, but its discontents are numerous: A lack of attention paid to the civic, social, and artistic benefits of schooling, and the ways in which children are (ideally) shaped as moral, cultured, socially-responsible people by their teachers and school communities. 

It will be a real political and moral failure if we continue to focus the expansion of the for-profit virtual learning sector not on advanced students, but on children who are already falling behind. These are the kids who most need and deserve the support of traditional learning communities, and who are least likely to have parents who can devote the many hours per day needed to act as a "learning coach" for a child enrolled in a school like Agora. 

That said, privileged kids, too, are dealing with the outcomes of over-rationalized educational thinking. In New York Robert Kolker reports on Valerie Reidy, the controversial principal of the Bronx High School of Science, one of New York City's premier public "test" schools for high-performers. Both my mom and stepdad graduated from Bronx Science; it has a reputation for excellence and creativity not only in the sciences and math, but in literature and history, too. Reidy, however, pushed by the Bloomberg Department of Education, was unhappy with the fact that Bronx Science students scored lower on Regents and AP exams than their peers at Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant. Over time, she required teachers to put more emphasis on preparing students for end-of-year tests, many of which are pitched at a lower level than Bronx Science students are capable of. This sparked a wave of student protests and teacher turnover.

One can debate Reidy's pedagogical approach, which focused on the inquiry method. My question is more about the ends to which she was applying this approach. Were average Regents scores of 85 instead of 95 at Bronx Science evidence of an underperformcing school, as Reidy and the DOE claim–or just evidence of a school that, as a community of educators, parents, and students, had decided to focus on values other than test scores? What's wrong with that?

8 thoughts on “On the Purposes of Schooling

  1. Norm

    We can only hope that your article helps to take the reform school action in an important and proper direction away from its current domination by those who either are profiteers in the evidence-be-damned group, are political dependents of the profiteers, or are simply public education criticss in the equally ignorance-based Floyd R. Turbo group. In the meantime, year-after-year of children passes by, protected from the reform schoolers mainly by their parents and teachers.

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  2. Mark

    If Bronx Science had truly focused on values rather than test scores, I would rather have expected their test scores to go up! Focusing on test scores generally seems to result in a lowering of test scores.

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  3. Benjamin L. Willard

    I agree that student achievement shouldn’t be the sole goal of schooling, but where’s the evidence that government-run schools (and government-run schools only) provide “civic, social and artistic benefits?”

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  4. Martha

    Great piece, Dana, but you state in the last paragraph that Valerie Reidy’s pedagogical approach focuses on the inquiry method. This is not accurate. Valerie Reidy promotes “guided discovery,” not inquiry learning, though she claims a link. There is a huge difference. Guided discovery involves the teacher taking her students through a series of very specific step-by-step questions or statements so they arrive at a specific predetermined goal. Inquiry learning does not have a predetermined goal – its purpose is to engage students in activities in which they can develop their own questions, investigate, analyze and problem-solve to come to their own understandings, with a teacher’s active support and guidance. Inquiry learning respects independent thinking. It would appear from her treatment of teachers, that Reidy does not.

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  5. Cal

    ” I’ve been struck again and again by the newness of the idea that schooling is primarily a matter of academic achievement. ”

    How can you be shocked by this? It’s a direct result of our decision to make closing the achievement gap the primary objective. You must know that. Nothing else matters until we close it–and since we can’t close it, we’re stuck. Until we accept that we can’t close it, nothing else will matter.

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  6. GKoutnik

    My experience of 35 years in public education is that schools are vehicles for training middle class students to function successfully in the world (and, in the last few generations, to get into college, where the work of assimilation continues). It’s no accident that the rise of education paralleled the rise of the middle class, and that the goals of education through the last couple centuries mirrored the concerns of the middle class. This is why we are not succeeding: our goal is inappropriate to the institution and inappropriate to the vast population of students who cannot benefit from it.

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