For Adults Only?

By Ronald A. Wolk — September 01, 1997 3 min read

Most Americans would probably accept without question that the primary purpose of public schools is to educate all children to the highest level possible. But anyone who spends much time in schools--especially middle and high schools--can only conclude that far too often this noble goal is honored more in rhetoric than in reality. Although we may insist that schools exist for the benefit of children, many are in fact operated by adults who seem preoccupied with their own interests and beliefs. They are often more concerned about authority and control, power and turf, than about doing right by kids.

The most virulent form of adults’ preoccupation with themselves is displayed in two articles in this issue: “Sisters in Arms” [page 28] and “The Rest of the Story” [page 46]. Here are depressing examples of adults so concerned with power and politics that they turn their schools and classrooms into battlegrounds and their students into victims. They wrangle in public, take each other to court, and generally influence students more by their own unseemly behavior than by their curricula and classroom teaching.

In “Girl Trouble” [page 52], Sallie Tisdale provides a more subtle but equally depressing portrait of the institution that adults have created for children. Tisdale is an author who, as part of an experiment, spent several weeks teaching writing to freshmen and sophomores in an unidentified urban high school. It was a voyage of discovery for her as she struggled to reach youngsters for whom writing is an alien experience. She laments that her female students don’t seem to have any dreams and notes with dismay “that all of these children who are almost grown have spent their entire lives ruled by a clock and the demands of strangers. They have grown up in a fragmented and chaotic place over which they have no control. I know they’ve rarely thought about the possibility of getting out; they don’t see anywhere to go not ruled by bureaucratic entanglements and someone else’s schedule and somebody else’s plans. If the girls are somehow wired toward pliancy, then the helpless role of student in the shadow of the institution is the worst place they can be.”

“State Of Contentment” [page 36] is about Iowa’s public schools. By objective measures, they are among the best in the nation. Iowa students score higher on national math tests than their peers in any other state and rank fifth in reading. If there is anyplace in the United States where schools are for kids, surely it must be Iowa, where parents are interested, teachers are caring, and students are well-behaved.

The fact that nearly two-thirds of the state’s students do not score at the proficient level in math or reading doesn’t seem to worry most of the adults in Iowa’s schools. Teaching in those relatively small, mostly rural schools is pretty good duty compared with the challenges of urban schools like the one Sallie Tisdale taught in. Most Iowa educators seem content with schools that are much as they were in the 1950s; they even boast at how little has changed. One vice principal notes that if anything has changed, “it’s the students, not the school.” Obviously, for many of the adults in charge, neither a changing student body nor a rapidly changing world is a sufficient reason to change the school.

Amid the bucolic complacency of Iowa’s cornfields, however, is a small but growing number of educators who are beginning to worry about kids becoming bored and disaffected. One principal says, “Just teaching the basics isn’t cutting it anymore. Kids aren’t going to be able to go back to the farms and raise crops the way they used to. That work is vanishing. So we’ve got to prepare kids for different kinds of work, and that means getting kids to solve problems, to interpret data.”

He’s right, of course, and his fellow Iowans would be wise to heed the warning. More than any other institution, schools must be continuously changing and improving--and the adults in them continuously learning--if they are to fulfill the vital mission that society entrusts to them. Their primary purpose must be the intellectual and moral growth of children, and that’s what the adults must be dedicated to. We cannot allow schools to be places where adults merely take jobs, exercise authority, and concentrate on their own interests.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as For Adults Only?