With summer winding down and classrooms opening, it’s time to revisit the fundamental purpose of our schools, a purpose that continues to be muddled, leaving many students unable to fully reach their learning potential.
Our schools’ mission — both locally and nationally — has moved beyond prioritizing academic growth and now frequently includes the task of remedying many of society’s most complicated and controversial social, moral, and cultural issues. I witnessed this change as a 26-year teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
The insertion of highly complex, and invariably political, issues into our schools has begun to crowd out the focus on academics. Major topics, no doubt important to the collective and civic health of our country, are now increasingly being contested in the classroom and boardroom — for example, attempts to eliminate divergent academic performance outcomes between racial and socioeconomic groups; determining the parameters of speech; and prescribing moral and social codes.
From my experience, expecting schools to take on, let alone fix, such a complicated and expanding set of expectations has been largely unsuccessful, not because our administrators, teachers and students haven’t been deeply engaged in their resolution. Instead, it’s because our schools are not experts at, nor fundamentally capable of, effectively impacting the economic, cultural and, ultimately, familial forces that actually determine one’s foundational development and classroom success.
It’s worth noting that children are in our learning spaces for only a third of each day and only 180 days a year. We face an inconvenient truth: the skills needed for academic growth are due almost exclusively to causes and forces outside of school.
Additionally, as these topics become more ingrained into the daily life of our classrooms, hallways, and playing fields, teachers, students, and staff are expected to take sides about what to do. Although many choose to openly state their thoughts, many others choose not to for fear of being labeled or ostracized. What happens? Voices go silent, a troubling irony considering that, of all our public institutions, schools should be a go-to location in which the open exchange of ideas is both guaranteed and freely practiced.
So how can we move our schools to a place where their obligation to engage all students in rigorous learning is well understood and attainable?
First, schools should make it unequivocally clear that their foremost purpose is to provide for and support the exploration of academic knowledge. Additionally, schools should make it clear that the study of knowledge — sharing, exploring, questioning, evaluating, and absorbing it — occurs fundamentally between teacher and student and primarily in the classroom, a school’s “sacred space.” It’s in the classroom where we celebrate the world of ideas, which are infinite in their content, diverse in their meaning, always present, and, if shared in a dynamic and open way, endlessly fascinating and impactful for all students, regardless of life plans or professional aspirations.
Second, treat every person who enters a school, and especially its students, as individuals first. See them as possessing a free and open mind, always capable of academic growth and personal improvement. Promote a mindset that prioritizes the individual over, but not exclusive of, the group.
Third, honor that we all naturally identify with others. Our group affiliations are linked by many attributes — personality, class, culture, race, geography, language, hobbies, shared histories, etc. Yes, belonging to a group is an essential element of our humanity. It brings us happiness and a sense of being part of something greater than ourselves. But group identity is a complex formulation, and it should therefore be up to the individual student to freely decide with whom they choose to associate.
Fourth, require school administrators to teach with at least some regularity. Theoretically, members of a school’s leadership went into education because they liked young people, were highly knowledgeable about a specific subject and enjoyed the unique opportunities that a classroom affords. If we agree that a classroom is at the core of one’s learning experience, then school leaders (superintendent, principal, director of instruction, etc.) should be there too, actively demonstrating their love of teaching, modeling best pedagogical practices and participating directly in the growth of students and faculty. They will be better informed and more effective at prioritizing learning as a result.
Fifth, hire teachers who, in addition to their proven scholarly interest, are well rounded and highly capable. Search out those who believe in the common good; who support fundamental democratic values — equality, the rule of law, free speech, etc.; who endorse a diverse and upwardly mobile society; who are compassionate team players and socially confident. Find these individuals and then free them up to focus on delivering the greatest instructional and personal impact on the academic journey of all children.
Let’s uncouple our schools from those issues over which they have little to no reasonable control nor the essential skills or training to address. Instead, allow our schools to be places where focused and comprehensive learning is the top priority.
Our young people and our society will benefit and thrive as a result.
Mark Collins taught studio art and AP art history at OPRF High School for 26 years, retiring this past June. He is a longtime resident of Evanston.