School & District Management Opinion

An Idea to Consider: The Purpose Is the Point

By Phillip Harris & Bruce Smith — May 11, 2010 5 min read
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Just do it, screams the ad copy. Git ’er done, crows the comedian. Whatever you do, don’t shilly-shally around overthinking your actions. If America had a national bumper sticker, that’s the message our society would doubtless want it to convey. We understand and often share those feelings. But a more judicious approach is not just more sensible, but the only one likely to get us where we want to go.

Look at the Race to the Top initiative, or the early indications of what the Obama administration and Congress are likely to put into a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We’re going to “hold people accountable” by requiring schools to track student outcomes, from test scores to attendance to graduation rates. We’re going to require states to consider teachers’ performance—as measured by their students’ performance—in designing compensation systems. Many folks in Washington and in state capitals are even hoping to extend similar kinds of accountability measures to higher education. But all of this effort, and the haste with which we try to adopt the policies, is misguided for at least two reasons.

First, we’re caught up in a national misunderstanding of the basic terms of the debate. The proposed policies aren’t about accountability at all. All that school accountability really ought to mean is that citizens and their elected officials are given the information they need to know about their schools. That’s far simpler to state than to put into effect.

But accountability is essentially reporting. That reporting can be done in myriad ways, including publicly reporting aggregate test scores; sharing with parents during conferences what their children have been doing and how they are progressing; presenting budget figures to the school board; demonstrating students’ achievements in the arts through plays, musical performances, and exhibits in the visual arts; and bringing more students into the daily life of the community and welcoming more noneducators into the schools. Many of these and similar activities already take place to varying degrees, but the central aim of accountability is to allow the public to get to know its schools. To make that possible, more people need to share more information; transparency is key.

So by all means let’s improve the ways we communicate with our fellow citizens about everything—good and bad—that happens in our schools. That means more than just telling folks that they need to raise money for a new roof or a swimming pool and then going back into our shells until we need the public to pony up again. Real communication is a two-way street. We also need to invite real public input into matters of curriculum, instruction, extracurricular activities, and all the problems and successes, social and academic, that are part of the daily life of our schools. Then we will be accountable.

But if the so-called accountability policies being considered by our leaders, both elected and appointed, are not about accountability, what are they about? In a word, they are about evaluation, and evaluation means making judgments. Are our students doing well enough, and are our teachers good enough to help them? Which brings us to the second reason the policies under consideration are misguided: Judgment requires a broad consideration of purpose, and in our haste to get to the finish line, find out who won, and award the trophies and hand out the lashes, we don’t take time to think about why we do what we do. What are our schools for? What goals do we hope they will achieve? And if educators don’t take the time, how can we expect the public to do so?

These are not new questions. But taking them seriously requires patient and nuanced discussion, something that our national rush to judge and then reward or punish on the flimsy foundation of a set of test scores has made all too rare. Here are a few snippets from some of our leading deep thinkers to serve as a kind of “dough starter” to get us thinking productively about the purpose of public schools.

In a 2001 article in The American Prospect, Larry Cuban offered a historically grounded answer:

“Tax-supported public schools in the United States were not established 150 years ago to ensure jobs for graduates or to replace the family or church. They were established to make sure that children would grow into literate adults who respected authority and could make reasoned judgments, accept differences of opinions, and fulfill their civic duty to participate in the political and social life of their communities.”

The kind of purposes Cuban describes encompass much of what Deborah Meier has felicitously called “schooling for ruling.” In more commonly heard words, schooling for democracy.

By all means let’s improve the ways we communicate with our fellow citizens about everything—good and bad—that happens in our schools."

More than 30 years ago, John I. Goodlad offered a concise historical summary of the goals of schooling: “Beginning with narrowly academic and religious goals in the 17th century, vocational and social goals were added in the 18th and 19th centuries, and goals of personal or self-realization in the 20th.”

Only the religious goals have fallen by the wayside, a necessity as the nation wove itself together from disparate colonies founded most often by individual religious denominations. The other four—academic, social, vocational, and personal—have remained, honored in commencement-speech rhetoric, if not in daily practice.

Of course, we hear plenty about academic goals. Indeed, academic outcomes—at least to the degree that test scores can capture them—are widely reported. Have the others become less important? Says who? No one asked us. Has anyone asked you? And if they’re still important goals, how can we know how well we’re doing?

John Dewey got many things right, but his prose was ponderous, even Victorian. And like most philosophers, he dealt in large, abstract ideas. If you take the time to read Democracy and Education, you’ll find yourself nodding frequently. Unfortunately, it might be drowsiness rather than agreement that brings on the nodding. But Dewey has had many translators. One, the historian Lawrence A. Cremin, translated Dewey’s abstract definition of education (a “reconstruction or reorganization of experience”) into “a way of saying that the aim of education is not merely to make citizens, or workers, or fathers, or mothers, but ultimately to make human beings who will live life to the fullest.” Now that’s a goal we can all support, but not one we hear much about.

No matter how we spell out the various goals of schooling, though, when the discussion ends, schools will remain crucial to creating the next generation of citizens. Families, religious bodies, and other social institutions play important roles, but in our society, schools are key players, and coming to an understanding of why we even have schools is worth the time. In misunderstanding accountability, and in rushing to judgment, we seem to have forgotten the primary role of purpose. It’s as if we’re careening down a highway at breakneck speed, happy just to be in motion. But lacking either a GPS system or a map, we have no idea where we’re going.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as An Idea to Consider: The Purpose Is the Point


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