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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Rediscovering the Purpose of Education

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 03, 2015 5 min read
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Before deciding on the direction your district will take to consider or dismiss STEM as a 21st century school requisite at least let the fermenting STEM interest cause you to pause for a reflective moment. When was the last time you and your community had a conversation about the purpose of education? Not one of those open debates about which program to keep or which school to close but a deeper conversation about the purpose of public education where you live and lead. If you convened a group of educators, parents, students and alumni with representatives of businesses, higher-ed, and community members and asked, “What is the highest purpose served by the public schools of this community”, what would they say? To become a contributing member of our democracy and our economy is likely a popular response. Or, perhaps to live meaningfully and prosper as adults giving back to the world. Policy leaders and educators might say to produce graduates who are college and career ready. Could we get them to agree on a meaning for those words? Perhaps it is the lack of common understanding and articulated values that are holding back the educational community from bringing schools into the 21st century. We question how it is possible to truly prepare students for lives beyond our walls when no one knows how rapidly the world will proceed to change. Yet, we can be pretty sure in our hearts of hearts that retaining what happens within our walls the same as the last century isn’t enough...and it isn’t right. We contend that systemic change is required. Agreement on the purpose of public education and a shared vision for schools must come first.

Make Sure There Are Shared Understandings
The questions that follow were written to guide school board reflection. They appear in a National School Boards Association (NSBA) report, but we believe these questions are valuable beyond just the board level. The values of the community’s educators must align with those held by the board of education so the district can move ahead with one voice, in one direction.


  1. What do we (the board) believe to be the purpose of public education in our community? Do we know if our beliefs fully reflect those of our community?
  2. If we don’t know our community’s answer to that question, how might we find out? If there are conflicting viewpoints, how can we move toward meaningful deliberations toward shared ideals?
  3. If we have identified a clear and shared purpose for public education, does it create an appropriate balance between “the pursuit of happiness,” individual good, and “the common good?”
  4. How does the current national focus on college and career readiness fit with our community’s purpose for public education?
  5. How will clarifying the purpose of public education in our community assist us in aligning resources and making decisions at the board table?

Step Into 21st Century Schools
Why do we think STEM is a valuable basis for change? There are competing truths about STEM as it is generally understood. First, it is considered to be the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math. This definition is based on current information that careers in these areas are lacking in American applicants and that these areas will be the focus of 21st century careers. Thus, the concern that our economy needs workers in these areas and schools need to prepare workers both for the good of the country and for the good of our graduates.

Leaders in business, education and politics love to talk up how important Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education is for America’s future. Innovations! Jobs! Progress! are all at stake, they often argue (NPR).

But, more importantly, as educators, we should be able to speak with authority about the skills necessary in this century and how they differ from those in the past. In the four STEM areas, we can most easily relate skills to content and approach. These are times of accelerated change, where communication, innovation, collaboration, and critical thinking are essential.

These four subjects readily allow for the application of learning and increase its relevance for students. They require interdisciplinary, project-based opportunities that ultimately invite us to create new courses, trans-disciplinary ones that engage students, not for the abstract sake of engaging them but because the projects make sense to them. When that happens, classrooms and labs get exciting and students are increasingly engaged in learning. In our view, STEM offers a fulcrum for changing from 20th to 21st century schools, not just in high schools and not just advanced courses for a few gifted students, but for all students in the K-12 system. These four subjects, and their integration, demand the inclusion of the arts and the humanities and certainly global workplaces demand language skills like never before. All subjects can be reconnected in authentic learning and performance opportunities.

From an ASCD 2004 article:

As schools struggle with achievement gaps, they should consider how educating students for democracy can help, author and educator Carl Glickman advised. “The idea of engagement and the idea of achievement are tightly linked,” he said during a panel discussion. “Democracy itself is an educational experience--a breathtaking experience.” To become contributing citizens, students need to explore issues that have relevance outside school, said Glickman, editor of the recent book Letters to the Next President: What We Can Do About the Real Crisis in Public Education. “If the kids don’t see relevance, don’t see application, then they don’t understand what this stuff does in terms of their future life” (ASCD).

Finally, a shift into the 21st century schools is not one that can be done without partnerships from business, healthcare, non-profits, service organizations and higher education. Opening school doors to professionals in the field has previously been a heavy lift for school leaders, teachers’ unions and for the external professionals as well. Foundational agreements must be arranged but there are models everywhere where these partnerships are adding vitality to schools and other sites. The beginning point is the decision about whether to raise the frightening and thrilling questions: What is the purpose of schools in this century? What do students need and how do they learn best? Then, the journey begins.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Photo by iqoncept courtesy of 123RF.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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