The Purpose of Schools

In the last few weeks, I’ve read multiple perspectives on the role of schools in a community. Some argue that schools should be community centers, providing services well beyond educating pupils. For example, this district in Missouri that is going above and beyond, offering all of these services:

School districts don’t usually operate homeless shelters for their students. Nor do they often run food banks or have a system in place to provide whatever clothes kids need. Few offer regular access to pediatricians and mental health counselors, or make washers and dryers available to families desperate to get clean.

The other side of the argument suggests that America’s insistence on using schools to cure all ills is a significant factor in its current international education standing — well behind twenty-five OECD countries. In her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley argues that several of those countries have attained their success by focusing solely on academics. The countries she examined — Finland, South Korea, and Poland — are at the top of PISA national rankings, and spend substantially less per student than the U.S. does. Ripley posits that these countries, among other strategies, hold education in such high esteem that they don’t offer extras, deprioritizing everything from sports to school lunch to SMART Boards.

Reading the article closely, I see that the Jennings School District provides most of their extracurricular services in partnership with community organizations, which makes me more comfortable with the setup. But I fear that in too many cases, schools forego outside resources or services that already exist; rather, they try to be everything to everyone. Many argue that if our teachers are not even trained well enough to teach, how can we expect them to be successful social workers, nurses, and career counselors on top of their classroom responsibilities?

Historically, I’ve leaned toward the idea of using schools to support a variety of needs, particularly to combat the harm of poverty on a child’s education. But I see significant potential value in allowing schools to focus on their original purpose: educating. I think the real answer is that the role of schools in the community depends on the community. The service learning / leadership educator in me appreciates this conclusion, but I’m still torn on which way the U.S. should lean in the first place — I’d love to hear your thoughts!


This week, I’ve been listening to Malcom Gladwell’s, Outliers on audiobook, and he discussed an idea that really clicked with me. In a chapter explaining the success and lack there of of two incredibly similar individuals, Gladwell offers that their background, specifically their social class, has a lot to do with it. Both of the men described in the book were incredibly intelligent by all conventional standards. But only one had achieved conventional success. Gladwell attributed this to the stark difference in a lower class upbringing and a middle class one. Those from lower classes are typically taught to defer to their elders and authority; those from middle or upper classes are taught to advocate for themselves, asking questions, even to those in a position of power.

This immediately struck me as one of the factors which perpetuates the cycle of inequity in our schools and society. I am consistently struck by the level of respect and deference students show me when I walk into a local Title I school, but I honestly didn’t put a lot of weight on it. But when considered from the perspective of empowering individuals to ask for what they need and forge a path for their own success, this skill seems far more critical. The challenge is that this is deeply embedded in culture – of families, schools, even authority figures within each community. In many of these communities, a youngster speaking up for themselves would be met with punishment, not a reward, so we cannot merely teach the students these skills and expect them to be successful. Which leads to a much deeper question of what should we be teaching (either students or families) when it impacts the culture of the community?