Fall is quickly approaching and with it the beginning of a new school year. Also on the horizon is the beginning of another session of our state legislature. There will be much discussion about how to ‘fix” our schools. This is a good time to pause and consider who is responsible for the mission of our schools.
First, although there many challenges facing our schools, I refuse to accept that they are broken. The public schools have evolved over the years. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, few Americans took advantage of formal education. It was primarily the wealthy who could afford tuition or tutors for their children.
This began to change late in the 19th century with industrialization. Child labor laws, compulsory education laws and court decisions that allowed public funds to be used for public school all created an environment that led to the growth of strong public schools.
The key to the manufacturing industry was mass production. This created many assembly line jobs that were simple and could be handled by even illiterate workers who worked for a low wage. Space does not permit detailed account of how change has occurred, but clearly business today requires a very different type of worker. There seems to be a tendency when we face problems to blame the schools and then turn to the schools to fix them.
Schools for many years have been providing the kind of education that society has asked them to provide. However, since the 1960s and 1970s there has been increasing demand for more expectations and services. The challenge is not to fix something that is broken, but to figure out how to adapt education to meet current needs.
Schools have responded to the demands of business and parents. We have discussed in this column previously the many roles schools fill in addition to educating children and youth. They provide transportation and feed students. They provide opportunities for problem solving and creativity and bring the community together through the arts and athletics. They provide a safe place for children while parents are at work.
There is no question that schools today need to change to respond to 21st century needs. The question is what is the mission of the schools in 2013? What vision do we have that will satisfy the needs of parents and employers and help build a first place economy?
Clearly the primary role is to provide an academic program to students that will deliver knowledge and the ability to use it. As we prepare to begin a new school year at Greenville Public Schools we are asking ourselves what that means and how do we accomplish that mission. Who are the players? Who bears the responsibility for delivering such a program? Is it the legislature? The Board of Education? The community? Administrators? Teachers? And what role do the students play?
On Monday, the leadership team met in a retreat to consider these questions and more. In future columns we will share what we learned.
Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.