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Education Opinion

What Are Schools For?

By Lew Smith — October 03, 2001 8 min read
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Our current national crisis enables us to seize the moment to define our purposes as educators.

Like many New Yorkers, and other Americans throughout the country, I did not know what to do with my horror on Sept. 11, 2001. I could not give blood. Nor was I permitted to enter the emergency zones around the World Trade Center. So I counseled students at the university where I teach. Then I dove into thoughts about the arena I know best: pre-K to grade 12 schools, public, private, and parochial. Somehow, in the midst of our national school debate about standards and scores, accountability and academics, crisis management and change, a central set of questions has evaded discussion: Why do we have schools? What are they for? How might we define their purpose?

While the turmoil of recent events clouds what the coming weeks and months will bring, there is reasonable certainty that routines will return. Adults will go back to work and their host of obligations. Children and adolescents will assume their school responsibilities. Life will trudge on. But it cannot and should not be exactly the same.

As educators, researchers, parents, and students—learners all—we ought to seize the moment to ask ourselves what roles we want our schools to play. Our current national crisis suggests some possibilities that fit present circumstances and have more sustained implications:

  • Schools as caring centers. New York City’s schools chancellor closed schools for students on Sept. 12, the day after the attack on the World Trade Center. But principals, assistant principals, counselors, and school psychologists were required to report to work, so that preparation could be made for grief counseling and crisis intervention. The nation’s largest school system had to prepare itself for the nation’s most dramatic domestic tragedy.
In times like these, schools must convert themselves into zones of comfort and support.

Clearly, the often stark, cold, and impersonal buildings called schools must in times like these be able to convert themselves into zones of comfort and support. Shouldn’t this be a standard feature of American schools? School buildings house our young for the largest segment of their waking hours. They need to send out a message, through any crisis and on every single school day, that schools are havens of help. Schools need to convey this message: “We care about you, and we care about each other.” High standards, academic rigor, and intellectual challenge can unfold within school walls. But this needs to happen in a caring center, a safe setting committed to each student and all the adults who work with them.

Nell Noddings and other researchers have written extensively on the positive impact schools have when they convert themselves into caring centers. This seems so obvious now. Burning towers need not be the only signal that tells us to commit to it.

  • Schools as communities of connection and service. Translating the caring agenda into specific policies and practices ought to be the work of an entire school community, not just an inspired administrator or an isolated classroom teacher. All the purposes of schools, from teaching with high expectations to creating responsive curricula, provide opportunities to connect people with one another. School-effectiveness research resounds with this theme: School stakeholders working together and taking ownership of what schools do is a preferable model. We do not have to wait for a crisis for this to happen.

Tales of Sept. 11 will be repeated for months to come. Many will focus on stories of service, how people reached out to help, to comfort, to make things better. Heroes will receive medals; citizens will be recognized for what they said and did. This is the spirit that will sustain us, inspire us, make us remember where the country’s strength lies.

This sense of service also is an element that can be part of daily school life, something that binds us and drives us. Service projects within the school and the surrounding community can be a way to practice our academic skills and, more important, to provide an opportunity to strengthen our sense of who we are. A service strand in our schools becomes a way not only to tap the mind, but also to touch the heart.

  • School as scholarly sites of inquiry. I was a first-year high school social studies teacher in an all-black school in an all-black community when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968. Almost naively, I reported to work the day after that tragedy, a Friday, to witness emotional scenes of every stripe: disbelief, fear, shock, confusion, and rampaging rage. The questions on everyone’s lips were why, how, and what does this all mean? After a weekend spent glued to the television and ripping through newspaper accounts, I had a collection of quotes and questions to share with my students on Monday. Inspired by their responses and their passion, I asked my department chair if I could change the curriculum, so that my 9th graders could spend the remaining months of that awful spring exploring the issues surrounding Dr. King’s assassination and its aftermath.

More than 20 years later, I was the principal of a junior-senior high school when the Gulf War broke out. As American citizens and as educators, we were shocked and concerned and did not know what to do. But the opportunities for historical comparisons, debate of opposing viewpoints, writing personal accounts in journals, and planning appropriate service projects were obvious. In effect, I encouraged all the teachers, of every subject and every grade, to convert their classrooms into sites of inquiry. The school, as a caring and connected community, created a wide range of academic and social vehicles to translate the anger and anxiety into action.

These two anecdotes share a common theme. Motivated by catastrophic events, schoolpeople made a pause in their rote routines. We stopped to consider what we were teaching and how we were doing it. We shifted from the more typical skill and drill, chalk and talk, banter and boredom. We really did convert our classrooms into sites of inquiry. Projects encouraged students, together and alone, to compare how different leaders handled a crisis. Students considered how political systems work, how difficult decisions are made, how ordinary citizens get swept up into extraordinary events.

Avenues need to be created for students to consider in depth these complicated issues.

In this era of incredible technology access, it is even easier for students to search for answers. Let them surf the Internet as well as dig into older, primary-source material in books as they try to figure out how nations have dealt with terrorism in the past. Let them compute the dramatic data about casualties and financial costs. Let them compose alternative scenarios for handling airport security. Let them debate where the fine line between liberty and security should be set in extraordinary times. These are not easy questions. They defy simple solutions. In them, we have the substance of deep and meaningful learning, the type that ought to unfold every day.

  • Schools as arenas for clarifying values. Issues of right and wrong face us every day. But they are magnified in times like these. We can be sure that 7-year-olds and 17-year-olds alike will be confused and conflicted by the events of Sept. 11 and their implications. Some of these youngsters will be tormented by nightmares, many will stubbornly pose impossible questions. Their quest cannot be ignored.

Avenues need to be created for students to ask why and consider in depth these complicated issues. Whether we are conscious of it or not, every decision we make about a textbook, handout, article, poem, or film segment used in class becomes an opportunity for rich discussion or tireless tedium. Some of our teaching, inevitably, must center on values-laden questions. The ethical dilemmas that fictional characters face in literature, the complex decisions made by historic figures, the moral decisions that have confounded scientists—all of these and more need to be deliberated, dissected, and discussed.

The aftermath of this attack on America seems painted in stark pictures of black and white. And, to be sure, some irrefutable value questions are very clear. The murder of innocent civilians is simply wrong. Other questions, however, have more complex nuances. For example, does an anti-terrorist campaign justify the possible death of innocent civilians in other nations? Are there limits to what we do to combat terrorism? What punishments do we deem appropriate and why?

  • Schools as learning organizations. Schools should adopt the organizational model advocated by author and MIT business professor Peter M. Senge for corporations and nonprofit agencies. They should become learning organizations that make five concurrent commitments: to promote individual growth, team learning, and a shared vision; to challenge individuals to examine their mental models, how they view the world, and to suspend assumptions about why they do what they do; and, binding these ideas together, to embrace the concept of systems thinking, which involves the continual search for greater knowledge of how current actions can be felt in distant places or at extended times.

The learning-organization model forces schools to commit themselves to change. Working with it means that schools will not do business as usual. A crisis will not be needed to force examination of what we do in schools and how we do it. The fabric of everyday school life will be woven with a spirit of “we can be better and we can do better.” This spirit will provide the energy for achieving all the other vital school purposes.

To those who argue that the purpose of schools is to serve as places of learning, I offer no opposition. I would simply suggest that we seriously consider what that learning ought to include.

Lew Smith is an associate professor at Fordham University’s graduate school of education, the director of the Fordham Center for Educational Research and Leadership, and the director of the National Principals Leadership Institute. He can be reached at lewsmith@fordham.edu.


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