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Problems With the Concept of School

It is a natural human tendency to accept as normal most aspects of the society that one is born in. This is a positive thing in many respects. Human beings, after all, have demonstrated over time a remarkable capacity to adapt to a wide variety of settings and circumstances. We do this essentially without even thinking about it, beginning virtually on the day that we are born. It can also cause us, however, to both think and do things without asking if our behavior makes any sense. We often buy things that we do not really need, believe in things that we actually know very little about, and accept our society’s techniques for getting things done in a certain way without much questioning.

To modern Americans, going to school is both an inevitable and perfectly natural stage in the human experience. Going to school is as natural for a child as learning to walk, becoming potty trained, or discovering the joys of consuming food with a high sugar content. As a history teacher, however, I am well aware of the fact that school as we define it is a pretty modern human invention. Schools in some form or another have been around for thousands of years, but the overwhelming majority of human beings in both civilized and non-civilized societies did not attend them. And yet, somehow, people learned the things that they needed to survive in their particular society.

I cannot deny that schools perform some very important functions in modern society. For one thing, public schools are excellent baby-sitting institutions. This is an essential function when parents are required to leave home to go to work. Schools also socialize our kids, teaching them basic rules for how people in our culture are supposed to interact with others. I always laugh (inside) when people complain that schools no longer teach values. (What they are often complaining about is the lack of religion in schools.) Teaching has always been about teaching values: don’t cheat, don’t hit your neighbor, obey authority figures, perform tasks on a schedule, etc. It also prepares kids for functioning in the world of work, a world in which their day-to-day reality will require them to obey authority figures, live by the clock, and focus for many hours on tasks that are not necessarily fun. Finally, schools also, unfortunately, play the role of ranking people in society. Through the process of handing out grades and issuing standardized tests, schools separate people into academic categories. These categories may be officially defined by terms such as advanced, intermediate, and remedial, but what is essentially happening is a subdivision between the academic “winners” and “losers.” Students are then prepared for the competitive world they will face as adults, and society gets to pick out the individuals who will most successfully fill the high skill level, high status occupations.

If people stop and think about it, almost everyone would agree that the tasks mentioned in the preceding paragraph are important functions of schools. However, if you ask people why we have schools, their first answer most likely will have something to do with helping kids learn. And when they say learn, they are not talking about socialization. They are most likely talking about academic learning, such as Reading, Math, Writing, and, sometimes, even Science and History. (Sorry, I mean “social studies.”) And since most Americans went through some type of school system, we assume that schools are the natural place for kids to absorb all of this information.

Having spent years working in schools, I have come to the conclusion that schools as academic institutions have some serious flaws. Schools may be effective tools for socialization, baby sitting, and ranking people in society, but they are not set up in a way that is necessarily conducive to academic learning. Having made this statement, I can imagine different reactions that people might have. Some might wonder why a person who thinks that schools do not really work would be working as a teacher. Some might think that I am just another jaded educator frustrated by years of failure who is looking for something or someone other than myself to blame. I suspect that many, however, would be dumbfounded by a statement like this. After all, where else could a person learn vital information other than a school?

In order to avoid being labeled as a frustrated educator counting down days to the next vacation, I better support my argument that the American concept of school is fundamentally flawed. To make my case, I will start by going back in time to societies in which few or sometimes none of the people spent any time in school. Schools were rare or non-existent, but few would doubt that education took place. But how did people learn anything? The answer, of course, is pretty simple: people learned things on a one-on-one basis. If you lived in a hunting and gathering society, you would learn basic survival skills from the elder members of the clan. If your parents were farmers, you would learn agricultural skills from your parents. People who went into manufacturing trained for several years as a journeyman and apprentice under a master craftsman. A person pursuing a more “academic” career field would often work under a private tutor.

This one-on-one system of learning had several advantages. First, students were able to learn things at their own pace and receive instruction specifically designed to meet their particular needs. These lessons could also be adapted somewhat to appeal to an individual’s learning style. Second, people typically learned skills by doing things, not by simply having a person or book impart information to them. Finally, a student often would get the undivided attention of the person instructing them. School as it is traditionally defined, of course, cannot replicate this experience. Students are expected to move at a pace dictated by the teacher or by some standardized guideline defining what a student at a certain grade level is supposed to be doing. They often sit “passively” while the teacher instructs them and are forced to work with a teacher who is unable to focus on any individual for a significant length of time.

When I look back at the many education courses I have taken and seminars I have attended over the years, I recognize how well aware many educators are of the inherent weaknesses of schools. They talk about the importance of individualized instruction, of active learning techniques, and of small class sizes. While I applaud these efforts, I am also struck by a simple fact: these “modern” teaching techniques and reform efforts are simply trying to recreate on some level the educational experiences of people who lived in the days before schools were common. And since schools can never fully replicate these experiences, why do we continue to use the modern school model?

Some people have decided to move away from the school model. Millions of Americans have chosen to home school their kids, and from talking to people I know who have made this choice, home schooling has taken on the qualities of a political movement. My wife and I, after strongly considering home schooling for some time, have finally decided to take the plunge with our youngest daughter. Then, after trying this for the remainder of the school year, we will look back and decide what to do with both kids next year. I hate to say it, but my reasons for keeping my kids in traditional schools until this time have little to do with education. I continue to have this nagging sense that school is important for the development of my kids’ social skills. There is also the more selfish desire to have a little more time to myself than would be possible with home schooling. Under the right circumstances, however, I think that the home school model is more effective academically than traditional schools.

For many Americans, however, the circumstances are not right for home schooling. Many parents, of course, cannot devote the time necessary for home schooling because they are working full-time. Other parents do not have an academic background that qualifies them to teach their kids. In the past, when teachers primarily educated their kids, all that was required was a knowledge of their child’s future occupation. Given the explosion of information that has taken place, particularly over the past 125 years, it is almost impossible to have even a basic knowledge of the many specialized fields that we assume are a part of a well rounded education. Many kids, of course, have parents who lack basic English speaking skills. Some kids have no parents in their lives at all.

Schools, then, are the only practical option for many of the kids in our society. So if we are stuck with schools, then people like me should stop complaining about their weaknesses and make the most of the situation. And as I mentioned earlier, it is no secret what needs to be done. Nearly everyone agrees that it is a good idea to give students more freedom to move at their own pace, incorporate active learning strategies like cooperative learning, use portfolios to provide a more comprehensive assessment of student progress, and utilize a variety of teaching strategies to appeal to different learning styles.

The basic problem is that it is very difficult to incorporate these strategies in a classroom with between 30-40 (and sometimes 50) students at a time. It is difficult to assign portfolios and various projects because there will be so many things to grade. Coming up with assignments that are adapted to individual student needs becomes increasingly difficult as the class size grows. Creative, cooperative learning exercises can easily turn into mass chaos in a classroom with lots of students. I know from past experience as a junior high and high school teacher that I was often scared to experiment with more interactive teaching activities because of classroom management concerns. Anyone who has ever worked with children, or even young adults, knows that classroom management often becomes a bigger concern in lesson planning than academic effectiveness. At the college level, some of these problems become even more daunting. My classes generally range from 45 to 140 students. How can a college professor individualize instruction when working with so many individuals at a time? How elaborate can student projects be when the teacher wants to have some semblance of a life beyond grading papers? It is no wonder that we college teachers so often fall back on traditional education models and give out multiple choice tests.

The answers, then, seem simple: keep class sizes low so that teachers can then utilize educational techniques that research has shown are effective. This is why there has been a big push, particularly for students in the early grades, to cap class sizes at twenty students. So why not do this at all grade levels? The answer is once again simple: money. It costs far less to pay one teacher to teach 40 students than two teachers to teach 20. And since most American students attend public schools, the money issue is essentially a political issue.

Explanations for why schools cannot provide enough money to maintain small classes vary depending on one’s political ideology. Many democrats would argue that schools are not funded enough. They might also throw in some of the stereotypical “bleeding heart” liberal statements about our society not valuing the education of children enough because we apparently have other priorities. A conservative republican, on the other hand, would argue that the lack of money is more of a problem of mismanagement than it is a lack of funds. This is a part of their general argument that the government as a general rule spends money foolishly and inefficiently. Why should they spend money wisely in an attempt to provide a quality service if they are going to be paid through tax dollars whether they perform well or not? This is why conservatives are often supportive of school voucher programs which will give individual citizens money to spend on the school of their choice. If schools are forced to compete, they will provide a better service.

I am tempted at this point to pour myself into research to find out how well schools are actually funded or how successful school voucher programs have been in places where they have already been implemented. I know, however, the extent to which statistics can be manipulated to make a certain argument. I also know that I will probably end up in the same place where I fall on all controversial issues: somewhere in the middle. Like democrats, I do not think that education in our society is as high of a priority as it should be. So much of what both the government and individual citizens prioritize in our society seem wasteful in comparison to education. However, I also sympathize with the frustration republicans feel toward American public education. Too much money often goes into administration rather than education, and both teachers and schools are often not held accountable for their poor performance.

Too often, however, the wrath of the general public is directed toward teachers. In some cases, this may be deserved. But before people start yelling and screaming about teachers, they need to look at the setting in which a teacher is expected to operate. What is remarkable is that there are so many teachers out there who are often able to be effective in a classroom where they are almost set up to fail. Of course, there are probably more who are unable to find this level of success. A large number of teachers end up leaving the profession after a very short time. Others start with high hopes and eventually get burned out, but stay on the job, learning to lower the expectations that they have of their students and themselves. Virtually every student in this country has probably had a teacher who seemed to have stopped trying years before, but he or she kept teaching either because they could not think of anything else to do or because they liked the vacation time.

This may sound overly optimistic, but I tend to think that most of the people who go into teaching genuinely want to do something positive in their student’s lives. Not all of them are extremely talented, and some would probably be better suited for something else. But these teachers of average talent whose heart is in the right place would generally be successful if provided with the proper resources and classroom environment. Teaching in a school setting is a challenge under the best circumstances. It is almost impossible in some of the situations that our society throws teachers into. I don’t know if this is the fault of politicians, school administrators, or the general public. When a teacher is standing in front of a big group of students, it doesn’t really matter. I would love to see some of our society’s teacher bashers stand up there and try to do better.


  1. I agree with you about education on so many levels! I applaud your recognition of the fact that teachers have to deal with so much. Because I am a high school teacher I suppose I relate more but seriously, I am often amazed at the fact that students are able to learn with so many distractions and that teachers are able to teach with so many students. In what other profession are you expected to have five plus years of education, be given an oversurplus of students, many (half or more) who do not speak English at home, another half or more who have learning disablities (including ADHD and forms of autism), students who do not bring materials to school or even show up regularly, many students who hate you just for existing and trying to teach them, and then are criticized for not performing well enough when students do not exceed expectations on test scores?

    I also am in full support of home schooling. I wish we were able to do it. Andy

  2. We know a number of home school kids - they do well academically overall. One of my friend in medical school was a home school student up until he entered college

  3. I just read both posts and found each interesting and insightful. I look forward to reading more and finding out how the homeschooling works for you. Wishing you all the best!

  4. I agree with you about the concept of home schooling. If I had primary custody of Hannah and time do so I would prefer to home school her giving her the opportunity to learn through the love of learning and at her own pace. This is highly preferential than to meet standards that not every child is ready to meet. When I went through the Master's in Educational Administration program to get my M.S. I saw so many better ways to run schools. It is sad to me what we have done to make learning more about politics and less about what is best for all our children.

  5. Paul, thanks for another well written article. Keep them coming.


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