What Is School For? (by Guest Blogger Krista Bartley)

What is school for?

It seems like a simple question.  When asked, people will most likely give an answer like, “to give children an education” or “to help children grow up to become competent adults,” but what do those
really mean?  Does a competent adult think critically, ask questions, challenge paradigms, or simply show up for work on time every day?

One could argue that our system of compulsory education, from the beginning, has not been about raising dynamic, critical, and innovative thinkers, it has been to raise the next generation of good, obedient workers.  To maintain the status quo, the powers that be need a steady stream of skilled, competent, and obedient workers who are willing to work as hard as they are told to for whatever compensation is deemed adequate.  Without this base of productivity, the status quo would be severely compromised.
What is the role of charter schools?

Could charter schools be used to fine­tune this system?   The last decade has seen a boom of charter schools all across the nation that shows no signs of slowing any time soon.  Charter schools, seen as the savior of a seemingly disgraced public school system, provide parents with a choice of how their child is educated and offer many benefits to their students that public schools cannot.  (We could get into why this is, but that is another blog post of its own!)  What they also offer are extremely tailored educations for specific populations of people, specifically African American children.  A Google search of “charter school segregation” turns up dozens of articles citing the fact that charter schools are more likely to be segregated by class and/or race than their public school counterparts.

In New York’s public school system, more than half of the city’s public charter schools are at least 90% black.  This raises many questions.

  • Are children in these schools receiving the same type of education, albeit in a different form, then their non­minority counterparts?
  • Where are all the non­ minority students?
  • How is schooling being used in this context?
  • How do we feel about it?

These are the questions we should be asking today when thinking about the future of education in America.


22 thoughts on “What Is School For? (by Guest Blogger Krista Bartley)

  1. Krista, I love that picture of your daughter! What a sweet love.

    The question posed in class – what is school for? – tripped me up this week. Of course, the immediate answer is “education!” But what are we educating for? In some of the readings, the authors bring up the idea that “education” means different things in each school and for minority students. There are basics that every student should learn – reading, writing, arithmetic – but are we teaching these children to also look and think outside of the box? Are we teaching them to explore the world and think about things in new ways, or encouraging them to see learning as an adventure that lasts a lifetime?

    I worry that in schools that are struggling, all of the focus is on bringing up test scores in the core areas and that we aren’t helping to nurture that natural curiosity that children come into the world with. Not only that, but that we are instead teaching children to resent what they are learning because the focus isn’t on the joy of learning about where to place a semicolon, for example, but rather “if you can’t use it right, don’t use it at all.”

    Schools should be more than buildings that kids go to learn how to parrot their teacher or text. Schools should be places where children feel safe enough to explore the world, where critical thinking should be encouraged, where socialization takes place, and where students can make mistakes and learn from them.

    • First off, thank you so much for your thought provoking posts! Like Savannah, the question ‘What is school for?’ gave me pause. There are so many things that we all tick off (math, reading, writing, etc) so easily, but is this really the function of schools? If a student could succeed solely from learning these skills, why do we have so many dropouts and under performing students? What about the students that are completely capable of learning the subjects required but have a difficult home life that make it impossible to study and learn? Is school not also a place to learn how to interact with others, be responsible and respectful, and learn to overcome adversity? I like that you mentioned a focus on raising test scores; it brings in to question, if school is for so many different purposes, why do we not test for those things in students? Is it possible to test for social skills, responsibility, and problem solving skills as well as reading, writing, and math? Home life will obviously contribute to the success of a student in different areas, why do we not reward students for achievement in all of the things we require them to learn? Is this just adding to the further segregation between communities because we consistently focus on a set of topics that specific groups of people excel in, instead of looking at all of the possible talents an individual student might have?

  2. Krista,

    This seems like it gets turned into such a “black and white” issue. I was born of two hippies who would just say “why can’t we all just get along?” I have that same approach.

    I love the idea of charter schools because they are more nimble and able to make changes to curriculum quicker if something works or doesn’t work. They are able to test all sorts of theories for success.

    Where my hippy upbringing comes in is that I would hope that the charter schools would share that innovation with the greater public good/education. I think it is in everybody’s interest to have a critical thinking public, which I think is the purpose of schools, and it troubles me that there is a competition model in our public education model with the introduction of charter schools.

    If there was a requirement to share the successful innovations with the public schools I would be in full favor of charter schools but as I understand it that knowledge doesn’t get shared and that is a shame.


  3. In reponse to Krista and Savannah, I think that besides school being the educational place for children to learn and enjoy the fun of learning, we also need consider other factors that play their roles into the system, such as how to promote criical thinking skills as well as social skills among school children as described in Savannah’s comment above. However, I want to make couple more suggestions. First, I think motivated and frequent parent involvement with children about school work is essential in helping kids to succeed regardless of race, ethnity, culture,and family background, etc., because with pressure coming from parents, children are less likely to be lazy and be more responsible toward school work. Basically, we are making sure that the children are consistently occupied, so they are really learning and grasping on the concepts of what they learn. While facilitating the hardworking learning environment without turning kids away because of the stress, we can apply the charter school method of specifically tailored curriculum that fit the needs, and most importantly the interests of the children to traditional public schools, so they can keep pushing themselves to succeed with fervor, especially in today’s competitive market. In reponse to Krista’s question of where non minority students went, I think that we need to ask why minority groups coagulate in the first place. I hypothesize that minority society thinks that in order to raise their less fortunate children to the top, it needs to unite its people into a bigger group, which will presumably foster a very powerful organization to promote well being and success among its members, such as the NAACP. That’s probably why we only see mostly students of African descents in charter schools in New York. Of course, this is obviously a form of segregation in society, but I am not going into it, because we can start a completely new forum on talking about this topic. Thanks.

  4. We need to expand our definition of school as not just a place for students to learn reading writing and math. It need to be a place to learn critical thinking and how to be tolerant of other.

  5. Wen, I absolutely agree that parent involvement is one of the key components of student success. Since this type of involvement, for various reasons, is unattainable for some families, I think that quality after-school programs are essential.
    Your comment about minority students finding strength in groups makes sense. In fact, why wouldn’t a black parent want their child to attend a school whose focus is black students? As public schools in poor areas crumble under the weight of poverty, inadequate funding, and inappropriate expectations, it is no wonder that many communities of color have embraced the charter school solution. It is interesting that you brought up the NAACP, as they have been a staunch opponent of charter schools in the last few years, citing charter school’s extreme level of segregation and anti-public school rhetoric as causes for alarm. This issue has deeply divided many black communities, which is sad because they both want the same thing: a good education for their children.

  6. Hey Krista,
    I wanted to respond to this earlier but I had a hard time putting into words what I thought school is for. Overall, I think that the purpose of a public education is to provide the basis for an individual to live a successful life, from learning ABC’s to multiplication tables to socialization. After typing for quite a while about what that entails, however, I realized that as a white male I am horribly biased towards the power of culture’s vision of what a successful life entails: high school, college, a 9 to 5 job, 2.5 kids, retire to Sun City, etc. It has taken me a number of years to realize that this is not the yardstick that everybody judges a successful life to be. And therefore to these people the public school system is a prison. Parents wanting schools where children are challenged to be creative, expressive, individualistic, religious, to think outside the box or exhibit critical thinking have a hard time justifying sending their kids to a cookie cutter system that pumps out graduates that fit their vision of the future.
    That said, I think charter schools have the chance of allowing parents and students the opportunity to follow their own path towards what they have determined a successful life to be. The judges are still out on whether these schools are doing what they promise, and as we talked about in class the lack of overview of these schools may create bigger problems down the road. But I think there has to be an outlet in this free market society to allow freedom of choice when it comes to educational choices. We can buy 200 varieties of jelly but we only have one school choice?

    • BTW, here is an excellent Ted Talk by Ken Robinson where he talks about how a “standard” education can thoroughly stifle a child.

    • I would like to address you jelly comment briefly:
      There is not just one school choice. There are public and private schools as well as home-schooling. Public schools are the most obvious option though.

      And I think that you are right when you point out that there is a huge amount of creativity that can come in people being allowed to form charters and tailor the education that students will receive. A caution is that in the experimentation process there are kids whose educations are being tested.

      Finally, thank you for mentioning the goals that people have in mind when they consider education. Hopefully a public school system can provide both the training for students who are striving towards more “mainline” goals without neglecting to teach strong criticdal thinking and awareness.

      • Hey Matthew,
        You’re right, the jelly comparison was off-track. There are actually many education choices, but for the working poor that don’t have the money for private schools or the time for home schooling, public schools are often their sole choice.
        And I think we also have to remember that parents in Portland have many more choices than rural Oregon does, and I wonder whether charter schools would be successful outside of metropolitan areas.

  7. When it comes to a debate on education I think you do a wise thing in addressing our core assumptions about what school is for. That needs a clear definition if a debate is going to move forward.
    A question regarding your numbers: you said that “more than half of the city’s public charter schools are at least 90% black”. While this is a disproportionate number I think it is also worth considering if NYC public schools in general are majority minority students.

  8. While I believe that charter schools are good in theory, I have yet to see any astonishing conclusive evidence either way. That being said, I think that they should definitely be tested and proven to work or fail before I pass judgement. I am still technically a Washington resident and we have to vote on whether to have charter schools or not. I voted no because it would be taking away millions of dollars from the public schools pool to fund these charter schools. If we had private money going to start them to begin with, I’d be fine with that. But we’re already so low on school budgets and taking away money that isn’t there is going to severely and negatively affect our schools. Let’s concentrate on making public schools better before we take away their money.

    I did like Boone’s point though that charter schools have the ability to quickly change their curriculum, much quicker than public schools anyway. That is something that should be noted and fine tuned.


  9. Krista,

    I more than agree with you that our school system has basically turned into a drone-producing factory. Even looking back on my middle and high school career, it was just a lot of, “sit down, shut up, memorize and regurgitate,” there wasn’t a lot of critical or even imaginative thinking. This trend though, of schools just teaching kids to be obedient and stay within the lines of the system could be one of main reasons why perhaps we see so many kids falling behind and/or dropping out—we are in essence trying to fit a square into a circle; we are trying to fit a child into a cookie-cutter program for which they don’t fit.

    As far as charter schools though, based on what I will admit is the little I know, I think that they are doing a great thing for underprivileged children of our nation. It is easy for us to sit back, being white females both enrolled in college, to say that it’s “not fair” that charter schools seem to be centralized on helping minorities, namely as you say African Americans, but I say I think it will help us in the long run to help those who are struggling the most. I recently watched Waiting for Superman and yes, white people were the minority in the movie, but I think that may just go to say that the people who need the most help are the groups who have the most need, and in this movie it was African Americans and Hispanic Americans. This isn’t to say though that this movie is representative of all charter schools across the nation (which would be an interesting statistic to look into as far as composition). I figure why not give these kids, who have had a bleak outlook on life, whose parents have had a bleak outlook on life, a little leg up? I feel that if we can pull the kids who are struggling the most up to the average or even above the average then we should be able to raise our educational standards, probably slowly, but definitely to a higher quality.

    • I whole-heartedly agree that underprivileged children need more from our school system than many of them are currently receiving. I don’t blame these parents for wanting better things for their children and the charter schools seem to be a million times better than the public schools in some areas. What concerns me about charter schools in general is that, for one, they are taking money away from public schools that need it. Why not pour money into regular public schools and make them better? All of the great things that charter schools are doing for children would be able to be done at regular public schools if the funding went there instead. Unfortunately, the funding that charter schools receive in addition to public funds is from private entities. While that is not necessarily bad, it makes you wonder how the school is being run and who it is being held accountable to. Do we really want our public schools accountable to corporations? I know that in Louisiana a charter school law passed last year that allows corporate sponsorship of charter schools and gives the corporation control over half of the enrollment slots and half of the seats on the board of directors. This trend towards privatization of public schools is what scares me most.

  10. I just wanted to make a comment on the segregation of charter schools. This in itself is not a good practice to go by, however, charter schools do provide children with the education they need. I see more growth in charter schools then I see in public schools. We should capitalize on this and grow on it. The segregation should be minimized.

    • Danny, Can I ask what growth you see in charter schools? I’m not sure which end of the spectrum I fall on and I feel that I don’t have enough information to make an educated decision. I was wondering if you could expand on what you see as growth? Are there studies you’ve read or even personal experiences with charter schools and your kids? Or have you looked into charter schools with another avenue that contributed to your opinion? Thanks so much!

  11. What is the role of charter schools? This isn’t as easy a question to answer as one may think. Maybe it’s an idea to cultivate programs tailored for specific groups of students that may thrive with more focus on the aspects they need the most help in using the skills they excel in. On paper, it sounds amazing. In the real world? Maybe what we need to focus on are the students that enter the charter school lotteries. If there are so many minority students flocking to charters schools or being targeted by marketing campaigns for them, isn’t that yet another clue that our public school systems is failing very specific groups of students? I think it’s important to recognize this pattern and make conscious decisions to look into not just the ‘why is this is happening’ but also the ‘what can we do to work on this problem’. Often times we get caught up in determining the why. While this is very important to understanding the problem, not taking it further and trying new ideas defeats the purpose of knowing why. So, are charter schools the new idea that will fix all of our problems? Absolutely not. No one solution will fix everything so we need to stop expecting them too. If they don’t fix all of our problems, are they making a difference? I think they are a start but a start that poses even more problems: further segregation, a lottery system that ultimately allows only 3% of our students in to these schools, potentially larger gaps in learning between certain races and communities, etc. Not to sound cliché, but change is a good thing. Even if the change made doesn’t, in the end, work out, it allows for everyone to start thinking on a larger level, outside the norm. It allows for others to not be afraid to try other new things. So if charter schools offer a good idea but are causing more of the same issues, how do you think we can incorporate the good things it offers with what does work in the public school system? Do you think it’s possible to keep only the good things? And if so, how?

  12. Krista, I think this is such an interesting question. What is school for? I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea while tutoring at Portland Youth Builders, an alternative high school for 17-24-year-olds. The school is most definitely there to make the students more well-rounded individuals and to give them access to resources and opportunities. They do amazing work. However, they do spend a lot of time on GED prep and similar test prep. In fact, that’s a major portion of what I do as a tutor, I lead students through practice tests. And let me tell you, some of the questions on those tests are completely useless…and sometimes subjective. It’s hard to not let my collegey “let’s question everything” voice out when I see that one of these tests asks multiple choice questions about the mood and expression of a poem, a poem! The world’s most subjective and interpretable thing. Anyway, I don’t see why we’re still so focused on standardized tests and convinced that they tell us the intelligence and potential of a child or adult. I never realized, but looking back on it, a good bit of my education from first grade on was focused on testing well. And I think that sets up a strange system of pressure and performance that we don’t need our kids facing. School’s about socializing, problem solving, and yes, coming away with some basic knowledge. But it’s not about drilling information into kids to make them great bubblers-in.

  13. Krista, I really enjoyed reading your post: you bring up a lot of key points that I find highly fascinating and your questions really made me ponder this issue revolving around charter schools. I personally think the quality of education doesn’t entirely depend on the percentage of minorities there are or aren’t in a school–it depends purely on an individual family or student’s learning preference (well, among other things that I won’t get into right now).

    That being said, my question to you (or anyone else reading this post) is, regardless of inevitable racial divisions, is it really relevant how and where our children get an education, as long as all of the schools provide competent teachers, take care of basic logistics such as textbooks, and be as nondiscriminatory as possible? (Apologies for the long sentence).

  14. I did hear your point somewhere else some time ago, that schools were set up as a regiment to prepare us for the workplace regiment, and I was a mix of horrified and understanding. The horror was the feeling that the rest of my life before retirement was expected to be a certain way, a la Dilbert, and the understanding was from the mentality that the world is interconnected and I was supposed to fit in it in a certain way that was based on a history of “what got things done.” I suppose, in a less populated world where the bright people sprouted where they did when they did was enough to make life good for everyone, this system worked to settle individuals into a place in the world, but as this world gets more competitive and jobs take more and more skills, even at entry levels, getting by on bare-bone lessons isn’t enough. Creativity, innovation, empathy, passion, they’ve always been important but now we have to be taught how to interact with each other and tap into our special potentials due to such achievement gaps. Reading that the charter schools are segregated that severely my knee-jerk reaction was to think that that is compensation for the achievement gap in traditional schools, that it is justified because it is needed. In my class I’ve been hearing that charter schools try to recruit high achieving students in order to pass evaluations to keep funding, so this is a different side of charter schools I have not yet seen. On one hand this segregation could be seen positively, a method of addressing an issue that needs intensive attention to reach equality, and on another hand it can be seen negatively because it moves the burden of teaching underserved students from the traditional schools where this inequality stems. Personally I want to see traditional schools improve instead of abandoning ship.

  15. My knowledge of charter schools and their demographics is incomplete, but I wish to contribute to the discussion. There are many reasons that certain cultural groups might have a dominant presence in charter school – regardless of whether or not the numbers reflect public schools enrollments at large, whether or not these groups actively self-segregate, whether or not any of them have an inherently negative attitude toward public schools or society in general. For one reason or another, students seeking alternative education generally have needs that are not being met. Whether they offer greater challenges or greater attention, fostering of creativity or patience for learning differences, charter programs, as a function of their independence, are unique and often specialized. If any one demographic – i.e., black/African-Americans, in the case of New York City – seems to be overrepresented, perhaps that group has disproportionately unmet needs. As I see it, these needs could just as easily be school staff and faculty that expect them to succeed (as opposed to negligent teachers, or ones holding onto engrained prejudice – which may be included in the ranks of those protected by irrevocable tenure) as they could be faculty with the extra time needed for remedial basic-skills tutoring. Is it possible that one group (if “blacks” are taken to constitute a single group) has a higher rate of unmet needs in general, though those needs might be diverse? For all our progress as a society in the past hundred or so years, prejudices between racial and ethnic groups have not been eradicated, and African-Americans are still too often perceived and treated as lower members of society, with schools among the institutions that hold lower expectations of them as a class. Members of other identity groups may experience other societal classifications that influence them to congregate in the same specialized programs.

    On a different note, I believe that charter schools and other alternative programs – by their exceptional nature – can offer exceptionally good educations for their students. Such outcomes are not guaranteed, however, and the opportunities are not, either, given the limited enrollments of each charter program. While some students may require or thrive in a specialized charter program, and the number of charter programs continues to grow, it is unlikely that charter schools will ever be able to meet the needs of every student in the public school system. And so, while charters may serve our society by developing alternative methods and curricula, reform of traditional format public schools should not be abandoned as a lost cause.

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