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Too Many Elephants?

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Over the years, schools have become the places where kids go to get everything they might not get at home. Sex education, drug and alcohol education, breakfast, health care, family counseling, character education, after-school care -- you name it, schools provide it. But is all that really the role schools should play? Even if it is, how many elephants can we get into a phone booth?

Several years ago, a small town in Connecticut sent a letter to the families of its elementary school students. The letter notified parents that they would be fined $50 if an adult does not meet their children when the school bus drops them off at the end of the day. Furthermore, the letter stated, from now on children will be dropped off whether or not an adult is present at the bus stop to meet them.

In rural Connecticut, every child rides a school bus, many to homes that are relatively isolated from their neighbors. Until the change in policy, if no adult was waiting at a bus stop after school, drivers routinely returned the children to school, where school staff supervised them until their parents picked them up. According to administrators, children were being returned to school at least three or four times a week and some weren't picked up until 5 p.m.

Now, to me, the provision of that kind of free, highly skilled after-school care was an extraordinary service, which apparently was abused and, not surprisingly, cancelled. Some parents in Lebanon were "in an uproar," however. "How dare the school compromise the safety of our children?" they wanted to know.

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Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for nearly two decades. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.


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Reading an account of the controversy made me wonder if, in fact, it was the school's responsibility to ensure the after-school safety of its students. So I fired up my browser and typed "school role" into the ever-apt Google search engine. I found lots of information about "the role of the school librarian technology coordinator principal nurse " and so on. I found lots of information about "the role of the school in drug education violence prevention character development child health " and almost every other imaginable area of social concern.

I found one article -- only one -- titled The Fundamental Role of Public Schools. That article, from the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), says, in its most specific section, that "public schools, as the backbone of our American way of life, foster our ideals of freedom, shared values, and the integration of peoples and meet the changing needs of our evolving society through a commitment that every child can succeed and become a contributing member of it." That definition is probably accurate, but it's a little too general for my purposes!

Then I thought that maybe no one wrote about the role of the school because everyone already understood it. Maybe those who founded public schools had established their role. So I added "historical" to my school-role search. I found out that the Massachusetts Education Laws of 1642 and 1647, the country's first compulsory education laws, required that children be taught the principles of religion, the laws of the commonwealth, and competency in reading and writing -- so they could understand Scripture and the laws of the commonwealth. Those laws are certainly specific enough, but are they comprehensive enough for today's schools? Probably not.

In the end, I spent hours on research -- using a variety of possible search terms -- and never found a specific, coherent definition of what the role of the public school today should be. I wonder, does such a definition even exist?

Years ago, I remarked to a friend that I didn't think sex education should be the schools' responsibility. I believed that a subject so difficult to separate from moral and religious values should be taught only at home. My friend replied, "That's fine for your kids, but what about the kids who don't get it at home?" Her argument made sense to me at the time.

It appears, though, that that philosophy has come to define the role of public education today; over the years, schools have become the places where kids go to get everything they might not get at home. Sex education, drug and alcohol education, breakfast, health care, family counseling, character education, after-school care you name it, schools provide it.

That strategy seemed to make sense at the time. Unhealthy kids can't learn. Spaced out kids can't learn. Hungry kids can't learn. Troubled kids can't learn. Teachers can't teach kids who can't learn. By default, little by little, public education took on the responsibility of not only teaching kids but also getting them ready to learn. Is all that really the schools' role? And even if we think it is, how many elephants can we get into a phone booth?

In recent years, the No Child Left Behind Act demanded greater accountability from schools, with annual testing to assess student progress in reading and math. Essentially, the law tells schools that their most important role is to teach students reading and math. Personally, I think that's a very good thing.

I also think that local, state, and federal legislators need to make a good thing better by making sure that teaching is the schools' only role. Lawmakers and educators need to sit down with a list of all the responsibilities public schools have assumed -- and those they've been forced to assume -- through the years, determine which ones schools can and should handle, and reallocate the rest to community and government agencies and, if possible, to the business community. It won't be easy, and it probably won't be cheap. But if we expect schools to teach our kids, we have to make it possible for them to only teach our kids. That, it seems to me, has to be the role of public education today.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

01/03/2005
Updated 05/15/2009

The opinions expressed in StarrPoints are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Education World.