LESSONS THAT GOOD SCHOOLS TEACH
Parents often attach the greatest importance to higher education, but the impact of elementary school is much greater. No institution is so influential, except for family and church. We call on primary schools to help shape the first and lasting ideas of our students about themselves, their country and the world. We expect them to learn and nurture the appetite for learning. Children gain or fail to acquire skills during the K-8 years throughout their education and careers. You develop habits and values for the rest of your days. Elementary school is an invitation to a fulfilling life. Its mission dwarfs all others in educational significance.
Hundreds of schools have visited the authors throughout the country. We learned that good primary schools have some character or ethos. They teach some lessons and maintain certain ideals. It takes no expertise to see if a school does its students right. You can get a good sense of it just by spending some time in your classrooms and halls. The basic subjects of good schools are English, history, geography, mathematics, science, art and music. They focus on these academic principles. They do not clutter the curriculum with so many other topics that the fundamentals are thrown away. Students know that this core curriculum is a serious undertaking.
Good elementary schools focus on key skills. Maybe most importantly, this means teaching students how to understand the written word. Reading is elementary education’s heart and soul. If a child can not read fluently in high school, its chances of academic success are in great danger. Other important skills must be mastered before the 8th grade. We expect elementary schools to teach children to speak and write well, to add, to subtract, to multiply, to divide and to measure things, to think logically and clearly, to ask good questions, to analyze problems and to find the right solutions. Knowledge is as important as competence. Good primary schools recognize that certain facts and ideas should be known to all American students. They teach students, for example, what is a right triangle, what happened in 1776, where the earth is in our solar system, what is a Trojan horse. Good schools spell out the basic knowledge they intend to share for parents. Teaching is a serious job, not a byproduct of learning skills by chance.
Elementary schools are responsible for transmitting to each new generation what can be referred to as our ” common culture, ” things that unite Americans as one people. This common culture in its highest form is the sum of our intellectual heritage, our heritage of all ages. Our understanding of who we are as a people is shaped by knowledge, ideas, and aspirations. Our common culture can be found in documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence; in principles such as the belief that all men are created equal; and in events from our past, such as the Mayflower landings in Plymouth and the Eagle on the Moon. It lies in great stories and poems, such as Charles Dickens ‘s A Christmas Carol and Emma Lazarus ‘s ” New Colossus. ” Americans from all backgrounds want schools to share our common heritage with children. As journalist Walter Lippmann once observed, no culture that knows its own traditions can survive.
Lessons in cultural literacy are part of the effort to raise good citizens. This task, too, is an important part of elementary school: to help lay the foundation for the eventual entry of young people into the democratic community of responsible adults. Teachers familiarize students with their rights and duties towards their fellow citizens and their country. Teddy Roosevelt once said that ” the first requirement for a good citizen in our republic is that he will be able and willing to gain his own weight. ” They help children to live up to their duties, not to shrink from labour, and to respect others. They teach them to recognize the faults of America, but also to honor this country. They help children to become ” loving critics ” in Madison’s words.
In this vein, good primary schools help parents to develop children’s character. You never lose sight of the fact that intellect and character are formed together. They consciously strive to inculcate virtues such as self – discipline, diligence, perseverance and honesty in training young hearts and minds for the good. Teachers cultivate these characteristics largely by forming habits: get to class on time, carry out tasks thoroughly, say ” Yes, Ma’am ” and ” Yes, Sir ” to teachers and clean up after themselves. They offer lessons that appeal to the moral imaginations of children. They’re helping students know virtue.
These are lessons to be taught in good elementary schools. Our education system is like a pyramid. Success at every secondary, college and beyond level depends on earlier preparation. Mediocrity will lower the possibilities for the next stage at any stage. The whole is threatened by a cracked base.