The graduating class of 2016 will be underprepared to write at the college level. They will also tend to shy away from STEM careers because of a quasi-collective mathematical incompetence. Something is going wrong. What do we need to change to better prepare these kids for college and careers?
I would be willing to bet that in answering this question, practically every reader automatically began to focus on some problem at the school or classroom level. This seems intuitive: Students aren’t being educated well enough? Fix the schools! To most of us, the entire education system—from the department of education to legislation like No Child Left Behind to the debate about charter schools—is nothing more than the undergirding of the neighborhood school. Schools are where the rubber meets the road. We think education and we think schools.
That just might be our problem. We have conflated education and schooling.
This conflation is problematic not only because it delegitimizes non-scholastic learning, but because it allows us to overlook our collective responsibility to care for and educate each other. Our conflation of education and schooling is blinding us to the innumerable educational opportunities that exist or could exist outside of school. It also blinds us to those things that really seem to matter for long term success, most of which are not explicitly taught in schools—things like social capital, mentorship, and the abilities to collaborate, to adapt, and to take initiative.
Schools are our scapegoat. Because schools exist, we have somewhere to point our fingers. Johnny doesn’t know how to read? That incompetent teacher! Angela doesn’t get fractions? What a terrible school!
But before we remove the mote from the school’s eye, let’s consider the beam in ours. Johnny doesn’t know how to read because somehow society (i.e. us) has ignored his illiteracy and, shrugging off any obligation to him, has allowed him to go on without reading. The same goes for Angela’s fractions. Even if we angrily insist that schools fix this problem, we ignore the role we could play in her education. This is where we are blind.
Imagine, for a moment, a society without schools that still has an educated populace. Although they never had an AP English class, many people are familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedies. While nobody in this society took Physics in high school (there are no high schools), they seem to understand Newton’s laws. How can this be? How would they learn this without schools?
Obviously (and this is not necessarily different from our society), primary caregivers fill the role of primary learning-facilitators. Parents and parent figures read to and with their kids, set an example of intellectual hunger, celebrate their children’s curiosity and progress. But education is not restricted to the home; it is threaded throughout the fabric of society. Perhaps employers sponsor their employees in taking certain online courses. Perhaps children have multiple apprenticeships. Perhaps instead of just taking private piano lessons, people sign up for private chemistry, philosophy, or literature lessons. (And perhaps the government provides some kind of voucher to ensure that everyone can take these lessons.) Perhaps people on the bus talk with each other about what they have recently read. In short, although they have no formal educational system, the society itself is educational.
Although this may seem unique to this imaginary world, in reality, every society is educational. For example, people learn how to send text messages, how to play basketball, how to buy groceries, etc. without any formal instruction, because society has systemically provided access to and motivation to acquire this knowledge. So the question is really—what kind of learning is embedded within and encouraged in the society? As I have briefly suggested, I think there could be a society that inherently educates its populace in meaningful ways; that even prepares its youth for success in college (if college exists) and careers without having K-12 schools.
One more note: Because there would be no public schools, this society would not attempt to cram “common knowledge” into the timeframe of compulsory education—with often unwilling students and frustrated teachers—but would instead provide a lifetime of opportunities to learn what is interesting and relevant. If we myopically think of reforming education through schools, we limit ourselves to thirteen years of a person’s life—years in which this person generally does not enthusiastically engage in the work of this formal schooling. By extending our sights beyond schools, we multiply the possibilities of making significant and lasting change.
There is no doubt that we are not preparing students for college and careers, but it is not just the schools’ fault. Society as a whole is also to blame, and must likewise shoulder the responsibility of reform. But it must reform itself, not schools.