What Are Schools For, Anyway?

In the New York City public schools, only about two-thirds of K-12 students graduate with a high school diploma. Of that two-thirds, a self-selected group then attends the City College of New York.

Now, notice that this isn't all of that two-thirds: it's only those graduates who want to go to college, we assume because they imagine that doing so will teach them something useful leading to a job if not a career.

Of that self-selected cadre, four out of five of them will require remedial education in the "three R's" before they're prepared to do freshman-level (Freshperson? Fresher? First-year, anyway) work.

As I wrote some years ago:

According to an article in the Huffington Post, New York City reports spending about $18,600 per student per year. A Cato Institute study examines the accounting, which understates or eliminates some costs, and arrives at $26,900 per student per year.

In other words, New York City schools spend something like $25,000 per student per year to achieve these stellar results.

Obviously, like Bullwinkle and the top hat, this trick isn't working.

The new(-ish) fad in management practices is something called OKR, "objectives and key results." Like a lot of management fads, it combines some good buzzwords with fairly superficial insights, but they're still good insights. It can be summarized by asking three questions:

  • What is our goal? What do we want to happen?
  • How can we measure progress toward that goal objectively?
  • Using those measures, what are the results?

I've used this several times in the last year or so in my role as a consultant, and one of the most interesting observations I've made is how very difficult that first question can be for a lot of clients. Asking "what do we want?" — and the discovery that we don't already know — can itself lead to a kind of epiphany.

I think it's time to ask "What are schools for?" Certainly, there seem to be a lot of different ideas, like "encouraging diversity" and "teaching social skills." As an AEI article puts it:

[We are] Blindly hoping that educators have internalized shared public purposes, [so we] empower individuals to proselytize under the banner of "public schooling." This state of affairs has long been endorsed by influential educational theorists like George Counts, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and Nel Noddings, who argue that teachers have a charge to use their classrooms to promote personal visions of social change, regardless of the broader public's beliefs.

If we understand "promoting personal visions of social change" to be the primary purpose of schools, it's no wonder that side issues like, oh, reading and arithmetic are suffering.

OKR advocates suggest you should have two objectives, one long-term and aspirational, the other more short-term and immediate. Let's start by proposing a long-term objective for public education.

The purpose of public education should be that students can demonstrate functional competence in "the three R's" by the end of eight grade, and functional knowledge of civics, history, and geography by graduation.

This is just a first draft objective, and I already see some issues. For example, I'm preserving the notion of "eighth grade" when (see my last education column) I think the whole age-cohort "grade" model is a pernicious side effect of the Prussian industrial model imported here by Horace Mann. But it's the language we have and it's a place to start.

So, I'm going to turn it over to the commentariat: what are schools for, anyway?