School Bus Parking Lot Coney Island

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Going Back to School? What for?

In this essay, Mediha Din describes three roles of schooling in our society and their effectiveness.

There is joy in their eyes and lightness in their hearts. There’s a skip in their steps, and the elation is undeniable. Who are they? Newlyweds? First-time parents? Parents of college graduates? No. They are the parents of school-aged children who are headed back to school after the long summer vacation. Back to school excitement among parents is undeniable. As a former 2nd grade teacher, I would get a kick out of watching parents at the drop-off area on the first day of school. You could not wipe the grins of relief off their faces if you wanted to. As sociologists, we often examine the role of people and institutions in our society. The role of schools from the point of view of parents is of course to educate, but also to occupy their children. Once those children go off to college, parents expect them to graduate ready for the workforce.

Analyzing schooling from the point of view of structural functionalism includes looking at the functions of education. These include supervision, instruction, and training of students.

1. Supervising Children While Many Parents Work.

Public schools offer a place for parents to send their kids for 7 or more hours a day. This saves parents about $1,000 a month, per child, as the average cost of center-based daycare in the United States is $11,666 per year ($972 a month) according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA). Schools also provide a safe space for children. Although the tragic school shootings we have seen over the years may lead us to believe that schools have become very unsafe, reports from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that schools are safer today than two decades ago. Rates of theft and violent crimes at schools are lower today than they were in the past. This means parents can go to work while their children are being watched free of cost (outside of taxes contributing to public school education) and know they are in a relatively safe environment.

2. Instruction: Providing Students General Knowledge:

Another function of public schools is to provide students with basic general knowledge. Students learn to read, write, do basic mathematics, and how to think scientifically. However, Mother Nature Network’s article, 9 skills They Don’t Teach In School But Should, brings to light some of the gaps in this goal. Real world math skills are emphasized in the article: “Wouldn’t it be nice if word problems focused on real-life skills such as balancing a checkbook or creating a budget rather than whether or not a train leaving Point A ever meets up with a train from Point B?” Some other important life skills often missed by traditional schooling, cited in the article, include basic First Aid, how to cook a nutritious meal, swim, fix a dripping sink faucet, file your taxes, check the air pressure in your tires, and defend yourself in a dangerous situation.

3. Training: Preparing Students for Their Future Occupations

The last function of schools I want to talk to you about is the vocational function of schools. Schools, in the minds of many, are supposed to prepare students for the workforce they will graduate into. Today, colleges and universities are under substantial pressure to train students for their future careers. However, despite this pressure, many critics of higher education argue that graduates are not receiving adequate training.

For instance, A US McKinsey study indicated that only one out of four employers believe that traditional universities are “doing an adequate job of preparing graduates for the workplace”. Another study from the educational software company Instructure, reported that “only 8% of managers say entry-level employees are very prepared to contribute immediately at work.”

Georfery James of LinkedIn, writes in Colleges Aren’t Preparing Students for the Workforce, about how most universities are not teaching essential workplace skills such as how to compose a succinct professional e-mail, or effective sales strategies. The article advises corporations to hire candidates based on work ethic and attitude, and train for essential skills after hiring. Most colleges also do not teach how to develop a strong work ethic, cultivate a positive attitude, or display those qualities in an interview.

In my Introduction to Sociology courses, I always teach interview skills to my students as well as how to effectively collaborate in groups. My husband teaches the same skills in his Computer Science courses such as Computer Hardware Repair and Networking Fundamentals. Many professors are weaving these skills into the content of our courses even though they are not part of the textbook or student learning objectives outlined by the colleges. We do this because we know students may not otherwise learn these important concepts. However, it is clear that there is a need for college-wide practices that emphasize the skills that are in demand by today’s employers.

It seems schools in America today are effectively supervising students, but when it comes to the roles of providing knowledge and job preparation, there is quite a lot of room for improvement. Imagine the grins on parents faces the first day of school if they knew they were not only sending their children off to be watched in a safe place, but also to gain the tools needed to be productive adults who move out and stay out of the house after the age of 21.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Read the article, 9 skills They Don’t Teach In School But Should. What are three skills mentioned in the article that you agree schools should teach, why? What are three other life skills that you wish were taught in school? Explain your reasoning.
  2. Have you had a teacher or counselor teach you skills that you feel are useful for life? If so, describe the class, the skills that were taught, and why you feel they will help you in your future.
  3. Read the article, Colleges Aren’t Preparing Students for the Workforce. What are the problems with college education according to the author? What changes would you implement in colleges to better prepare students for occupations?
  4. View this short video of the post from mom of five, Keshia Leeann Gardner, jumping for joy on her kids’ first day of school. Keshia’s post went viral. What are three reasons you feel that many parents can relate to Keshia’s sentiments? Explain your thinking in detail.

Image by Christian R via Wikimedia Commons