An Errant Request: Reader, What is a School?

chalkboard full of question marksI would honestly prefer to read, think and write about poetry, about Bei Dao or Margaret Fuller in The Dial, or “the tyranny of vision” that I fear is our only REAL problem (vision becomes language: narrow what you look at, narrow what you think and say).

But I think it might do us all some good to try to understand the aggressive and now well under way attacks on the idea of what is Public and what is Private and how these lines are being blurred and “hybridized” purposely and in ways that “sound” quite reasonable and even seem to make sense, if you only attend to the verbiage of the ones doing the dirty work.

First, there are two books that have come to be somewhat indispensable to my understanding of the course of our primary public institution, schools.  One is “Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools” by Kenneth J. Saltman and the other is “A Measure of Failure: The Political Origins of Standardized Testing” by Mark J. Garrison.  Both are short.

Saltman is the book that details the way that, via government intervention through policy initiatives like No Child Left Behind, the public system of education is being graded, failed, and taken over in order to implement business models of management and profit.

Garrison’s book is an historical look at the very idea of “measure.”  We measure to establish dominant norms and we measure to legitimize that dominance.  We then measure to show failure in order to change to a new method of domination.  Measurement becomes then an extremely powerful tool used by government and corporations to create convincing narratives that foster “self-management” under the strictures of standards

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First, and maybe this is obvious, we have to really try to understand what our schools are for, and that means thinking through what role they play in our social and cognitive development.  If we can see this somewhat clearly then we might be able to understand what is going on in our current climate of “reform.”

Also, “school” is an idea and its implementation is variable to say the least, even as we try to think about it as a place of “equalizing” our opportunities to learn.

And once we start thinking about it, all we do is start asking questions.

What is learning?  If there are multiple types of learning and multiple ways to learn and multiple kinds of learners, aren’t we already facing a very real difficulty?

And then we consider the actual temporal-spatial relationship of “attending” school as it operates within our social construction of work and home.  School is a place; a good place, bad place, ugly place, beautiful place.  School is “home” in many respects and what students learn there are ways to act, think and be that may or may not “clash” with their family attitudes.

Of course then there is the “school economy”–which includes the cost to run a school but also the type of “socio-economic” citizens that will be served by the school.

In some ways all these difficulties create the need for a very open and very broad idea of what this place could be.  It must be expansive and deep.  It must try to manage a multivariate population.

Quickly we come to the realization that this is massively complex.

And this very realization should serve to put a HOLD on all “hurry up” change that comes out of a reform movement.  Reform movements are political and they are about power and control.  This is why, “when the time is ripe,”  you find so much legislation rammed through state governments where there is a single ideology in ascendancy in order to pave the way for “outside” control of all the “local” issues of school systems.

Have you spent any time trying to define in as granular a way as possible what a school is, what it does, what it is for?

School serves a purpose.  What is it?

Unless you first commit your mind to this definition you will have no way to assess what is being done, in your name, and with your tax dollars, and under the guise of “reform”: you’ve got to know what is the “form” of the thing before you can assent to any reformation of said thing.

Can we answer what we think school should be graded on if we don’t all agree on what it is in the first place?

So, it’s your turn here at the Errant: what is a school?  Why is there school?  What do we want school to do for us?

Have your say.


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  1. Sarah Stup October 27, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    While I agree that this is a vital question, and certainly the necessary starting point to consider our educational reform, I also started to ponder why anyone would start to view public institutions as potential money makers?

    As a country, we spend the bulk of our resources on military aggression. Not only is this stripping us of our national soul, but it’s robbing us of our economic resources to the point that we have to view our children’s schools as ways to make money to fuel this gigantic debt our military continues to rack up. In this way we are all forced to be soldiers, paying this system by any means possible. Our children’s test scores need to make someone money.

    Of course if you ask yourself what school should be, none of these reforms are tolerable or logical. If we were investing all of our military spending into our public education we would have a system that is glorious, diverse, a true public good in the spirit of developing young minds in a multitude of ways.

    I don’t know how to pose this sub-question without sounding naive, but it seems simple to me: our public systems have to make the government money to fund the war.

    Now what?

  2. j. kennedy October 29, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    the merriam-webster definition:
    an institution for the teaching of children.

    that is only part A of the definition. i like it. simple is best, and while m-w expands the parameters of the definition to take in more narrowing and specialized tones, it doesn’t even hold a small candle to the California Dept of Education’s definition:

    i don’t have kids…so, i have a rather removed position from both the question and reality of what a school is….in the now.

    however, i can still recall bits of my own public school experience, which felt in my child-mind view similar to merriam-webster’s definition part A. and equally boring and dry, but i believe it was effective. i mean, i’m smart, and a lot of that is thanks to those public school years. at that time i didn’t care what was going on behind the scenes. it was simple, like the definition…there’s the building with the teachers, go there, learn stuff, leave.

    now, as a Los Angeleno who sits in a small cube for about 8 hours a day Monday-Friday listening to local public radio I get to hear all the latest on “reforming” what has become of that simple platform, or rather what it has mutated into. every other day or so, i’m inundated with news of the LAUSD, value added, Teachers Unions, Charter vs. Public, etc.

    would there be need for reform if the form hadn’t been shifted and sifted so many times?

    there seemed to be a simple era for public schools, then larger fiscal stakes from larger fiscal “planning”, and now a movement to bring things back down to some kinda idyllic educational setting where becoming smart is the rule (for every child), and becoming really smart is more fun because you have the chance to make a CAD model of your 3rd grade college prep. science project and show it off to a group of kids your own age in Italy via Skype….

    everyone wants the school system to be perfect, no kids falling through cracks, happy well paid teachers, etc.

    will any amount of reform achieve (fully) any of these goals?

    i think Reform is the new Form.

    1. Douglas Storm October 29, 2011 at 3:47 pm

      JK, thanks for the response. It does seem a real mess, yet it’s really “just the same” day in and day out. It’s the change in funding and ideology that has superseded the “simple” you responded to.

      It is still simple as a concept. But a “school” is really an ideological box. “Learning” may not be, but “school” is.

      In other words the simple definition begs the question, “teaching children what?”

      The What and the How are both under assault on many fronts. The What has been captured by the corporate “core” purveyors of global flatness and the How has been captured by the tech machine.

      It’s clear you’re aware of this from your CAD comment.

      You ask the next logical question right? What is the appropriate goal? Is it ideological? Or something else?

  3. Jane England May 20, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Thanks for another insightful thought-provoking article. The pressure to perform through standardised testing is aimed at producing what? I am related to children (in the UK) who go through copious interviews and exams on every possible topic so they can get into the ‘right’ school because the ‘wrong’ school within their community is a school where they might be attacked.

    And what do the right schools seek to turn children into? Entrepreneurs? CEO’s? People who can afford to own rental properties or drive the latest vehicles? Where is goodness and kindness? Do such virtues only exist in the pastoral schools where children take pet lambs to school or is happiness being squeezed out of fields of sunlight? I remember school as heaven and hell. I couldn’t stop myself from staring out into the large paddock that was our playground and I was always shouted out of this place of solace and meaning for ‘dreaming’.

    Here, in New Zealand see many State schools trying to keep schools safe and create kind caring people while the paper chase – academic and administrative – pushes virtue, morals and manners to the back row. And if virtues, morals and manners are important whose do we decide to follow? How do we create room for healing our being without putting toxins in the medicine?

    I am full of questions, thank you for bringing these to mind.

    1. Douglas Storm May 21, 2012 at 6:44 am

      Are there answers to these questions? A school replicates, in the main, the economic and political expectations of the society. But as many have contended since the late 40s, schools are holding pens. Students are released into jobs or prison in America.

      Creating the human who cares about life in its broadest sense will not fall to our modern society or its schools.

      But when has humanity ever been truly “good” and cared about the “global” self? We are too big and too economically interrelated by Western ideological dominance. It will fall before there is a change. (We can make our little humans AWARE of these human errors…but we cannot compete with the inundation of the marketplace imagination.)


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