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Voices: Rethinking the purpose of school

Aspen writer, whiskey maker and educational big-thinker George Stranahan says it’s high time to rethink the purpose of education and define what constitutes a quality childhood.

When I was young I did not challenge my schooling. My mother said “go to school,” and her authority was not to be challenged. I figured that you just do it until eventually you come out the other end and then real life begins.

Several times a week my son would ask, “Dad, do I have to go to school?” I would just as routinely answer, “Yes, everybody goes to school and it’s not that bad.”

That’s what I had learned. Which, of course, isn’t much. I was passing along to the next generation the same dismal view of an institution you just had to learn to endure.

I remember with absolute clarity the morning when I got the usual question and my inner voice said, “You’re not listening to your own kid. Hear him now.”  I did, and that was the end of my career as an academic physicist and the beginning of my career as a teacher. That was in 1963 and I have spent the last 50 years challenging the notion that “it’s not that bad” with the obvious reply, “It’s not that good.”

Kids generally do not like going to school, and they don’t do very well at learning the kinds of things taught there. Teachers are underpaid in what is really is a dead-end job. The bureaucratic hierarchy of authority absorbs nearly half of school funding. School buildings are instantly recognizable by their resemblance to prisons. While there are cultures that do not have schools, those that do resemble each other not that good. If compulsory schooling has led us to the state we are in today with our public education system, was this the intended outcome? Can’t we do better?

There’s the usual rush of pigs towards the trough of public money. There’s a sickly smell of classism – true education is a privilege of the privileged, the stench partly covered by an insistence on “equal opportunity for all” that doesn’t even come close to accomplishing that.

All true, but there’s something more clumsy going on. We have not truly had a public hashing-out of what childhood is all about, even though all of us have had one.

I’m a bit surprised that given how much we love our children and how much we have dominion over their lives that we hustle them off to the school bus with lunch money and encouragement to endure the institution with such a line as, “Everybody goes to school and it’s not that bad.”

In Roaring Fork, our school district flagships its mission statement, “Together with family and community all students learn to meet the challenges of life.” However, district administrators have been consumed over an argument among professional educators as to whether students need two years of high school algebra along with pre-algebra in middle schools. These educators have a strangely skewed view of today’s challenges of life.

Is there an event, a happening that can charge up the public to challenge the assumptions of public education?

As the “public” in “public education” we have drunk an insane quantity of Kool-Aid about standardized testing as the measure of anything and everything of educational significance. I think this might be the moment for parents (not educators), to say that this obsession with testing is creating more harm than good for our children and start challenging assumptions.

The bureaucratic superstructure that has been built on top of all the data about student performance today – coupled with the carpet baggers who have rushed in to take advantage of government contracts and provide expensive, temporary repairs – has made for a public education system where the individual student has been truly forgotten, if not altogether lost.

Standardized tests should be the first assumption to challenge. What do standardized tests actually measure and what therefore are legitimate uses of the results those tests produce? Since their introduction on the educational landscape, have under-performing schools gone away? Have dropouts vanished? Is there joy on the faces of today’s students?  Or do parents still send their children to school with the mind-numbing reassurance, “It’s not that bad.”

Then let’s challenge the notion that learning algebra is learning to meet life’s challenges. With a start like that we could move on to challenging things such as the value of making heroes of high school football players. Oh, the list is long…

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.