By and large, our schools are already doing what they are being asked to do without realizing it. Criticism is coming from those who don't really know what schools are being asked to do.

Most people have the idea that schools are supposed to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic to all our childrento give them an equal start in life with an equal chance of success. If that really was the purpose of schools, all children would learn to read, write, and do arithmetic, etc. and be ready to compete with an equal chance of success.

Almost unconsciously, America expects schools to socialize our children as cheaply as possible to prepare them for life in a capitalist society by sorting them into the roles they will be expected to play upon graduation. Students who are most successful academically ordinarily get the top jobs, the "B" students occupy middle-management positions, the "C" students fill the broad segment of labor roles, etc. There are exceptions, of course. There are always a few kids like Will Rogers and Albert Einstein who enjoy huge success in spite of being considered educational failures, but even in those cases the schools sort them into roles that do not require academic success.

So long as the schools fulfill this basic responsibility, there is no objection to educators or parents who aspire to more lofty goals for their schools. Few object to schools that integrate religious training with their sorting function. Nor is military training necessarily frowned upon. Who could possibly condemn schools that stress sports and athletic competition? Then, too, there are few complaints about schools that encourage scientific or entertainment potential in students. The business world has no interest in preventing success in any field, so long as they know where to look for the next operations officer or chief executive officer, or indeed, engineer trainee. And what business could run without the people who clean up the pace after hours, all courtesy of the school's sorting function.

In years past, philosophers have made strong cases for an emphasis on other purposes for our schools. Should educators stress an appreciation for the past accomplishments of our society, its goals, aspirations, and achievements so students could build a future that fulfills past and present cultural aims? Should educators place more emphasis on developing students who work well together and cooperate in experiments to find solutions to problems that develop as society moves into an unpredictable future? Or should educators follow one of the other well known philosophies in their unending quest to send perfect graduates out into the world?

The truth is, society hasn't fully decided what schools should be doing in these tumultuous times. One thing I can state with certainty, though, is that when that fateful decision is made, they will find the best trained, most universally qualified and dedicated teaching staff in history waiting to carry out that assignment. Of course, we all can remember gifted, wonderfully dedicated teachers in the past, but when I started teaching in 1960, almost anyone whose breath could fog a mirror could get a job teaching. The great majority of teachers hired came from the bottom quartile of college graduates. Hmmmm.

The second thing I can state with certainty is that teacher unions have been the salvation of public education and the driving force behind educational improvement and a better learning experience for children. It was the teacher unions that fought for better salaries and working conditions that attracted better-qualified teachers as a whole, and through them, better administrators.

Fred Gibson, of Tahlequah, is a retired educator with an ongoing interest in U.S. and world politics.

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