The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Public School Goals Often in Conflict" by The Detroit News, 12/26/96.

Original Title:
Public Education's Unseen Problem
by Barry McGhan

Americans want many things for their children, and public schools try to meet these needs and desires. Sometimes, this leads to confusion, mistakes, and criticism. Are public schools really not doing a good job, or are we just expecting too much? Are we asking a perfectly adequate 19th Century institution to cope with late 20th Century problems? This would be like asking Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders to go up against Saddam Hussein.

Consider two recent headline-making cases: the six year old boy in North Carolina punished for kissing a classmate, and the middle school girl in Ohio suspended for giving a Midol tablet to a classmate. Many people probably felt that these two cases were silly overreactions on the part of school officials. The parents in both cases have threatened to sue the districts. The educators involved certainly took a lot of media heat for misjudgment, and adjustments will no doubt be made.

Dealing with sexual harassment and drug abuse weren't always the concerns of public education. You can expect to see more of these kinds of mistakes by schools as society continues to add to educators' list of responsibilities. That's partly because they always have two ways to go wrong with rules made for new situations. They can be too tough, or too lax. Either way you can wind up in court. In the two cases above they were judged to be too tough. But, in a recent California case educators were judged to be too lax. The courts awarded $500,000 to a girl's family because her school didn't protect her from harassment. School districts, no doubt, look like easy marks--weak defendants with deep pockets. This makes educators nervous, and nervous people make mistakes.

Let's look at two other headline-making examples. Take the recent complaints that (1) teachers are under-qualified for their work, and (2) that scads of Michigan students can't pass new state tests. These problems should be understood in relation to two main school goals that are often in conflict.

One of these goals is instructional--to teach students things they need to know, both academic and social. The other is custodial--to keep kids off the street. Some might argue that the custodial goal is really a secondary one, but a look at some facts suggests that it is probably at least as important as instruction.

First, public education is--by law--compulsory, so the school's custody seems to be a goal in its own right. You won't get into trouble with the law if your child is in school and failing, but you will if your child isn't in school at all. Also, studies of 19th century compulsory education legislation reveal that an important motive for it was to get child laborers out of urban workplaces so that unions could grow. It became the schools' job to keep young kids safely off the streets so that social reformers of the time wouldn't complain.

The prominence of the custodial goal of schools also explains why there are under-qualified teachers in our classrooms. It isn't what students learn that's so important, it's that some adult has to be in custody of them, and any warm body will do.

Many people seem to believe the custodial goal works against the instructional one. Research by the Public Agenda Foundation has found that most people feel public schools are out of control and need to eliminate disruptive students. Small wonder that vouchers allowing parents to send kids to private schools seem to be so popular. Private schools are not required to meet the custodial goal for every child. They can easily eliminate uncooperative students and thus focus more effectively on instruction.

These are hard times for public educators. Modern society requires them to meet a growing array of new needs, with little appreciation of, or support for, the added burden. Schools bend over backward to fulfill the custodial goal society requires. They keep disruptive students in school. When schools get crowded, they offer classes in closets and cafeterias and other places not conducive to learning. Do they get any credit for fulfilling this custodial goal? Hardly. Instead, when test scores fall they get hammered for not doing a better job of achieving the (arguably) lesser instructional goal. Under these circumstances, my advice--to paraphrase a Willie Nelson song--is "Mammas, don't let your babies grow up to be teachers."

Maybe we need to re-think the goals our society has for education--throw out a few, scale down some others, and generally clean up our expectations for schools' performance. Then, educators might have a better chance than a snowball in July of accomplishing what we want.


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