Schools That Claim to Be Ideal for All Are Closer to Ideal for Nobody

I’m in the middle of a major writing project with an impending deadline for the publisher. I’m researching and profiling variety of school models for this work. As a started a section of a chapter about “lessons learned” from one of the schools, I had an important epiphany. Only I’ve probably come to this conclusion many times in the past, so I’m not sure if epiphany is the right word. Perhaps I should call it a re-realization. It is about the uniqueness of each child and the values-laden nature of schools and school culture.

My re-realization says something important about my philosophy of education, and explains much about what I write and why I write it. It is this:

The school that claims to be the ideal school for every child is on a certain path to becoming the ideal school for no child.

Becoming the best option for every child is not achievable, not unless we restrict the options through laws, regulations, and cloaked social strategies to control people’s choices (like resisting programs that make private school options affordable for families). The only way to make the local school the “best” school is to make it the only school and then proudly proclaim that it is the best school for every child in town. Of course it is the best option because it is only being compared to itself! Yet, when I uncover the arguments behind some people’s positions on modern education, it certainly seems to boil down to such a position.

If we want to make greater progress in education today, it is time for us to be honest about some basics and my re-realization is one of those basics. No school is ideal for every student. If you can agree with this, then the next question is simply this. What are the implications of this fact for the type of education ecosystem that we should promote, design, or re-design in contemporary America?

If, on the other hand, you disagree with my claim. You argue that a single school can indeed be ideal for every student, or least the majority of students, then that is a different matter.

In fact, there are two very different positions in what I just wrote. If you try to hedge your position by saying that a school can at least be good for the majority of students, therefore we should invest and support that choice above others, then what does that say about your view of and value for the minority? Are you contending that doing what is right for the majority is adequate, even if there is a minority that suffers because of it? We are talking about human life and potential here. Do we really want to be so wasteful with something so precious?

If you are more firm on your position and say that a single school can truly be ideal for every student, then I must reply with a demand that you prove such an extreme claim. Do you really believe this or are you just holding to the position because it best supports some larger set of beliefs and values that you hold dear? There are some alternatives to supporting this position. One is to claim that one school can, in fact, become or function like many, creating different pathways for different students. In fact, I have often championed such an approach. Only, I contend that this gets us to a school that is good for many students, but not all, and I contend that we should not settle for the pursuit of anything less than a better, more hopeful, more humane educational ecosystem that offers very good options for all learners (and that the learners and their closest ones) have ample say in defining what constitutes “very good.”

Now I should get back to writing and meeting that impending manuscript deadline with the publisher.

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Posted in blog, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

One Reply to “Schools That Claim to Be Ideal for All Are Closer to Ideal for Nobody”

  1. aarondavis1

    Another interesting post Bernard. I agree about the dangers of ideals. In regards to choice, I am reminded of Ewan McIntosh’s post arguing that a school can only have two core values that make up its ‘competitive position’.

    My only concern is that not every school is even in a position to be competitive. This is beyond ‘vouchers’ in my opinion and relates to policy and priorities. Where I live, they have a special science school decked out with the latest and greatest, including mahogany trims around the door. Then down the road there is the ‘local’ with its asbestos risen classrooms. The science school is select entry and clearly has a different funding arrangement. This does not even touch on the problems of private verses public.

    In an ideal world there would be equal access for all, but when some select entries soak up all the cash it just does not seem right?

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