School Is Not School

School Is Not School

The school reform movement has some push-back in a new manifesto, but is it enough?


new organization has emerged into the divisive struggle in defining what “education reform” actually is, and it’s suggesting a pretty radical diversion from the current reform narrative. Hosted by Insight Labs, a Chicago-based “think-tank meets flash mob for good,” School Is Not School is the manifesto that grew out of a meeting between education professionals and experts in other fields about what education reform should actually be. Liz Dwyer, contributor to GOOD magazine, described her experience and attempted to provide the background for this manifesto.

As I’ve written previously, the fundamental concern behind the current educational reform agenda seems to be for a workforce that can maintain a competitive global economy. Put more simply, public education is trying to graduate good workers. This is very different than the Jeffersonian ideas of creating an educated electorate to sustain a democratic union. The School Is Not School manifesto seems aimed at returning the focus of public education reform to that of democratic citizenship, rather than job skill competencies. In fact it states, “School isn’t school. It is the birthplace of the citizen ideal.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the manifesto is in attaching a diminished lack of community and accountability with a de-emphasis in “citizenship” and “social responsibility” within the education system.

Former students, now adults, became gainfully employed, living and working the way their parents lived and worked. They worked hard to make it big by doing something, anything in the world but not anything for the world. By and large, these former students were ambitious to be sure, but also unhappy and depressed and unfulfilled. Communities fell apart.

The point being made here is that there really is a school-society connection, and that the products of a public school system are the raw materials of the next generation’s legacy. Now, in 2012, we’re clawing our way back from an economic recession in an era of political divisiveness and “get what’s owed” ideology. Social stewardship is no longer a part of the conversation, having been replaced by a more corporate culture mentality of efficiency, competency, accountability, and standardization.

Instead, School Is Not School advocated an education toward local action citizenship and community-mindedness. A school is part educational institution, part community center; just look at any rural community that has lost their school to consolidation. According to Dwyer, “schools would become hyper-local,” with students tacking local problems, developing plans of action for community support, and bringing the community into the school to facilitate a quality education. Dwyer even goes so far as to propose replacing a graduation certificate with something far more meaningful in a “free society,” that of “citizen.”

Before your anti-socialist nerve starts twitching, it’s important to note several things. First, the comment column on the website was rife with criticism (and support) for this idea. Many individuals pointed out that schools educate as much as they “indoctrinate,” and that schools being able to confer some kind of citizenship status is a step toward Soviet-style socialism. Of course, it ignores that fact that according to this manifesto, schools would only be as indoctrinatory as the communities of which they serve. If that’s the case, then isn’t the idea of citizenship to serve and sustain the values and welfare of their community? Second, many take issue with the language of the manifesto. It’s hyperbolic and over-the-top, and to many that kind of rhetoric is off-putting. However, the manifesto as a mode of writing is, by definition, those things. A manifesto is a passionate proclamation of one’s beliefs and intents, and this manifesto absolutely fits that description.

The difference is that a manifesto is often a proclamation from a substantial movement, not an intellectual exercise by a organizational thinktank. For a movement to counteract the present corporate-minded reform agenda, it’s going to need a lot more than a manifesto of churlish barbs and bold proclamations. It’s going to need a brand that is just as relevant and influential as “a globally competitive workforce.” Honestly, I don’t know that, in the current political and social environment, “community-minded citizen” has the same punch.