595. School’s Job

Lately, I’ve heard that some schools are being sued, sometimes by pupils and sometimes by pupils’ parents, for not doing the job schools are “supposed to” do. My first reaction to such suits is that they’re nonsense – that educating people is everyone’s job. Teachers, parents, pupils, administrators, and politicians are key players, and ought to be working together to get learning to happen. If it doesn’t happen the way any of the above want it to, any of the above can try to do something about that. The buck stops all over the place.
That’s just my first reaction, though. Having spent my teaching career in communities full of knowledgeable and skilled people, I’ve been relatively free to try out different approaches to teaching, without worrying about being sued. For example, when I explained “invented spelling” to the parents of my pupils, most of them understood; they didn’t accuse me of shirking my responsibility. They weren’t worried that their children would grow up unable to spell, and therefore less able to do well in college, and eventually, less able to get good jobs.
Where I taught, children tended to enter school already knowing a lot of what schools are “supposed to” teach. Some were already pretty good at reading, writing, math, and much more. There was still plenty more to learn; there always is. But much of the work that’s done mostly by teachers in some communities had already been done by the time children where I taught started dealing with teachers. The schools in which I taught tended not to get sued for not educating children; parents and the rest of the community took more responsibility for that job.
So when I hear news about people who are angry because school doesn’t get pupils to be able to read and write, it doesn’t sound right to me. At first, it seems as absurd as blaming a hospital for a chain-smoker’s lung cancer. Most of the teachers I’ve known have worked hard to help children get ready for the lives they were going to live. In my sheltered world, the teachers I consider least effective obsess on teaching children to read, write, and compute. They don’t do much with the arts, the environment, or social issues.
I’m not very familiar with schools that don’t teach children what are often called “the basics.” I’m very lucky not to have had to deal with communities where such schools could exist. But I believe that schools reflect their communities, and my hunch is that children who go through school without learning what they need to get along in society come from parents who didn’t learn that either, and so couldn’t teach it to their children. Teachers who work mostly with those children have a job that’s bigger than any job I’ve ever had. I sometimes wish I’d had that kind of job; I would have felt as if I was doing more important work. But I’m pretty sure it would have been much harder work, and I’m usually glad I didn’t have to do it. My job, and the job of the schools in which I taught, was to keep up the good work that was already being done by the family and

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