In the Aftermath, What’s the Purpose?

Redefining schools as caring centers, collaborative communities and arenas for clarifying values in the post-Sept. 11 era by Lew Smith

Kelly Chan is a high school sophomore at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, located only minutes away from Ground Zero. Her nights are plagued now by nightmares and her days are sometimes distracted as she replays the horrific scene that she witnessed on Sept. 11.


"I would be, like playing that image over and over in my head," she says. That, of course, has made it difficult for her to return to routines and absorb what is going on in her classes at one of New York City’s most academically demanding secondary schools. The scene banging away in her head is that of the north tower spewing flames, like "a deep cut in the knee, gushing blood," as she puts it.

Kelly is not a unique case. Extensive media coverage has provided views of people leaping from the towers and 100 stories of two buildings collapsing like tottering toys. Millions of students across the nation have felt the impact of their generation's worst moment. And they are not alone. Their counselors, teachers, school administrators—and obviously their parents—are trying to cope with a tragedy that overshadows the most heart-wrenching moments of their adulthood.

My own perspective has dramatically shifted. On one level, I am taken with the effect Sept. 11 has had on our four teen-agers. And I now have an event that has eclipsed my personal experiences with the Kennedy and King assassinations, which previously had been the national events with the most influence on my development.

Central to all of us, adults, adolescents and children, are questions that center on purpose. If thousands of lives could disappear in a flash due to acts of terrorism, what meaning is there to our lives? Have we lived out our time on earth with any effect? As John Keating, who was played brilliantly by Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets Society, says to his students: "Boys, you believe that you are invincible. But one day soon you too will be pushing up daisies." He urges them to think about what they might do, who they might be. He wants them to understand carpe diem, to seize the day.

In this time of national reflection, I also ask us, as educators, to seize the day. Somehow in the midst of the recent national school debates over standards and scores, accountability and academics, crisis management and change, a central set of questions has evaded discussion. Why do we have public schools? What are they for? How might we define their purpose?

Posing Big Questions

My ideas about the purposes of schools are not wildly original. They are suggested as a means for fueling the debate and getting others to think. This is a classic moment when questions may be more important than solutions. Therefore, I pose three additional big ones: Why is it important to have this discussion about purpose? What could that conversation lead to? How might a deep dialogue about purpose have a tangible effect on what schools actually do?

In a study of 12 schools around the nation that have changed significantly, I was taken by the story that one high school principal in Niles, Mich., told me. Doug Law, principal of Niles High School near the state’s border with Indiana, said he framed a two-year discussion about his school's future by posing one central question: "Why are we doing what we are doing?"

As simple as it sounds, it is question that is almost never asked. It is a question that strikes at the heart of purpose. Should we not ask ourselves to think about the student that we want to produce? And once we get that answer, we need to ask whether what we do and how we do it is really helping us to produce, develop and support that student?

Doug Law's school was not in crisis nor was it an award-winner. It was a typical high school doing what typical high schools do: nothing very special, nothing very terrible. But after complaints about inadequate preparation for college or employment intensified, Doug and his teachers knew that purpose and practices had to be questioned and aligned.

In July, more than 150 principals from schools nationwide will gather in New York City for a conference at Fordham University to try to define the purpose of schools. In teams, they will deliberate, debate and disagree with each other. Some may realize that the ideas being considered are very different from what their own schools back home in Alabama, Alaska or Arizona believe to be central and critical. Our hope is that these principals will return to their own schools and conduct similar conversations about school purpose.

Fueling the conversation this summer will be educators who lend insights and inspiration. Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, a Harvard education professor, may well suggest that schools be centered on the idea of respect, noting that respect is not a deference to status and hierarchy nor is it static and impersonal. She will ask us to consider “the way respect creates symmetry, empathy and connection in all kinds of relationships, even those such as teacher and student, doctor and patient, commonly seen as unequal.”

President Jimmy Carter, were he to join us, probably would argue that schools need to produce world citizens committed to peace, democracy, understanding and service. “All of us wonder about our real purpose in life. For a few, this question can become a profound source of anxiety. … For many people, the best solution is to think of something we can do for someone else.” Carter would urge us to transform schools into new habitats for humanity, with students learning how to translate the lessons of history into conflict resolution strategies for the present and community building activities for the future.

Marian Wright Edelman, to cite a third view, might well remind us that “education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.” Our job, as educators, she would implore us, is to have children learn about their vulnerability and their ability to rise above it. Learning about injustice and then taking actions is central to our purpose. Schools are about “stretching one’s vision of the future.”

Ted Sizer, meanwhile, would ask us to focus primarily on how students learn. In his view, the primary purpose of schools is to equip students to be lifelong learners by making them constructors of their knowledge, exhibitors of their insights, demonstrators of their understandings. Sizer then would add an important caveat: “A school is prizeworthy if inside every single head—adult and child, producer and consumer—there is a clear reference to principles in every decision and a determination to do the best thing.”

Recasting Schooling

What might all this talk lead to? It could stimulate a first-time and fervent focus on what we do and how we do it. It might cause a school to rethink its curriculum and revise its teaching methods. It could generate new ways of involving students and perhaps the entire community in a revamped version of schooling. At the very least, it would cause people to defend and define what they currently do. It could provoke a fresh look at options and opportunities.

As for the potential effects, let us use one example. Suppose one of the teams of principals this summer decides the primary purpose of schools is to create active, engaged and knowledgeable citizens. They will be asked to describe a school that was actually living out that purpose. What would its instruction, organization, governance and accountability look like?

A school dedicated to citizenry would recast its curriculum. A high school, for example, could develop an integrated curriculum around themes like power, justice and equity. Students could debate, research, write, calculate, compare, construct and present proposals. Some of the learning could unfold outside the classroom.

The Rindge School in Cambridge, Mass., several years ago, developed an instructional model that had 9th graders studying a vacant lot. The students tested the soil (science), constructed and calculated surveys about potential use (mathematics), published interviews of neighboring residents and businesses (language arts), and researched the history of the site (social studies). Teams then developed proposals (with technology and arts applications) for the potential use of the vacant lot. In the best spirit of authentic learning, they presented these ideas not to their classmates but to the Cambridge City Council, which then selected one of the proposed plans. Classroom instruction had become more relevant and meaningful. School changed.

In our hypothetical case, the school whose purpose centered on citizenry also would consider new forms of governance. How are decisions made in the school and who has power? How does a governing system respond to the needs of its constituents? A new type of site-based management might evolve. Student government might take a different form. The notion of the principal as an all-knowing seer might be replaced by a different model of leadership.

The school would be organized differently. If citizenry means community involvement and “making a difference,” perhaps the student schedule would change. Student teams might need one day a week out in the community conducting a voter registration campaign or issues awareness sessions with the general public. Their regular classes on the other four school days each week might have to fit into a different schedule. Teachers might need new time to meet together to plan these new ideas. Student groups might be more heterogeneous; staffing patterns might be re-thought; resources might be allocated in new ways. All these are organizational decisions.

Finally, accountability would be redefined. How will this school measure its success? In addition to standardized tests, perhaps individual and team projects with citizenship themes might be required. Perhaps students might have to compose and defend impact statements. Did the work of a student team actually make a difference? Did they have any influence on the number of citizens who voted in the last election? Did they strengthen the level of understanding about a community issue?

One Set of Ideas

On the late-evening subway ride home on Sept. 11, I began to write down my immediate reactions to what I had witnessed and felt. I played around with this notion of questioning the purpose of schools. I thought then and still believe that we should recognize schools as caring centers, collaborative communities, scholarly sites of inquiry, arenas for clarifying values and learning organizations.

The NYC schools chancellor closed schools for students on Sept. 12 but required principals, assistant principals, counselors and school psychologists to report to work so preparation could be made for grief counseling and crisis intervention. The nation’s largest school system had to prepare itself for the nation’s most dramatic domestic tragedy. Clearly, the often stark, cold and impersonal buildings called schools had to convert themselves into comfort zones. Shouldn’t a standard purpose of our nation’s schools include the fundamental message that, through any crisis and on every single day, schools are havens of help? Schools need to convey the message “We care about you and we care about each other.”

Translating the caring agenda into specific policies and practices ought to be the work of an entire school community, not just an inspired school administrator or an isolated classroom teacher. All the purposes of schools, from teaching with high expectations to creating responsive curriculum, provide opportunities to connect people with each other. The school effectiveness research resounds with this theme: School stakeholders collaborating and taking ownership of what schools do is a desirable model. We do not have to wait for a crisis for this to happen.

I was a first-year high school social studies teacher in an all-black school in an all-black community when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. More than 20 years later, I was the principal of a junior-senior high school when the Gulf War broke out. In both cases, the standard curriculum was set aside so students could research and reflect on the catastrophic events. Classrooms became centers of discovery, deliberation and debate. The purpose of being in class changed, as did our assignments, activities and assessment.

Issues of right and wrong become magnified in times like these. You can be sure that 7-year olds and 17-year olds will be confused and conflicted by the events and implications of Sept. 11. As we have seen, some of these youngsters will be tormented by nightmares and many will stubbornly pose impossible questions. Their quest cannot be ignored. Avenues need to be created so students can ask why and consider complicated explanations. Some of our teaching, inevitably, must center on asking value-laden questions. The ethical dilemmas that fictional characters face in literature, the complex decisions made by historic figures, the moral decisions that have confounded scientists—all of these need to be debriefed, dissected and discussed.

Systems Thinking

Finally, I would urge schools to consider the purpose advocated by Peter Senge for corporations and nonprofit agencies. Senge, best known as the author of The Fifth Discipline, wants us to create learning organizations that promote individual growth, team learning and a shared vision. These re-formed organizations (including schools!) also would challenge individuals to examine their mental models, how they view the world.

Binding these ideas is the concept of systems thinking, searching for how the impact of our actions today can be felt in distant places or at extended times.

To those who would argue that the purpose of schools is to just serve as places of learning, I offer no opposition. I would simply suggest we seriously consider what that learning ought to include. The quest for these answers, in many ways, may be more important than the answers themselves.

Doug Law, the Niles High School principal, made that clear to me. As his staff grappled with a grant proposal centered on school-to-career programs, he knew that their specific ideas mattered less than their collaborative effort to come up with answers. That kind of activity is central to my argument. Now, more than ever, we need to ask ourselves, “What is this really all about?” Now, more than ever, we need to support schools as they struggle to define their purpose.

Lew Smith, a former high school and middle school principal, is an associate professor of leadership and educational administration at the Fordham University Graduate School of Education, 113 W. 60th St., New York, NY 10023. E-mail: lewsmith@fordham.edu. Smith also directs the Fordham Center for Educational Research and Leadership and the National Principals Leadership Institute.