Is School Relevant?

A student I taught nearly two decades back contacted me recently regarding Teacher Eddie’s YouTube commentary on Boyinaband’s song, “Don’t Stay in School” (lyrics here).  In a nutshell, the song indicts the British Education System for its emphasis on traditional learning topics and its neglect of pragmatic, practical, and useful life skills.  Eddie offers similar critical views about public education in the United States.

Both the song and Teacher Eddie’s remarks make valid points.  Students understandably struggle to find relevance in historical events of centuries past, in the study of cellular organelles, in abstract mathematical theorems, and in the reading of Renaissance literature.  Many students indeed exit school systems with little particular preparation for the workplace and the world at large.  We do well to examine our educational establishment for an explanation for this..

Teacher Eddie explains his views passionately, taking the position of an isolated professional railing against an antiquated and crumbling educational establishment.  He emphasizes the need to teach primarily what students will find useful as they make their way in the world.  He also laments the general failure of teachers to consider societal contexts in which students live.

Regrettably, the concerns at issue here arise from multiple sources on multiple levels, perhaps too numerous to discuss here. Teachers, administrators, and parents all have increasingly complex and confusing imperatives as they carry out the work they have at hand. The students themselves are awash in influences–both in and out of school–that affect their readiness to learn and their receptivity to the classroom experience.  All of this comes before we even consider the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A tragic yet hidden irony lurks in the midst of everything mentioned so far: Until roughly six decades ago, public education in the United States routinely and effectively instructed students in job and life skills. At that time, American schools had experienced a half-century of transformation that revolutionized the lives of its citizens and made a global superpower of our nation.  At the very end of the 19th century, the National Education Association (NEA) convened a committee that issued recommendations resulting in the twelve-year model we know today for our public schools.  This provided a standard framework for curriculum and brought about further collaboration among educators nationwide.  In 1918, another NEA committee issued a report calling for the emphasis of seven “cardinal principles” that transcended mere academic instruction and included career readiness, responsible citizenship, meaningful membership in one’s household, and even the cultivation of constructive interests and pursuits.  By 1950, high school enrollment increased so substantially that going to high school became a national norm.

Additionally, the comprehensive high school model included a variety of courses based on a philosophy that all students required learning experiences in all modes–academics, vocations, and practical life skills.  This standard for secondary education included such classes as wood shop and home economics alongside algebra and U.S. history.  Moreover, many students learned ballroom dancing in physical education classes.  This all took place in symbiosis with a post-war economy that had expanded to proportions unprecedented in human history.

And just as our judicial system and evolving national conscience began the task of confronting inequalities in public education based on race, geography, and socioeconomic status, the Soviet Union put the first artificial satellite into orbit.  This single event set off a stateside panic that communism–whose flagship state would suffer economic collapse and political disintegration just 34 years later–would overrun the world if American public education did not make a stern priority of academics over other modes of learning.  This marked the beginning of the end of the global ascendency of American public education.

Of course, it also started the devolution resulting in Boyinaband’s litany of complaints and Teacher Eddie’s YouTube rant.  The brief history offered above, however, provides critical context.  Educational institutions do not fall short because they emphasize academics; they fall short for not providing meaningful, compelling, sustained, reinforced instruction related to the following:

  • career skills and professionalism
  • the power, risks, uses, benefits, and currents of influence in modern media
  • the importance and relevance of art and culture to the human experience
  • the tasks and responsibilities–grand and mundane–of being a grown-up
  • the critical role each person plays in the civic sphere
  • reasoned discourse and action in a tolerant democracy
  • the importance of every human being to society
  • the common human denominator beneath the numerators of gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexual orientation, and any other characteristic people wrongly use in creating false hierarchies
  • the responsibility of all citizens to support, criticize, reform, and value societal institutions

This partial list of neglected priorities in education indeed finds its way into language that appears in official learning standards for states across our country.  All of these points also appear prominently in local school districts’ curricula.  We hear them mentioned by policymakers and school leaders.

But look closely at each point.  None of them relate to outcomes that can be assessed in a classroom, on a standardized test, or in any manner while students are still in school.  As a result, they may add sheen to manuals, but on the highway of instruction, they at best appear on distant billboards–and at worst they lie in roadside ditches.

And here we find ourselves standing before the most profound irony of all: Rigorous, committed instruction on all of these points actually reinforces, deepens, and sustains the very learning and growth that we work so laboriously and feebly to measure on standardized tests.

Imagine that.

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio

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