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Purposeful education

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

This week, children around the country are returning to school. Detroit is no exception. After a contentious summer, culminating in the return of academic responsibility to an elected school board, schools are once again opening their doors. But the Detroit Public School (DPS) system is now a very small part of the educational landscape. It now consists of less than 100 schools, with a hope for enrollment of only 50,000 of the possible 140,000 young people in the city.

The rest of our young people are in charter, church-based schools or the newly state-created Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) that includes the 15 lowest-performing schools that were once a part of DPS.

Regardless of whether they find themselves in a DPS, charter or EAA school, for the vast majority of our young people, attending school has become a form of child abuse. Subjected to relentless testing and the narrow notions of learning, our children are being forced to spend longer hours in an atmosphere governed by punitive practices that care little for them as whole people. One right-wing newspaper columnist has lauded these practices as the “drill and kill” approach to education. The so-called educational reforms being foisted on us reduce our children to little more than tightly controlled data points.

All of this is being justified in the name of making our children “more successful” in the global market. The recent column by Stephen Henderson in the Detroit Free Press claiming a “new paradigm for public education in Detroit” concludes with his vision of the goal of all this testing. He says of DPS, “These schools will import the high standards of accountability that are found in the most effective independent and charter schools. If they don’t graduate 90 percent of their students and get 90 percent on to college, the school staffs and the governing councils will be replaced.”

High scores, graduation rates and college attendance are all cast as key to creating a “workforce” able to compete in the “global marketplace.”

Anyone who cares about children or our future as a city and a country should be challenging these oft-repeated refrains. By now there is ample evidence to suggest that the holy grail of high test scores has been a sham, often fostering corruption and manipulation to create an illusion of success. Competition on the global market is even more problematic.

Henderson, however, is right about one thing. We do need a new paradigm of education and it is emerging in Detroit. This new paradigm challenges the notion that the purpose of education is individual advancement.

Today, most people, Henderson included, argue that the purpose of school is to help individuals learn enough to go to college, get a job and live somewhere other than in our “failed city.” Success is defined as moving up and moving out.

Students, teachers and community activists have challenged this notion of the purpose of education for decades. For more than 40 years about half our young people have given up on school, walking out because there was little meaning for them in classes and curriculum.

Some people recognized that these young people were really asking us to think differently about the purpose of education. By taking their questions seriously, some of the most innovative educational practices in the county have emerged in Detroit. These practices begin with the idea that the purpose of education is to strengthen democracy and build our communities. They flow from the idea that young people learn best about themselves and their world when they engage with one another in creating meaningful change.

Engaging young people in strengthening our communities, through place-based educational practices, holds the promise of a real paradigm shift in education. It is also the source of a creative, energetic, imaginative public life, essential to the rebuilding of our city.

Contact Shea Howell at howell@oakland.edu

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