What Schools Can and Cannot Do

Education is a tremendous force and has the potential of enabling individuals and societies to flourish. However, formal education and those that work in the field of education can only do so much. For instance, schools and teachers cannot reform the political, cultural and economic institutions and structures in society. As we are experiencing, it is those very institutions that are in positions of power to pressure reform in education. In addition, education does not happen just in the schools and at the hands of schoolteachers. It happens primarily in the home at the hands of parents and the influences of their environment, with economics, politics, media and culture playing a large role.


Schools have to accept whatever intellectual, social, moral, emotional and psychological material shows up at their door. Schools cannot change the genetic material of the students they are given to educate. They can and should help the genetic endowments of each individual to realize his or her fullest potential. In developing their students’ bodies and physical capacities, schools and teachers are largely limited in providing a proper nutrition and physical training and environments for that development. If we as a society are sincere about optimizing learning and improving educational outcomes, the greatest benefit with the least cost we can have on development, including the brain, the vital organ for learning, is to ensure healthy growth in the womb and the years before kindergarten. No amount of intervention or education in school can compensate for failure to develop properly in the womb and before school (Kolb & Whishaw, 1990; Illig, 1998). 


When it comes to working with the minds, hearts and wills of their students, schools are also limited. Students’ minds, hearts and wills, like their bodies, are largely formed in their early years before school. To overcome limitations in any of these areas can be a daunting task, and is not entirely possible, even with the best of intentions and interventions. When schools and teachers, with their limited time and resources, are expected to fix all their students with all of their individual needs and problems, we can expect failure. It is unrealistic. When reformers hold schools and teachers to this standard, they are setting schools and teachers up for failure.


Schools are held to unreasonable standards and expectations when asked to solve societal problems they did not create, and for which they are not given the power, tools or resources from that society to fix them. When schools are not supported and given the resources to accomplish their duty, it is those who failed to provide the needed help who should be held accountable.


Then to demonize these schools and teachers when they “fail” is wrong. Schools reflect the values of the society of which they are a part and deal with the students and problems of that society. We live in a society that is doing little to encourage the proper physical, mental, emotional, moral and spiritual development of its young. If we really wish to turn things around, that is where we need to focus our attention. We also live in a society that fails to engender or encourage many of its individual citizens to live healthy physical, mental, emotional, moral and spiritual lives. Teachers are very limited in being able to turn these things around on their own.


Schools and teachers have a moral duty and responsibility to help all students learn and do their best. If schools or teachers are found in dereliction of that duty, they need to be held accountable and fixed. If satisfactory progress is not evident, they need to be reconfigured for success or fired. The problem is finding reliable and valid measures and standards upon which to base such decisions.


Unlike some other endeavors, the education of human beings involves complexities beyond the reach of current science to accurately determine and measure. It involves at a minimum the hearts, minds and wills of an uncountable number of individuals set in multifaceted communities and institutions that all are connected and affect one another. You cannot expect to reform one without the other. Solutions that may work in one area may not translate well into diverse educational settings.


About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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