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What’s the Point of School?

In an opinion piece for the BBC, the Home Editor asks that question, one that we really need to discuss here in the US.

Even though our education system is designed and assessed upon its ability to get lots of children through state exams, very few people seriously argue that the fundamental point of schools is ensuring pupils pass tests.

Not sure he’s right about the “very few people” part.

We ascribe to schools a loftier ambition than academic success alone. We want them to prepare our children for adulthood and provide them with the skills to have the most fruitful and fulfilling life possible. Don’t we?

We would like to think so. A report from an “all-party parliamentary group” seems to reinforce the idea of students learning more than just “history and maths”.

There is, actually, a surprising amount of agreement on these ideas. Progressive educationalists tend to call it “emotional intelligence” or “emotional health”, while conservatives prefer words like “character” and “backbone”, but it amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Here in the US, you could probably get the same agreement, although only in terms of language and phrasing. When it comes to execution, we still have far too many “leaders” who advocate for schools that emphasize pupils passing tests ahead of those “loftier” ambitions.

Of course, that seemingly high-minded report was written by politicians, which means there’s going to be a point where it heads way off the rails.

The APPG report recognises the weakness in the UK evidence base but points to successful initiatives in Singapore and the United States. The American “Knowledge is Power Program’ (KIPP) is cited as a model of what is possible.

And, as far as I’m concerned, anyone who uses the terms “grit” and/or “rigor” in support of their ideas about what education should be, immediately loses all credibility.

Ok, so maybe this story is not a good starting point for a discussion of the purpose of public education.1 But that question is one we very much need to answer as a society.

1 Comment

  1. Chris O'Neal

    My only child is a senior this year and, pretty much every year of her public schooling, I have asked the “What’s the Point of School” question to myself. She made it through easily, in so far as tests, typical academic classes, etc. There were little things here and there that felt “real-world like” – the occasional community-based project, outreach effort, real-world simulation, etc. We supplemented A LOT to balance the book/test-based academics with the stuff that mattered more (in our opinions). It wasn’t hard to do – it’s what all parents should do. BUT, it would have been nice if those special projects hadn’t been so few and far between, or hadn’t been so darn contrived. If I had to do it all over again, there’s no way I could put her through school in the state it’s in now. I’d homeschool her, and make sure I compensated for any supposed losses that might have given her.

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