The first questions that are asked in any teacher training program — or should be — are, ‘What is the purpose of education? What is the mandate of schools? What do we expect that they will do for our children? And lastly, who is education for?’ Unless these questions are answered, the entire educational system will be an inequitable, rudderless ship, full of busy work for the achievers, and baby-sitting for the strugglers.
Let’s tackle the last question first, because it is the bedrock basis for this soul-searching. Who is education for? For everybody. Every child. Every child is educable. At this point, it is important to stress that education is not academics; education is learning. Academics would be part of learning, a subset, if you will. Most children need an academic education; all children need to learn.
What, then, is the purpose of education? Simple. To make the child as independent as possible. Now we need to define what independent means. It means different things for different students. As a special education teacher, it is a question that particularly impacts the demographic of students I work with. Independence for a child with IQ below 70 would be different from independence for a student with a higher IQ.
For students with lower IQs, independence would be to have and master as many life skills as possible in order to live as independently as possible as an adult. Life skills would include basic academics — some literacy and arithmetic, along with the very important and necessary skills of shopping, navigating public transport, balancing a check book, telling time, following instructions, resolving conflicts, asking for help, appropriate social behaviors and relationships, etc.
For students with higher abilities who can handle a more rigorous curriculum, the purpose of a school education would be to prepare them for employment or college. It certainly implies an academic education, of varying rigor, along with all the life skills mentioned above, and vocational skills, if necessary.
This, then, is why we send our kids to school. This is the mandate of schools, what parents expect that schools will do for their kids – that schools will produce capable adult citizens, with the necessary skills to contribute to society to the extent that they can.
When students graduate from high school, they should be prepared for one of three paths in life — independence, job (vocational career) or higher education (college). Each of these paths requires a different thrust. Schools have to take the needs of all students into consideration when deciding placement and curriculum. One size does not fit all.
Until we ask these foundational questions of ourselves, as a system, education will continue to be the haphazard exercise that it is now.