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21st Century Mission?

October 5, 2008

This past Wednesday evening, I had the opportunity to go to the Gerald R. Ford Library on the campus of the University of Michigan to a discussion on, “What is the 21st Century Mission of our Public Schools?”  The event was part of the National Issues Forum and was intended to generate thoughtful discussion and debate on the topic.

The fundamental question for discussion was – What are schools for?  Of the 55 million students across the country, 88% are attending public schools, 10% are in private schools and 2% are home schooled.  So, for me – the question is – What are Saline Area Schools for?  The positive impact on a students life from gaining an education (diplomas and degrees) is clear. We know that more education equals less poverty, less crime, and better health – the statistics have shown this for last 60 years.

However, it is also evident to me that public education needs to be re-energized.  The economy has moved beyond the industrial revolution – the need for a large unskilled workforce has diminished greatly and may be virtually gone in the next 10 years.

There are basically three approaches to what can be the mission of 21st century public schools.  One is to prepare students to be successful in the workplace.  Our students need new tools to enable them to grasp ever-changing technologies and to compete on a global level.  We need to teach them to be able to integrate ever-evolving information and technologies.  This approach sees public education in the form of workforce development.

Another approach is preparing students to be active and responsible citizens.  We teach civics and say the Pledge of Allegiance.  Our mission is to prepare students to live in a civil society.  We need to teach them  to engage in respectful relationships, to deliberate on public issues and to volunteer in civic missions.  In general, prepare them to be active citizens in adulthood.  Some would say the future of our democracy depends on us furthering this mission.

The final approach is to help students discover and develop their talents. We should encourage students to discover and develop their particular talents, instead of making them into “model” workers.  The ultimate goal is capable and self-motivated individuals.  We should focus on the whole child, giving equal attention to the social, emotional, physical and intellectual aspects of development.

Now, before you comment – “Just do all three, and do them well” – understand that is a simple response to complex issue.  Serving three missions completely makes achieving excellence in those areas almost impossible.  That being said – could the answer be a blend?

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