Schools: More Than Making Kids “College Ready”

Schools: More Than Making Kids “College Ready”

Perhaps I am about to speak a heresy, but here goes: The purpose of school should not be to prepare students for college and career. 

Let me explain.

Back in 2014 there was a story about a school in Elwood, New York that canceled the annual Kindergarten pageant because the five-year-olds needed more time on the path to becoming “college and career ready.”

Foolishly, I thought this would be a final wake-up call to this particular strain of thinking around education reform, that surely there would be an uprising over denying students and parents the unique pleasures of school pageantry in order to prepare for possible events that are over a decade in the future.

The mantra of making sure that students would become “college ready” animated the Common Core State Standards, and Education secretary Arne Duncan included those words in just about every set of public remarks. The standard line of thinking was that the key to ensuring prosperous and fulfilling futures for all meant getting students started on a path to college as early, and with as much laser focus, as possible. 

This focus on the ends (college and career readiness) has had a hugely distorting effect on the means, the actual activities that are privileged in the classroom. Treating test scores as proxies for college readiness is an example of Campbell’s Law on steroids, where the push to increase those test scores results in truly absurd practices, like canceling a kindergarten pageant because of concerns about college preparation.

The purpose of school is to learn stuff that is both meaningful in the moment of the learning, and useful for future endeavors, which may or may not be college. 

School should help students build knowledge, foster curiosity, develop skills of self-regulation and self-motivation. These kinds of skills and attitudes will obviously serve a student well if they go to college, but even more importantly, they will serve students well no matter what their futures hold. 

By narrowing the purpose of school to an indefinite future reward like acceptance to a selective college, we’ve created an atmosphere predicated on competition, where mistakes and poor performance are perceived by students as having an outsized effect not just on a semester grade, but on the rest of their lives. This way of thinking incentivizes strategic choices around maximizing GPA or burnishing an admissions portfolio, rather than taking risks and finding passions, two things that would almost certainly pay superior dividends long term.

School should be the kind of place where students can figure out what matters to them. 

School should be the kind of place that supports productive failure, the kind of failure that results in lasting lessons. 

School should be meaningful in the present, rather than something that will only be meaningful in the future. School is not preparation for the so-called “real world.”

As both students and teachers report feeling stressed and alienated as the toll of the pandemic continues to mount, it’s even more important to experience school as something worth doing for its own sake.