The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Other Purpose of Education

on August 28, 2015

Far too many politicians and ordinary citizens have forgotten that the purpose of American education is as much to support a democratic society, as it is to produce students who are “college and career ready.” They have also forgotten that the proof of the pudding is not how well one school’s test scores compare with another’s or the level of respect our national system of education receives from the rest of the world, but the proportion of young Americans who are leading honest, productive, and caring lives.

No question, children’s civic learning begins and continues in the home through watching, listening, and imitating what their parents do. But home cannot offer children the full range of experiences. They need to interact with adults and children of other backgrounds, behaviors and beliefs. In the past, schools picked up the reins for civic learning where parents left off by providing social interaction through recesses and some classes, such as physical education and art. But nowadays the pressure to raise test scores and the tightness of school budgets have forced most schools to stop providing those opportunities. In enacting harsh discipline policies, and in putting so much importance on test scores, schools have all but wiped out the possibility of students learning and practicing citizenship. What can be done to restore this emphasis?

Above all, teachers need to set up ways for students to participate in classroom planning, decision-making, and organization. There is no reason why students shouldn’t be able to add their own interests, if appropriate, to the topics to be investigated in a unit or to choose between teacher-suggested projects. And only a little training will get students to put their classroom back in good order at the end of the day. When kids feel that “this is our classroom” rather than the teacher’s personal domain, they become good citizens in their own small community.

At the school-wide level it is up to administrators to establish policies that respect students’ civil rights and personal dignity, even when they have broken the rules. One regular practice should be to give misbehaving kids a fair hearing before deciding what the consequences should be. I chose to use the word “consequences” rather than “punishment“ because I believe that in most cases the next step should be to have the misbehaver work on “fixing the problem” rather than undergo punishment. If there is a way to repair the harm that was done or to make the person who was harmed feel better, that’s what a misbehaver should do. He or she will start on the road to better citizenship as the result of a positive action.

The next step in civic education is having students participate in school decision-making in ways that are age-appropriate. For example, children from elementary grades can work with a teacher to choose playground games and set the rules of participation, while high school students can serve on committees that make decisions about what is best for them, such as which non-required subjects should be offered and how parent/teacher conferences should be structured. In their spare time older students are capable of joining with parents on local projects such as preparing and serving food in a homeless shelter, encouraging people to vote, or building a playground in a neighborhood that has none.

Once more, I remind you that giving all this attention to student citizenship is not an unreasonable expectation. Until high stakes testing took over our schools, demanding that every school day and every bit of student and teacher effort be dedicated to raising test scores, citizenship training was common. Remember the Safety Patrol  that monitored street crossings and the mechanical  equipment helpers who delivered movie projectors to your classroom, set them up, and took them away when you had finished with them? But now, the legislators concerned about school “accountability” have no interest in how students treat each other, serve the school, or how schools treat their students. Concern for the growth of responsibility and humanity in our children should never be out of style.

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