Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why schools matter

I've just completed my second day as a student teacher in a world history class in a Detroit-area high school. The kids haven't arrived yet - we've been having in-services (faculty meetings and professional development) and setting up our classrooms. But I am enjoying the job so far and am excited to start teaching.

The in-services have been interesting. I have read a great deal about education policy and the state of America's schools, but this is the first time I've sat in one of those schools, learned about the specific challenges it faces, and heard an administration and faculty propose ideas about how to deal with those challenges and improve student achievement.

The study of education in the abstract can sometimes seem dull, and the study of education policy can leave one with a feeling of hopelessness - a sense that the obstacles to positive change are countless and insurmountable. But the fact is that there are steps that can be taken at every level - the levels of national policy, state policy, local policy, district administration, school administration, and individual classrooms - to improve schools in ways large and small. And we must do so. The alternative is to continue to let millions of children fall through society's cracks and grow up functionally illiterate, impoverished, or incarcerated. We must work at saving as many minds (and lives) as possible by doing everything we can - each in our own ways and according to our own vocation - to reach kids who are at risk of failing in school and dropping out, and to encourage kids that are not at-risk to take ownership of their education, to take their education seriously.

The work of educators matters in so many ways. The level of talent, effort, and care a single teacher or administrator brings to his or her job every day can make the difference between a fulfilled, flourishing life and a life of hopelessness for many of the kids they teach.

Whether a student succeeds or fails in school will have ripple effects throughout that student's life. That student's success or failure will affect the success or failure of his or her children; it will affect the happiness of the student and his or her current and future family; and it will, in subtle but serious ways, affect the well-being and prosperity of the student's community.

I believe in the importance of self-education, but I also understand that the work of K-16 schools (kindergarten through college) plays a critical role in shaping students, families, and communities. Schools are where we can reach people when it matters most in their development. Schools are where we can send the message that learning matters, that the arts are valuable, that reading is worthwhile, that the world is filled with economic and educational opportunities, that success and achievement in modern society is worth the effort, that the success of a democracy depends upon informed political engagement, and that knowledge of history, science, mathematics, and literature matters to everyone, not just to specialists.

There is a great deal of difficult work to be done, and education policy is sometimes a messy tangle of statistics, acronyms, and dead-ends - but we cannot give up on discovering solutions, fighting for better funding for schools, and doing our small part to improve the educational infrastructure of our communities, because the work done in schools is critical to the human future.