Back in the olden days when I was growing up, there were two models of school — public school and religious school.
We would all walk to school together, and at the last corner our Catholic pals would turn left, while the rest of us would go on to public school.
They got Sister Mary Bridget to teach them, and we had Miss Randall. We all had our classmates, our teachers and a room, books and a blackboard. We had real ink in inkwells and wooden pens with metal points.
We got separate grades and a special teacher for penmanship. We all wondered how Miss Linscott could possibly have such beautiful handwriting. She could have calligraphed the Declaration of Independence. Maybe she had.
At recess, we played kickball on the small blacktop playground, and when it was rainy or cold, the teachers herded us into the school basement and closed the door.
That was it for school models. We’d heard about this other thing called private school, but that was in some other universe. Nobody we knew ever went.
Over the years, parts were added. Gymnasiums. Football and marching band. More or less music or art, more or fewer teachers, new buildings or just make do, all depending on the fortunes of the church or the town and state budgets. Special ed. Longer or shorter school day. Free or reduced-cost breakfast and lunch.
Today we have more private schools and another model, charter schools, really a variation on private school with a public funding stream.
The schools, whether public, private, religious or charter, mostly use the same models featuring the same components. This means that our basic idea of school is the same as it was a half-century and more ago. And the model already was old by the time I experienced it.
In some ways, this is a touching testament to our American faith in the power of education to transform lives. It also shows the power of story, nostalgia, entrenched social structures and habit, and points to some things that probably ought to be preserved.
Meanwhile, the world of my childhood has vanished. The atomic bomb, civil rights, women’s liberation, foreign wars and their results. And then the GI Bill, the digital revolution, the change in the nature of work, the change in the nature of families, the media explosion, the financial collapse, persistent poverty and inequity, and a whole shift in the accepted view of government and its role in taxation. And more!
Yet we persist in maintaining the same basic school models through all of this. Isn’t this amazing?
The most amazing thing of all, however, isn’t in any of the models. Instead it’s a presupposition underlying all the models: We send the kids off to school and whatever our model is, school does “education” to them.
There’s no formal role for family, society, sports, clubs or other organizations. If the kids are not measuring up (and they never are; that’s a whole other American story), no matter what the surrounding society looks like or how it has changed over time, we just intervene in schools to fix any shortcomings that may surface.
For example, if there is food insecurity at home, feed students at school. If there is no supportive family, keep students at school longer. If there are no enrichment opportunities at home — or no home — then enlist school to take over this function.
So, what’s the problem here? Recently, I heard an amazing fact. In societies where everyone is more or less on the same socio-economic level, everyone’s health is better. Where wide economic disparities exist, both the rich and the poor are less healthy than they might otherwise be.
This is a real, but unexpected, effect of the social structure on health outcomes. We think of health as the product of health care systems only. This finding says no. The structure and function of the wider society play a role, in ways we may not even understand.
The same thing may be true with school.
Expecting the school to do the entire work of raising and educating the next generation is probably not a general recipe for success. It may work in homogeneous, affluent or relatively affluent towns, but not across the range of city and rural settings that abound in our state and country.
What should we do to improve our basic school models? More next time.
Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org