This post is a revised and updated version of one I wrote June 2, 2010
[A good education] “teaches you how to ask a question… it is knowing what you don’t know….”
“Ideally, one should know who Shakespeare was and why Shakespeare was important to us…. At the same time, one should know who Toni Morrison is and why her voice and take on America is important to us.”
“An educated high school grad must read, compute, persevere, organize, and problem-solve well enough not just to attend college, but to graduate from college.”
[A good education should instill] “a love of lifelong learning.”*
No surprise that views of what makes a good education differ. Such opinions about what makes an education “good” have differed for millennia among religious leaders, Greek philosophers, and those rebels in the 13 colonies who shaped a democratic experiment in America. Not now, however, in a democracy increasingly and wholly shaped by market capitalism.
In the past quarter-century, one narrow version of a “good” education has become groupthink among policymakers, civic and business leaders, parents, and voters. That version says a “good” education is one where a school—note that schooling and education merge as expressed by the above educators—meets state curriculum standards, has satisfactory test scores, and moves all students successfully into college.
Paradoxically, this constricted but familiar definition has occurred amid an explosion of options available to U.S. parents seeking “good” schools. In fact, differentiation among public schools now through magnets, charters, homeschooling, cyber-schools, and online learning have become available. But when one looks at the thousands of small high schools, charters, and magnets created in the past 15 years particularly in urban districts nearly all these diverse options concentrate on college preparation, meeting state standards, insuring that students pass required tests, and getting graduates into higher education. But many other schools depart from the dominant model; they work with a different definition of a “good” school that develops students’ cognitive, physical, artistic, and emotional talents. They see schools as incubators of democratic citizenship. They see children as whole beings, not just brains-on-sticks.
Why is it a constricted definition of “goodness” to send everyone to college?
First, everyone does not go to college (62 percent do). Second, the majority of high school graduates who enter college, don’t finish (56 percent do). Third, less than 30 percent of jobs require a higher education degree which helps to explain why so many degree-holding graduates are over-qualified and under-employed.
There are other reasons to go beyond group-think and see many kinds of “good” schools.
Historically, many versions of “good” schools have existed in the U.S. Among consolidated rural schools and even one-room schoolhouses, for example, some were (and are) outstanding examples of multi-age children and youth led by savvy, committed teachers and principals where students learned from one another, were fully engaged in the worlds of farming, village commerce, and their local communities.
Or consider those schools dedicated to serve and improve their immigrant communities such as New York City principal Leonard Covello who ran Benjamin Franklin High School in the 1930s and 1940s.
Or take those small urban schools such as Boston’s Mission Hill School founded by Deborah Meier and a small group of teachers in 1997 or El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, New York, founded in 1982, that focuses on youth and community development.
Both historically and currently, there have been diverse versions of “good” schools that educate children and youth toward different ends than the present orthodox view. I raise this issue again because unrelenting pressures from the business community, civic leaders, and state and federal policymakers on public schools to conform (through financial incentives mixed with strong penalties) to a one-size-fits-all “good” school has been on the reform agenda for past three decades. This group-think amplified frequently in the media with facts about life-time earnings of college graduates, reinforces the argument that public schools serve the economy. And that economy has to grow through skilled and knowledgeable graduates entering the labor market. This rigid mind-set excludes alternatives legions of college prep schools.
Such group-think among very smart people forget that democratic governments for a nation of immigrants require many different types of “good” schools.When all students, including those who have no interest–much less desire–to sit in classrooms for four more years, prepare for college to better serve an economy and gain a higher rung on the ladder of financial success–diversity in “good” schools loses out. Schools are, and have been, vital institutions that sustain democratic ideas, thinking, and action. They need more than one version of a good school.
*Randal C. Archbold, “What Makes a Good Education?” New York Times, January 14, 2001, p.27