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The Slow Drift from Our School’s Original Purpose

I remember visiting the beach when I lived in San Diego. I was a teenager when I walked out of the water onto the shoreline, leaving my inflatable raft in the ocean. I didn’t fear losing it; I knew exactly where I left it. What I hadn’t counted on was the ocean’s tide that constantly moved the water. After just 15 minutes, my raft had drifted way down the beach, requiring me to run a hundred yards to retrieve it. It was a drift that happened so slowly, I didn’t notice at first.

This is a picture of so many realities in life. We feel we remember where something is, neglecting to factor in that change happens slowly over time. Things drift unless they are intentionally secured to a fixed point.

The Slow Drift of Our Public Schools

photo credit: Robert E. Kennedy Library at Cal Poly Stairs-6 via photopin (license)

In many ways, our school system in America has experienced this same drift. As times have changed, schools have tried to keep up with changing technology, educational discoveries and leadership styles. Unfortunately—as we’ve adapted through the last one hundred years or so—I wonder if we’ve failed to secure our original purpose. In our effort to be timely in our methods, we drifted from the timeless mission of the school system that was first set in place.

I’ve written before about Horace Mann, who’s considered to be the father of our modern public school system. He led education reform in the 1850s and set up a system designed to prepare kids for a productive career upon graduation. In fact, he called his creation the “normal school” because it was set up to prepare youth for the “norms” of society. The school day mimicked a factory, beginning with bells or whistles, just like the factory in which those kids would likely work. In short, his original design was career readiness.

When we study the origin of higher education in America, it’s clear it was about preparation for a job and career. Harvard trained young ministers. Several Ivy League schools began in the basements of businesses or churches to prepare young men to serve and to work. There certainly was theory involved, but it was about preparing them to lead once they graduated and to reflect on their service to society. Two centuries ago they produced leading thinkers and thinking leaders.

Today, I wonder if we are doing either of those items very well.

The Marriage of Information and Application

I find it interesting that “career readiness” has resurfaced in educational discussions today, almost as if we’ve had an epiphany and remembered that this was the reason for school in the first place. Originally, it wasn’t academics for academics’ sake. It wasn’t about GPA, or SAT and ACT scores. Scholarship had a practical purpose. Over time, however, as knowledge and information increased, we made it about memorizing that information—even when it has no practical purpose. Too many have fallen in love with “information” instead of “application” of the subject. This is not good. Information should always lead to practical application. Over time, we’ve experienced a slow drift away from this concept.

I spoke to an audience of high school educators a few years back. As we discussed this topic, one teacher raised his hand and inquired: “What do I say when a student asks if he’ll ever need this information after graduation—and I don’t know how to answer, because I don’t think he ever will use it?”

I believe students should be able to ask this question in a classroom.

And…we should have an answer.

Some Practical Steps We Can Take

Let me ask you as a parent, coach or educator: Do you share information with your young people that always has a practical benefit for their future? If not, why? What would happen if we focused on outcomes beyond graduation and degrees? What if we remembered what parenting, coaching and education are really all about?

Parents—take your child with you when you do your tasks. Whatever you’re doing, don’t give them a choice about the issue. Tell them you want them with you. Then, let them actually participate in what you’re doing—whether it’s running errands, doing yard work, buying groceries or even paying the bills. Have your child watch, and as you pay those invoices, have them determine family priorities on expenses.

Teachers—push your students regularly to discuss how they could use the subject you’re discussing and testing them on. Stop and think about practical applications for their future job, their future family, or future leadership in the community. If nothing else, flip the classroom and have students teach each other or take on mentoring roles with younger students in the school district.

Coaches—after one of your practices,  ask your young athletes what transferrable skills or disciplines they have developed that they could translate to a future job, future family or future vision they want to pursue? Help them see how sports are a picture of life and playing them should not only be fun, but a relevant way to prepare for adult life and for leadership.

Let’s stop drifting and become intentional about building career ready leaders. If you are exploring how to do this well, check out our course, Habitudes® for Career Ready Students. Through a series of 13 images, it sparks conversations based on the twelve career ready standards of the U.S. Department of Education.


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The Slow Drift from Our School’s Original Purpose