What are Schools For?

In the debate over how to achieve results, we usually take for granted that the overarching purpose of public schools is clear-cut, well-recognized, and agreed upon by all. But if we stop for a moment to ask the question "what are public schools for?" I think we would all be surprised by the multitude of different responses. I'm curious to hear whether anyone out there has taken a good look at the justifications for compulsory public education in their teacher preparation coursework (I know I certainly haven't).

I have read a few pieces recently that have exhorted teachers and schools to be more respectful of students and particularly their parents as the 'clients.' This is clearly problematic: 'clients' aren't normally required by law to use the services being provided. While one of the aims of making school compulsory was to eliminate practices exploiting child labor, the laws are applied equally to truant students who don't work (they just truly don't want to be at school). It could also be said that schooling is made compulsory to meet our nation's labor requirements, but such an authoritarian view is not really compatible with our tradition of encouraging personal freedoms.

I really enjoyed reading an analysis of some of the moral implications of compulsory public education in the book "The Moral Dimensions of Teaching". The article "The Limits of Teacher Professionalization" by Barry L. Bull presents a primer on public education through the lens of the liberal philosophy. The fundamental principal of the philosophy is each human being's right to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,' the latter meaning the right to pursue whatever the person's vision of the good might be. Moreover, the person must be as free as possible from coercion in rationally determining what is good. One of the central aims of society is to promote free choice while preventing choices that harm others. Education, then, is about creating citizens who are fully capable of exercising their right to choose freely and resist coercion. Perhaps ironically, this includes compelling people to attain this freedom.
Interestingly, this calls into question the 'libertarian' viewpoint that insists on parents' rights to decide what is best for their children. Setting aside their capacity to abuse or exploit their children, the parent-child relationship has coercive or choice-inhibiting tendencies; that is, parents are unable to give their children access to a limitless range of choices, because they are limited by their own knowledge and means, and also because they demand more of their children than they would have a right to expect of them merely as fellow citizens. This creates a gap wherein parents lose the moral right to make all choices for their children and yet where these children do not have the full capacity to choose freely for themselves. Schools occupy this gap.
This has some interesting implications, about which I plan to write more. One of these implications is the permissibility of home or private schooling. Children must be sheltered from indoctrination; that is, exposure to one viewpoint to the exclusion of all others. Home schooling sits in very dangerous territory. Another questionable but common practice is the request for permission from parents (or giving parents the right to exclude their children) before exposing students to potentially objectionable material. If education is supposed to be developing students' abilities to choose for themselves, allowing them to opt out would seem to be permitting the abridgment of their freedom.

Open Source

Darren Kuropatwa at A Difference has been experimenting with wikis as a medium for helping to teach his students math. In this post, he has also started thinking about wikis as a medium through which teachers can collaborate on instructional materials. He has created BPRIME as a place for teachers to share best practices, including a repository for scholarly articles. It looks like a great way to share ideas (in an occupation where telling people how you do things can be perceived as a threatening suggestion that others must do it that way, too).

I think that the methods of open source software are another avenue through which we can harness the immense amount of creative teacher work that is occuring every day in classrooms across the world. Teachers (everywhere, I imagine) face a dilemma. Often (particularly in the humanities) they are expected to teach classes with no defined curriculum, so they must develop a ton of materials on their own. These materials rarely make their way outside of the individual's classroom. But teachers who work with published textbooks and all of the accompanying resources often do a similar amount of work: compensating for errors in the text or for units that don't work well, writing alternate assessments (to match their local standards or personal expectations, or because the canned tests have been too long in the public domain to be secure).

To quote the NCTM Principles and Standards, a curriculum is more than a collection of activities: it must be coherent, focused, and well articulated across the grades. I think it would be difficult for a random assortment of people to create, wiki-style, a coherent curriculum. But open-source software projects, like the many Linux distributions or OpenOffice, present a great model.

How would it work? As with OpenOffice, start with an existing textbook. Acquire the rights and the 'source'- digital versions in plain text and original photos. Release the source under a General Public License, allowing free alteration and redistribution. Manage the project using all of the tools and strategies of good software development, including a repository of all of the relevant documents and meticulous documentation of additions and changes. Encourage user contributions and peer review. Allow the development of different 'flavors'- like the different Linux distributions.

As more and more computers enter classrooms and homes, a greater number of publishers are putting their textbooks on CD-ROM. Perhaps this means the time is right to challenge the dominance of textbook publishers in education, and to encourage teachers to collaboratively self-publish in this manner.

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