Susan Midlarsky

author • consultant • tutor | inspiring excellence
School reform US Education

What are schools for?


It’s been quite a week for me to be immersed in school reform. After speaking at the Voyager’s Community School education conference, I heard John Taylor Gatto and Ron Miller speak, among other reformers. I also went to an excellent differentiated instruction workshop with Jim Grant last Tuesday, in which he laid out many of the problems facing education today. On top of that, I just watched the film Waiting for Superman.

Brewing on all of this led me to this question:

What is education in our public schools for?

Ask different people and you’ll get different responses.

Is it for manufacturing criminals? (If not, then why are certain schools so good at this?)

Is it to break up our family units and create artificial divisions within our society? (Some would say yes.)

Is it to prepare students for life in the real world? (Many would claim this is its purpose, but then why is it missing so many essential elements, like how to clean your house, manage credit, deal with relationships, be a good parent, and more?)

Is it to foster creativity in our students? (If it were, then testing would go away and the money would go into currently disposable arts programs.)

Is it to provide guaranteed jobs for teachers, many of whom don’t care anymore – or as one reformer put it, they decided to retire two years ago but didn’t bother to inform the principal? (Some would say this is a big part and problem facing public education.)

Is it to prepare students for college? (If so, then it is failing there too. But what is the purpose of college?)

It is so easy to get lost in the morass of problems facing education today. Instead, I choose to take a step back and ask a new question:

What should the purpose of education be?

Many would say it is to prepare students for college, to get them a good job and success in life. This is partly true. Students who wouldn’t normally have a chance at college see going to college as a huge step towards success. This is the case especially now, because more and more, in order to have a decent job in the US, you must have a college degree. But is that enough?

For those who were fortunate enough to achieve going to college fairly easily, many would say it is not enough. In fact, the approach to education before and during college might even limit our thinking too much.

Instead, what about this: the job of education should be to provide what the students need in order to grow, and to not limit what they are able to achieve.

Imagine a United States in which this was the norm, in which everyone is able to reach their fullest potential (whatever that might be) and has the confidence and security to not have to compete and compare themselves with others.

I was lucky to teach in a school with this philosophy and the know-how to achieve it, The Garden Road School. What a difference that approach makes.

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