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What if Schools Weren't Schools Anymore?

Schools could become community centers, and diplomas could give way to official citizenship.

Everybody has big ideas about how to fix education in the United States, but it seems like the reform conversation eventually comes back to one thing: How can we make schools better so we can churn out a more highly educated workforce that will ensure our global economic dominance continues? No one wants the American economy to fail, but what if the point of school isn’t cranking out degreed workers that will help us beat China? What if the key to transforming education relies on upending our individualistic, market-driven ideas about the purpose of school?

In late February, I was one of 20 participants at an intense consultative session in which we worked to come up with a revolutionary vision for public education. Hosted by the Insight Labs, a Chicago-based pro bono strategy development platform that's been described as "the love child of a think tank and a flash mob for good," the session has inspired a manifesto that poses this radical concept: "School isn't school. It is the birthplace of the citizen ideal."

Seen through this lens, school is a place where people "learn to live a life of selfless service on behalf of the community; it's where we find the path to virtue, subordinating innate self-interest as individuals to the interests of the community, the good of the whole."

If it sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, think about the alternative. Students aren't exactly breaking down the classroom door to learn disconnected facts that they'll regurgitate onto standardized tests. Too many are bored, only jumping through the hoop of education because employers use degrees as screening tools.

The lack of purpose—think of all the times you asked a teacher "what am I ever going to use this for?"—gives students little incentive to not drop out. If students do graduate high school and college, too many don't know what they want to do with the rest of their lives because they've never had to apply what they're learning to the challenges facing the world. That could all change if students, parents, educators, businesses, government institutions, and nonprofit organizations all came together to make school a place that ultimately serves as a community-wide resource.

In this vision, schools would become hyper-local. The school community could, for example, collectively decide what neighborhood problems need solving. Students would then use their their creative and critical thinking abilities, as well as their academic skills, to tackle real-world issues like the dropout rate or homelessness. Then, when graduation day rolls around, a student wouldn't just get a piece of paper signaling that she's employable. Instead, upon completing formal schooling, "the highest possible title in a free society is conferred upon us: citizen."

Of course, an idea like this only improves—or becomes a reality—when the community weighs in on it. Whether you love or hate this vision, Insight Labs wants your feedback.

Photo via (cc Flickr user Satoru Kikuchi

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