Getting the Schools We Want

By Marion Brady

Imagine a school bus with a dozen steering wheels and a dozen drivers, each with a different mental map of the day’s route. The bus, of course, would go nowhere, or at least nowhere in particular.

It’s a ridiculous image. But in a very real and important sense, almost every school in America is like that bus. It has multiple “steering wheels” and “drivers,” and most of the drivers have different “mental maps” of what the school is supposed to do. The engine may be running, but the school isn’t going anywhere in particular.

Harsh words, those. But common sense says that members who don’t agree about an organization’s purpose are ill-equipped to function, much less accomplish anything of real consequence.

Americans don’t know what they want their schools to do. Ask, and you’ll learn that they should teach “core” subjects. Prepare students for democratic citizenship. Instill a love of learning. Transmit societal values. Teach the “basics.” Prepare students for useful work. Achieve world-class standards. Build self-esteem. Promote love of country. Encourage creativity. Raise standardized test scores. Keep America economically competitive. Teach problem-solving skills. Explore the “eternal questions.” Help students become culturally literate. Explore key concepts. Respond to student needs. Develop character. Instill virtue.

Sound familiar?

Most of those are legitimate purposes, and some are absolutely essential. But no two are the same. Each requires its own standards, instructional materials, teaching methods, and tests, and none are interchangeable. In fact, getting really serious about a particular aim has implications for those attracted to the profession, what kinds of professional training they would need, the types of in-service activities that would be most helpful, even what equipment and physical facilities are most appropriate.

It’s no more possible for a school to have multiple overarching aims than for a bus to reach two destinations simultaneously, and the practical consequence of trying is having no aim at all.

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