What is the Purpose of School?

From a systems-thinking perspective, the best way to understand the purpose of an organization such as a school is to watch the system function and evaluate what is happening, not what the mission or vision statement might state. This is especially important to do so from the vantage point of those being directly impacted by the system—the kids.

What then is the purpose of school? This might greatly depend on the school of course, but based purely on the actions and interactions of the individuals in most school organizations that I have observed, the overall purpose of school, as codified into law, policy, and funding models, is to effectively manage the compliance of the most number of children with the least number of adults paid for as little as the market will allow. This is a harsh critique, and it’s coming from someone who is a part of the system I am critiquing.

Within that system, however, I see teacher after teacher and administrator after administrator pour their heart, soul, personal finances, and even their personal mental and physical health into nurturing the growth and healthy development of children. Yet, collectively, we seem to make little progress with increasing the efficacy of doing so. Why? What are the leverage points that might change the system as opposed to the leverage points we are applying pressure to in order to facilitate change?

What have we done to change the system? We mandate curriculum, teacher testing, and accountability (for both teachers and students) via standardized tests in an attempt to systematize and standardize what happens. Those may have some importance but they may not be effective leverage points to cause meaningful change in the system because the overall inputs and outflow in the system are relatively unchanged.

The leverage point that might have more impact on change may have to do with the size and culture of the school. As long as the flow of input in the system is really about managing the most students with the least number of adults at the lowest cost possible, then all the other systemic changes may not address the most influential reinforcing feedback loop (cost efficiency) driving the system toward its real purpose: cheapest way to manage and educate kids—maybe even simply occupy them. Ouch.

The result I see then is reinforcing practices to get through the day, learning activities that don’t inspire creativity and growth, but designed largely out of necessity of classroom management, requiring compliance, even complacency, and ultimately might be leading to disaffected students. This disaffection seems to increase as students approach exiting out of the system. They know (or perceive at least) that much of what they are asked to do on that worksheet, cramming for the test, writing a simple summary of a historical event or piece of literature is just plain busywork.

Even if the well-meaning teacher does not intend it as such, if the student doesn’t use it to create new ideas and challenge their own existing paradigms and thus lead to intellectual growth, they see it for the purpose of keeping them occupied. Keep in mind the teacher may have to manage 30 (or more) students in a classroom for 50 minutes with this one adult, and then repeat it the next hour and the next and the next and the next (teaching the normal full load of five sections a day for secondary teachers).

With 150 students cycling through this classroom in a day, how can we expect the teacher to do little more than manage student movement and behavior. The fact that so many do in fact inspire their students to dig deeper in such a setting is a testament to their drive, creativity, and dedication. What’s really being asked of teachers is to individually lead 150 or more students to the same academic standard goal in the same time frame, while keeping in mind every student’s varied and sometimes profound individual needs. We also coach teachers to assess them preferably with complex, novel projects and writing and then give students meaningful feedback immediately so they can build on that feedback for the next step of their learning. In the current model it’s a daunting task if everything goes exactly as planned.

There are small schools that do manage to shift the purpose away from cost efficient management, however, they are still trapped in the larger public funding formula and system. Therefore, they choose to do so at the cost of other resources such as extra-curricular activities, adequate physical plant resources, teacher pay, etc. Or they are private schools that can charge $40,000 or more a year for tuition which often doesn’t cover the full cost of educating each child for a year. (Per pupil funding for public schools usually ranges $10,000 – $15,000 per year as a frame of reference). Also keep in mind a private school can choose who it admits and often does not have the added cost of meeting the needs for students they do not have the resources or inclination to provide.

If you are in a school, pause and watch what is happening daily. If you are parents of school-aged kids, ask them to chronicle their activity and movement for a day. And then look at those actions to draw conclusions as to the enacted, not intended, purpose of school. Is it what we want out of K-12 education?

If not, what would the daily activity of students and teachers look like to enact intended purpose—the school’s mission and vision statement. What physical plant and financial resources might allow that vision to flourish?

People and then the school systems they make up are living systems. Living systems cannot be controlled only disturbed. School policies and practices designed to merely control will also devolve into systems that manage disaffected students. Schools designed to disturb, interrupt, explore, and then build on prior thinking and schema can then lead to growth of mind, spirit, and body in unknown creative ways. That may be messier and more expensive than completing worksheets and cramming for a standardized test, but in the end it will be worth it.

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