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Teaching Opinion

Ten Things We Shouldn’t Expect Public Schools to Do

By Nancy Flanagan — March 07, 2018 3 min read
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In an excellent piece in Jacobin this month, Sarah Bruch and Joe Soss make this observation:

In a society defined by stark social inequalities, schools are expected to "level the playing field," promote social mobility, and cultivate societal cohesion. Schools have been called upon to create a more competent, engaged citizenry, foster a more egalitarian political order, and act as local sites of democratic public engagement. With the right kinds of educational experiences, reformers have argued, even the most socially disadvantaged youth could develop the skills and dispositions needed to become part of an inclusive, enlightened citizenry. But what if we've organized our schools in ways that actually undermine democratic aims?

Well, exactly.

Anyone who’s spent significant time in a public school recently knows that they reflect certain surrounding values--all kids should read by the time they’re in 3rd grade or face legislated humiliation, for example. Policymakers gin up problems, look for solutions, pass laws, and then spend time, money and good will trying to prove the law will do something useful.

Or schools purchase programs, craft slogans and hire personnel with the idea that we can outrun the nature of the work we do, or should be doing: bringing out the best in the actual children entrusted to our care.

I’m hardly the first person to say this, but we expect way too much from our schools, which are only as good as the steadfast people who show up to work in them. Schools can’t re-order the mess we’ve made of our democracy or work individual miracles on every undernourished child.

Teachers, however, don’t like hearing this. They’re soldiering away, trying to diagnose learning difficulties, build little trusting communities and keep a lid on kiddos who ate Cheetos for breakfast. They feel the weight of responsibility, even keeping their students fed while striking to gain wages that other college graduates would find insulting.

Which is why I found this list so refreshing--brilliant, even. Written by my friend Ken Jackson, Professor and Chair of the English Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, it details ten things he doesn’t expect his public schools to do:

1) Be able to defend against AR-15 attacks, bombs, drones, etc.
2) “Transform” anybody
3) Eliminate hundreds of years of racial injustice
4) Eliminate the unequal distribution of wealth built into capitalism as a system
5) Provide a trained and compliant “workforce” for anyone
6) Usher in the “21st” century
7) Globalize anything
8) Make everyone career and college ready
9) Compete madly with each other
10) Run public relations and marketing campaigns

Ken’s right. Public schools can’t save the nation. And a lot of the things he lists--marketing campaigns and school safety overkill--are a foolish waste of the scarce resources allotted to our children.

Naturally, his initial list prompted his friends and readers (a savvy bunch, heavy on educators) to ask for a list of the things Ken does expect public schools to do. And it’s a pretty good list, too:

1) Communicate as honestly as possible with kids and parents
2) Teach reading and writing
3) Use books
4) Attend as much as possible to individual kids’ strengths and weaknesses
5) Have teachers that show up regularly - even when kids don’t
6) Fire ineffective teachers and administrators
7) Not cheat on exams or steal money
8) Keep the staff reasonably sober on school time
9) Teach math, science and history
10) Give kid who can’t afford travel sports or private music some exposure and training

Readers were quick to add things--Schools need gardens! Schools need visual arts! Schools need counselors! However--I still think the beauty of the first list is that, in discussing our preferred fixes for public education, we typically begin with our hopes. We want programming and personalized attention and guarantees that giving every child a great education will, in fact, result in that enlightened citizenry.

And then, we try to get it on the cheap, ignoring our own national history of gross inequities and the results of our own bad educational decisions.

Maybe we need to start smaller--attending to individual kids’ strengths and weaknesses and being honest about what we can accomplish.

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