Most people do not question that our school system is broken. The question is how to fix it. There are lots of possible solutions floated on a regular basis: increased spending, more standardized testing, more technology, less technology, better teacher education, longer recess, longer school year, no recess, different classes, or more updated buildings to name a few. All of these will fail - and not just because some are opposites. They will all fail because we have failed to address the fundamental question. What is the goal of our schools?
Not having a clear and defined goal means that we are constantly going in different directions. We will never succeed until we are working toward the same ends.
Some of the goals that I hear most often are: job training, social justice and awareness, a classical liberal arts education, and child care. (No one will publicly admit the latter; the panic of "what to do with the kids" when a school day is cancelled demonstrates this though.) Each of these goals are met in different ways that often conflict with one another. We can not expect our schools to be all to all.
We expect our schools to be run like a factory with children travelling along an assembly line by year and having various information put in them during the correct year. The whole purpose of standardized testing is to determine how well schools are doing just that. We have an entire educational testing industry and more federal mandates than I can count about this. Here is the first MAJOR problem with education. Children are not cars moving along Ford's assembly line. They are individuals. They are all different. We can not and should not be trying to make them all the same. If we do that, we have no artists, no entrepreneurs, and no statesmen. In short, we have only people and no persons. Pushing children along an indifferent conveyor belt denies their humanity. What if instead of trying to make our schools be all to all and trying to make our children all the same, we acknowledged and celebrated their differences and gave options to meet various goals?
One of the things that I frequently hear from people is that they want to ensure that kids have the skills that they need to be productive members of the workforce, and it only makes sense to use taxpayer funds to ensure a basic level of education. So what does one need to be able to enter the workforce? Reading, writing, clear speaking and communication, basic math skills, ability to apply and interview for a job, often computer skills, good hygiene, and how to be a dependable worker. You could even add in a few extras like how to balance a check book, cook and do laundry, and rent an apartment. Does this take 13 years? Not at all. It could all easily be covered in a few hours a day for maybe 2-4 years around the age of 9-14. This could also be, to a large degree, self-paced. Some students could probably finish it less than a year while others would take longer. Would someone who received only this be educated? No. However, the goal of basic job training would have been met, and he or she would likely have learned more job skills than someone graduating from high school today under the current system. Graduation/completion would be determined not on age or number of years attending but rather on the successful mastery of these basic skills. While not the ideal, it is not beyond reason that this type of schooling be compulsory as a minimum education required. After completing it, students could be free to continue education (the ideal) or to get a job if they really do not desire any further education. For those families currently choosing to home school their students, they could choose to teach these skills at home and then have their student demonstrate mastery in a fashion similar to the current GED.
What about a classical liberal arts education? This involves broad subject matter studied to enough depth to be able to speak on a variety of subjects at length: Maths, science, the arts history, civics, law, literature, foreign language, philosophy, geography, politics, rhetoric, economics, physical fitness, and more. In a way, the school system in the US is structured to try to accomplish this. However, it fails to address the fact that teachers can inspire a student, but only a student can decide to educate him/herself. No mandates or compulsion can do it, and it can not be accomplished on an arbitrary schedule. This type of education has a pre-requisite of a strong moral core and a love of learning prior to entering into this scholarly pursuit. Teachers function as inspiring mentors who help students to hold themselves to high standards of excellence. A school with this type of goal would likely have to insist on basic standards for admission to the school or a teacher could have certain requirements in order to come to their class. It could not be compulsory in order for it to work. Students could sign up for a class with a specific subject and teacher based on their interest. Teachers could refuse admission to the class of students who were unable or unwilling to meet the teacher's standards, and schools would be able to set and advertise their standards for graduation.
Social justice and advocacy have historically had fantastic results by folks who first had a classical liberal arts education. It would be very fitting for schools to take graduates of the classical liberal arts schools who are interested in pursuing social justice and advocacy. This would provide both specific training as well as support. It is likely that institutions would specialize in particular areas, so someone who, for instance, was most interested in reforming the criminal justice system would know where to go to get the best information and assistance for doing so. Students would already have a broad base of education, so schools could just build on it specific to their cause or have a fairly broad social justice background and more specialized details in certain areas.
As far as schools as child care, there is not really a good solution. There are a lot of single parent families or families with both parents working out there who depend on the schools for their child care right now. Some kids who were not interested in education past the most basic point would likely get jobs. (Not necessarily a bad thing. If I had gotten a "real" job at 14 with only basic skills, I would have decided really quickly that going to school was probably a better option.) Others would be pursuing more education - and actually pursuing it not just sitting in a classroom.
I do not think that I have all the answers. I do know that I see lots of good teachers and thousands of children damaged by a dysfunctional and expensive system. We need to do a better job of understanding what the end goals should be, or things will never really get better.