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Mission Impossible

As a Chesterfielder, perhaps I should mind my own business, but I'll take the risk. In the battle over how Richmonders choose their school board, both sides are focusing on the wrong question.

Whether local school boards are directly elected, appointed by another body, anointed by a cabal of community leaders or chosen by lot, progress will be slow as long each locality has a single school board charged with overseeing K-12 education.

The reason? There's no such thing as K-12 education.

America's tradition of lumping primary, elementary, middle and high school together under one system made questionable sense when we were a slower-paced, less diverse society with no serious global competition. Today, it makes no sense at all.

It's a question of mission.

Try this thought experiment: Ask a few friends and try drafting a clear, specific mission statement for a school system serving young people between the ages of 5 and 18. Even if you omit the kids with special challenges, you won't be able to do it without resorting to the sort of uplifting, hopelessly vague jargon we've come to expect from educators.

Not that I blame the educators. I've been one. Two decades ago, after seven years teaching history at Midlothian High School, I spent three years at U.Va.'s Curry School pursuing a Ph.D. in educational leadership. I left before writing my dissertation, largely because I'd come to understand the intractable problem with our schools.

In America, this is no consensus about what we want our schools to do.

No mission.

Which is probably why frustrated politicians -- who generally know nothing about classroom reality — have dreamed up such phenomenally misguided policies as Virginia's Standards of Learning and the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Unable to define the mission of K-12 public schools, they have defaulted to a bunch of fill-in-the-dots tests.

Now, in part, this confusion over mission is inevitable. Public schools serve an incredible variety of competing constituencies:

  • Some parents want the schools to prepare their children for Harvard, while others see them as free day care.

  • Business and industry want schools to inculcate the attitudes, values and skills that will produce the next generation of employees — and consumers.

  • Law enforcement and juvenile courts want schools to keep troublesome youth off the streets.

  • Various social, political, religious and health lobbies seek to use schools to promote their agendas — from sexual abstinence and "Just Say No" to environmental activism. Or to provide hot breakfasts; monitor vaccinations; teach teenagers to drive; and provide "educational" services to unfortunate youngsters who are not, in any meaningful sense, educable.

    But setting aside these competing constituencies, our public schools would face an impossible challenge because they serve two vastly different categories of youngster — children and adolescents.

    As every sensible adult knows, children and teenagers are like caterpillars and butterflies. (Perhaps in reverse order.) If you didn't know they belonged to the same species, you'd never suspect it.

    But while we have long separated the governance of our K-12 schools from that of our colleges and universities, we somehow fail to question the assumption that one mission statement could embrace the incompatible challenges of educating children and adolescents.

    It can't. And since it can't, perhaps we should stop attempting the impossible and take steps to divide elementary and secondary schools into two entirely separate systems — each with its own governance, administration and funding source.

    Each with its own school board.

    Our elementary schools, which evolved from the township schools of Puritan New England, were originally designed to teach basic skills — the "three R's" — and to instill civic virtues such as honesty, industry and obedience to authority.

    They were nicely adapted to the tasks of childhood. Teaching the basics. Inculcating values on which nearly all Americans agree — courtesy, sharing, taking turns, etc. Bringing together children of diverse backgrounds to learn from, and about, each other at an age when their differences are not yet too dramatic.

    Common things.

    Four centuries later, most Americans still expect their elementary schools to teach these common things. Thus, while no simple matter, devising a clear mission statement for a system of elementary schools is at least a realistic possibility.

    Our secondary schools are another matter. Dating from the progressive era, public high schools were modeled on the state schools of Bismarck's Prussia. Like the Prussian schools, they focused from the first on preparing adolescents for the world of work.

    In recent decades, this career emphasis has responded to growing demands for a college-educated workforce. As a result, our secondary schools place increasing emphasis on preparing students for universities — too often at the expense of teenagers whose career interests don't involve academic training.

    That said, middle and high schools remain focused — directly or indirectly — on preparing teenagers to find their places in a complex, competitive society; helping them define their personal values; and supporting their exploration of different educational and career paths.

    In other words, while elementary schools focus on common things, secondary education involves guiding adolescents through the process of defining themselves as unique individuals. A different mission, requiring a distinctly separate school system.

    By separating elementary and secondary education, Virginia could hold elementary schools accountable for carrying out their essential function — ensuring that every child learns to read, write and calculate before moving on to secondary school.

    A separate secondary system could focus on meeting the needs of adolescents with divergent interests and aptitudes — including a greater focus on students not headed for college.

    It could also — and this is vital — do more at a regional level, cooperating with other localities to create small, focused schools for teenagers with specialized career goals.

    However we choose our school boards, this is the question.

    It's time Virginia localities had two school boards, reflecting the radically different missions of elementary and secondary education. S

    'Rick Gray writes a column for Chester's Village News. He is a former high-school teacher and assistant principal, attorney and secretary of the commonwealth of Virginia.

    Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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