June 15, 2008

Families and schools (Father's Day edition)

I'm recovering from the ritual that millions of parents have been through before me: taking a teenager out for the lane-changing experiment. My daughter earned her Florida learner's permit 9 days ago, started driving classes at a local high school last week, and has been driving short jaunts with her mother or me every day since. She handles our cars well, and she tells us that we've been far less nervous than she expected. (I'm not sure whether to count this comment as a compliment.)

We live in a subdivision with a few quiet roads around us but hemmed in on three sides with major streets. My daughter has been expanding her local range cautiously, but she needed a chance to try changing lanes when the traffic was light. This morning, we headed north on one of the major roads (7 lanes near our house). We had a small detour when she spotted a tortoise on the road, found a place to park to check on the turtle, and discovered it had already been killed by other motorists. Then we headed back to the highway where she changed lanes several times, generally kept up highway speed, grumbled her irritation at fellow drivers who rushed to turn close in front of her, and returned home. And only then did she remember it was Father's Day.

Driving classes are the classic example of an "add-on" function of schooling that irritated the authors of The Shopping Mall High School. Driving classes exist in public schooling because teenagers are relatively risky drivers, most teenagers attend school, and someone decades ago figured high schools were the logical place to offer driving classes. "They will come, so build it." Insurance companies in Florida give small discounts after the completion of a certified driving course, so there is an incentive for parents and young drivers to seek out the classes. (My daughter reports that several classmates in the course after driving for months, just to get the discount.)

What surprises me a little (but not much) is that with few exceptions, I don't hear anyone publicly questioning the role of driving classes in high school. They're available, so I'm happy to use them for my own children, but I don't think they deserve the same level of support as other areas of the curriculum. Learning how to drive before you graduate is less important than all sorts of other things. Why driving became the responsibility of schools makes sense if you know about the history of secondary education but it makes little sense if you think about the possible ways in which families and schools could share responsibility for children.

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Posted in Education policy on June 15, 2008 2:06 PM |