What Are Schools For?

THE day after Labor Day - the threshold of fall. Well, that was a quick summer. Now, hard as it may be to believe, it's back to school again. In 16,000 school districts across the United States, yellow buses will be nosing into traffic, carrying some 46 million kids to class - 200,000 more than last year. About 2.5 million students will graduate from high school next spring. Classes will be conducted by 2.8 million teachers. The entire enterprise will cost $231 billion - $15 billion more than last year.

Yet US education is still in great need. Business and civic leaders alike point to schools as key to American economic competitiveness and the kind of informed and critical citizenry needed for a healthy and free society.

In the past year much has happened in education that must be followed up by everyone from politicians to elementary school principals to the parents who set the most important tone for kids.

For the first time, the US has a set of national education goals. Among the most important goals set by the president and the 50 governors: A 90 percent graduation rate; all 5-year-olds ready to learn by first grade; every school free of drugs.

The coming year will be crucial if these goals are to take hold. Consider two areas of attention:

First, the nation's governors must continue to give education primary importance. Given the major fiscal effort states have made for schools in the past decade, that might seem to go without saying. But 36 new governors will be elected this fall. They need to get on board.

Second, there must be less talk and more doing in restructuring schools. Whether it's smaller ``schools within schools,'' school-choice programs, traditional or progressive schools, specialized art or science ``magnet'' schools - or even a school like the Audubon Society runs in New York, where kids travel through America on a bus for 3 months - what's needed are teachers and parents, backed by the district, who are creating schools with a distinct identity where deeper learning can take place. Too many schools are bland and indistinct - educational shopping malls.

Important as it may be to produce ingenious and skilled workers, US schools must not be primarily viewed as feeders for US economic capacity. Schools, by example and precept, have a primary responsibility for instilling civic and democratic values. Consciousness of these values is America's backbone. Space must be made for love and humility - for asking, in Wendell Berry's words, ``What are people for?'' Now that's something to learn about.

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