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21 October 2011

Two Different School Systems

I think we've got two different school systems, and I don't mean in the sense in which there are (supposedly) two Americas.

I spend a lot of time talking with people about education, and something I've noticed is that -- in general -- the more well-educated someone is, the more they are concerned with high school (and perhaps junior high school) rather than with elementary education. I myself am quite guilty of this, despite the fact that I've actually worked in an elementary school.

I was thinking this morning, as philosophers are prone to do, about why I and others that I know have this tendency. And I came to a hypothesis that I think might actually be true: students with strong family educational backgrounds don't really need elementary school. Their parents can teach them to read, and can expose them to basic history and math. What those students need is high school -- subject specialization and teachers who know Chemistry and Calculus and more advanced literary theory.

"At risk" kids, on the other hand, kids whose families don't have an academically infused environment, really need elementary school to succeed academically. And they need the elementary portion of their schooling -- reading, writing, 'rithmatic -- to be done right; there's not a lot of margin for error. When it doesn't get done right, junior high and high school turn into remedial programs.

So from one point of view, the elementary school is a nice safe place to store your kids until they're old enough to start studying more complicated subjects. From that point of view, elementary school doesn't matter so much, and the focus of school reform needs to be on how to best deliver advanced content at the high school level. So long as the elementary school teachers are nice, supportive, and don't screw things up too badly, all is going to be well.

From another point of view, elementary school is where the hard, important work is. once the fundamentals are mastered (if they are), then junior high and high school become the place to store your kids safely until they're ready to work. Elementary teachers need to be engaging the students and shaping them. As I said, there's not a lot of room for error.

These two school systems often inhabit the same buildings, and employ the same teachers. But there are two very different systems at work, and in discussions about school reform, I think it's important to bear in mind which system you are talking about.

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