What is the Purpose of School?

Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.  We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.

- Obama’s State of the Union Address

What is the purpose of school?

Many, like Obama, look at schools as a place where children go to gain skills to enter the workforce–which is of course true to a certain extent. Please do not get me wrong, I definitely agree that if a student aspires to be a doctor, teacher, lawyer, accountant, or simply just enter the workforce, schools should absolutely be providing basic skills allowing them to do so.

Our nation has put great emphasis into science and mathematics, offering more money to teachers who want to teach in the Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) field in high-need schools. Again, all which I believe are  important, but why is there no incentive for educators who want to teach our future generations how to actively and effectively participate as citizens? Why has it become increasingly rare for schools to have civic education classes? And, even as much as I do not support standardized testing, why is Civics Education Testing only required in 9 states for high school graduation?

Some concrete answers from Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE):

The shift away from civic education over the past decade can be partially attributed to federal policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. According to CIRCLE, recent research suggests states have shifted educational resources away from social studies toward subjects that appear on statewide assessments.

“Social studies courses such as history, civics, and economics provide students with the necessary civic skills and knowledge to be effective 21st century citizens,” the report concludes. “However, since the passage of No Child Left Behind, many states have shifted focus away from social studies and have dramatically reduced the number of social studies assessments.”

As many know, I have various problems and critiques on our current idea of “school,” such as the lack of emphasis on arts, overemphasis on testing, attacks on teacher, lack of opportunities to teach creative and critical thinking–just to name a few–but more and more am I recognizing another damaging void in our schools: teaching our students their importance and role in their community, and making sure they graduate from their K-12 education knowing all the possible tools they can use to change it.

Civic education lessons and skills aren’t on mandated standardized tests. Therefore, these skills won’t get their school more funding. In other words, unless the school and their “leaders” as a whole genuinely believe in civic education’s importance, it would be rare for such lessons to ever be taught.

Of course I recognize the phenomenal educators who integrate such lessons into their curriculum. I hope to become an educator who can do the same. But, just as equally, there are educators out there who are not doing this. And, evidently, our nation is not being held accountable or responsible for mandating schools provide such lessons.

Now, how does this all tie into social inequality?

One of the main reasons why I find this appalling is because of the greater impact this has on students in less privileged areas.

Our students with lower socioeconomic statuses are more likely to be forced into attending a poorly funded school. Even further, they are burdened with more pressure to pass state tests, or their school loses even more funding or gets shut down–implementing civic education becomes less and less of a priority, especially for teachers who could additionally have their jobs on the line. While students in more affluent communities have the budget to afford electives such as civic education, and teachers are under less scrutiny, there is more opportunity for such students to gain a better understanding of how they can become civically engaged. As a 2008 study done by Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) found:

…the CNCS study (2008) found that schools that are located in lower-income areas were significantly less likely to offer service learning than more affluent schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.  According to CNCS’s survey of school principals, the challenges in implementing service-learning are related to other priorities that schools have to deal with (e.g., academic requirements, standardized test scores), lack of funding and other resources, lack of professional development opportunities to learn about service-learning, and a lack of awareness about policies encouraging service-learning in schools.  The schools with lower funding and resources are more likely to face these challenges than more affluent schools.

In essence, our most oppressed populations are given less of the opportunity to attain the skills to challenge their oppressors. Our youth who deserve better, and forced to endure the pit of inequalities, are being deprived of the chance to understand the power they all withhold to demand justice. Rather, our nation’s education “leaders” would rather they simply attain workforce skills to boost the economy, nothing more.

But even outside the differences between socioeconomic statuses, starving our youth as a whole of civic education contributes to the perpetuation of their perceived “apathy.” Many older generations believe our youth don’t care–I’m sure they do, they may just not have the same knowledge and tools to convey it. Additionally, while our schools want to mandate volunteer work as graduation requirements, there tends to be a steel wall preventing students from understanding its connection to government and politics. They get excited helping out in the community such as soup kitchens, but from my experience, they rarely get asked–why does one of the wealthiest countries in the world even need a soup kitchen? How does our nation allow for such a great deal of our population to live below the poverty line? And the even greater question, did you know there is even greater impact you can make outside of simply volunteering?

Last week I had an incredible opportunity to join a dinner with E.J. Dionne. Me and other civic education focused guests raised a lot of question, but one sticks out particularly. Someone asked, “Rather than volunteering, why not also make it a requirement for students to look at issues in their communities and\or schools, then organize action(s)\campaign(s) to change them?”

Imagine if students across the country all left their K-12 education having the experience of bringing concrete change(s) to their community. Even if they didn’t succeed, skills such as knowing how to initially approach issues, and recognizing the importance of working with others would be irreplaceable. Such skills would be applicable for the rest of their lives.

Undoubtedly, the belief of school’s purpose varies widely across the board. Yet,  rarely do I find advocates for saving civic education.

I think it’s time to change that.

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Stephanie Rivera

Stephanie Rivera is a student at Rutgers University. She is a future teacher and educational equity activist.