What's the Purpose of School in the 21st Century?

Just as our classrooms have changed significantly since the 1800s, so have our ideas about the purpose of schools.

Consider some of the basic symbols of education in the United States: the textbook, the chalkboard, and the apple. Thanks to technological innovations and cultural forces, we’ve seen textbooks supplanted by videos and e-books, SMART Boards replace chalkboards, and the apple on the teacher’s desk pushed aside by the latest gadgets from, well, Apple.


Just as our classrooms have changed significantly since the 1800s, so have our ideas about the purpose of schools. Our views on education were defined by John Dewey's theory, which states—and I'm simplifying—that the general purpose of school is to transfer knowledge and prepare young people to participate in America’s democratic society.

But today's students live in a modern, global society that is interconnected as never before. As a result, Dewey's explanation of the purpose of schools now seems insular and inadequate. So in 2012, what is the purpose of schools?

I propose that the purpose of schools must be preparing children to compete in the global environment. As a nation, we are in direct contact and competition with countries around the globe in a way that was unthinkable just 10 years ago.

High-performing nations such as China, Finland, South Korea, and Singapore have joined the global supply chain. These nations' leaders realize the global economic playing field is changing, and in response, they're positioning their societies for success by emphasizing the development of 21st-century skills. These emerging nations are broadening their curricula, creating communicative, imaginative, tech-savvy, multilingual students who are prepared for jobs that do not yet exist. Likewise, educators are revered in these nations and an intense focus is placed on attracting the best and brightest to teaching.

Yet U.S. education efforts are moving in the opposite direction. Teachers have become scapegoats for the many systemic ills facing our education system. Instead of broadening, the curriculum seems to become more and more limited every year because of shrinking budgets and a single-minded emphasis on math and reading.

While our competition around the globe relentlessly focuses on improving their education systems, we here in the United States are not demonstrating seriousness of purpose about where we are headed. The vitriolic levels of partisanship that characterize our current education debate have sapped much of our will to consider long-term investments that would produce results beyond the current election cycle.

Yet, there is hope. Although our nation’s education debate is flawed, parents, educators, business leaders, and policymakers are talking about the issues—and my education leadership organization, ASCD, is a key part of this conversation on improving education.

Here’s what we're telling the world: We know that there is one education reform movement that works, and unsurprisingly, it's the same formula that has worked since we had those old textbooks, chalkboards, and red apples in the classroom. Research, policy, practice, and common sense confirm that a whole-child approach to education will develop and prepare students for the challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow.

A whole-child approach is the belief that each student in each classroom should be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. As parents, educators, and community members, we have the knowledge, skill, and ability to meet these challenges and share our strengths. ASCD is leading the movement from envisioning a whole-child approach toward implementing those ideas and making them reality.

I believe the first step toward educating the whole child is to support the whole educator, which is what our work at ASCD strives to do. In our coming monthly columns for GOOD, you'll hear from ASCD experts—including our staff, authors, and members—on how to support whole educators and the whole child. So stay tuned. Together, we can ensure that each child in each classroom is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Corey Leopold

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