School has been a social institution for centuries. The purpose of school, the nature of the curriculum, the role of the experts who operate school and teach in school, and the people enrolled as students are variables that change to reflect the dominant culture. In many cases, these factors are explicit and accepted by all stakeholders. Consider the career and technical centers that prepare young adults to enter industries. Students arrive expecting to learn a specialized curriculum taught by practitioners and leaders in the field.
Other schools are more general in nature. A liberal arts education, the primary purpose of higher education for many generations, was originally intended to prepare young people to be able to understand complex problems and apply their skills to solving problems in diverse fields. (The value of liberal arts education is lost on many stakeholders, including those who advocate for coding, STEM, and other specialized fields in K-12 schools. When outlining this book, I had the chance to visit a student who was working as an intern in an “IT shop;” the company developed and sold specialized data products and he and the team on which he worked spent their days writing code, managing databases, and checking for data consistency. I arrived on a day on which they were preparing to migrate to a new data center. The manager for of the office described the team that was undertaking the project as, “all talented people, none of whom studied computer science, they were all curious and good thinker and very active learners who developed expertise that they share.”)
The publicly funded schools for young people, commonly called K-12 schools in the United States are an example of general purpose schools. Modeled after liberal arts education, we can trace the history of these schools to one-room school houses maintained in villages and towns early in the nation’s history. In the early part of the 20th century, school expanded to include high school grades. While is hidden in the sterilized narrative of schools is the highly political nature of the institutions. From blatantly racist and sexist practices of limiting attendance to instruction that indoctrinated students into the dominant culture as a way to destroy indigenous cultures, schools have been used to accomplish political goals for generations. To deny this history is to deny the best evidence we have; to deny its continued influence on school organization and governance also denies the best evidence we have.
Regardless of the political motivations for the decisions that are made and the school structures and organizations that are created, those making the decisions will promote their actions as “what is best for children.” Once established, certain practices and structures remain a part of school, and in many cases, they are understood as “natural” parts of school, and “necessary” for students’ success long after the original conditions necessitating the change have faded. Modern high schools, with separate subjects taught by specially trained experts, rotating schedules, tests and other familiar structures are recognized as originating in the early part of the 20th century and were developed to prepare young people and immigrants for jobs in the industrial economy. Of course, they were also developed to occupy adolescents who had been removed from the workforce due to new laws restricting child labor.
Educators are very familiar with the never-ending series of “buzz words” that emerge, capture the attention of leaders for a few years, then fade into disuse when the next term distracts leaders. Each of these is presented as a panacea for whatever ails education; advocates argue it will finally return our students to the top of the heap (whatever that might mean). Some seek to avoid this cycle by conserving their own version of “what is best for students.” Their individual version is typically grounded in what they experienced as students themselves. The reality of what students need always lies in the middle—between the obsolete schools that trained their teachers for their future and the innovations reflected in the buzz-words.