How can we tell if our schools are working? | GUEST OPINION

In order to tell if something is really working, you have to start with a clear idea of what it is actually supposed to be doing. This is pretty easy when it comes to things like kitchen appliances or guitar lessons. For example, does the coffee maker dependably brew a good cup of coffee — yes or no? Or am I actually making progress in my ability to play the guitar (just ask my wife!)? All in all, a clearly defined purpose makes assessment a no-brainer.

This gets trickier, however, when we are talking about things that have multiple purposes. In these situations, judging whether or not something is working is largely a matter of which one of several legitimate purposes we are looking at. And even if each of these purposes is very clearly defined, the fact that we are working towards several goals at once — some of which may not be perfectly compatible — makes assessment a lot more difficult.

Welcome to the world of public education. Schools are perfect examples of public institutions that are complicated to assess because they are simultaneously serving several different purposes. And to muddy the waters even further, the relative emphasis that we place on each of these purposes changes over time along with other social, economic, and political changes in our communities and larger society.  The PBS documentary, “School: The Story of American Public Education,” lists the following as having been priorities of public education over the years:

  • To prepare children for citizenship.
  • To cultivate a skilled workforce.
  • To teach cultural literacy.
  • To prepare students for college.
  • To help students become critical thinkers.
  • To help students compete in a global marketplace.

Can you think of other goals we have for our schools?  How about helping our children grow into people of good character? Or nurturing curiosity and instilling a lifelong love of learning? Or maybe fostering creativity and developing the courage to take risks and stretch one’s limitations?

The fact is that there is not just one single purpose we can use to judge the effectiveness of our schools, and I believe this is a good thing. It reminds us that we are not trying to produce a uniform product, but are nurturing human beings and the greatness that diversity allows — greatness for our students, for our community, and for our world. Working together to balance the competing demands of public education is simply par for the course, and something that literally never ends. No need to get frustrated if someone else’s priority for our schools is different from yours — this is inevitable. We just need to remind each other that in our schools, as in so many other areas of our lives, it is not either-or, but both-and.

So when we hear our neighbors clamoring for more music and arts in our schools, or more science and technology, or more emphasis on developing job skills, or a greater focus on getting into college, or more time for kids to just play and be creative — it is in all of our best interests to stop and really listen to each other. Together we know what our children and our community need. And together we have the power to make it happen.

Jim Strickland lives with his family in Marysville and teaches at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. He can be reached at livedemocracy@hotmail.com.


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