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Federal Opinion

What is the Goal of the American Education System?

By Tom Segal — August 29, 2013 9 min read
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When we discuss the uses of technology in the classroom, the conversation inevitably turns to the theme of reform within the education system. The two concepts are conceivably joined at the hip, two peas in a pod: Ed-Tech = Ed-Reform.

I don’t think this is quite right. For me, introducing technology into the classroom has various use cases (automating administrative processes for teachers to free up more time for real teaching, creating richer content-based experiences, connecting local students to the entirety of the world around them) that add up to something more akin to the modernization of the learning experience. Advanced technologies are increasingly becoming commonplace within the pure act of surviving in the 21st Century.

Reform, however, has more to do with the learning experience itself. What should we be teaching? How do we think about accountability? How do we balance standards with the complexities of population diversity? Undoubtedly, technology is typically an offshoot of this dialogue, a tool through which much of this reform can be delivered and administered. But they are not the same thing.

Reform is a big fancy buzzword that floats around one particular concept: what are we trying to get out of this educational experience, and how do we adjust the current system to reflect these changes? In the United States education system, we have kids under our control until they are 18 years old. By the time they are 18, what is it that we would like them to have accomplished and be positioned to accomplish in the future?

Before any logical debate can take place regarding reform, we first need to determine what the point of public education is in the first place. It seems obvious on the surface, but my guess is the deeper we delve into this narrative, the more differentiated the opinions will be.

Are we trying to produce happy adults? Are we trying to produce the next generation workforce? Are we trying to produce active, informed citizens capable of navigating a complex democracy? Perhaps simply “college readiness?” Are we simply trying to “beat” China (or South Korea, or Finland, or whoever)? Is it something in between?

So, I decided to ping an array of informed voices on this very subject and compile a set of responses from these diverse individuals within the education world. I asked two questions:

In your opinion, what is the current goal of the American Public Education System?


What should be the goal of the American Public Education System?

Here are some of the responses I have gathered so far (more to come in Part II). By all means, please feel free to contribute your own thoughts in the comments section below, or even shoot me an email for potential use in the followups to come:

From Paul Smith, Head of Marketing at LearnSprout, former Fourth Grade teacher

In your opinion, what is the current goal of the American Public Education System?

Over the last thirteen years since NCLB the American education system has shifted away from the broad goal of preparing students for life, to the specific goal of preparing students for college.

What should be the goal of the American Public Education System?

I’ve typed and deleted and typed and deleted my answer here... The answer to this question should be simple, but it’s not. I’m not sure if it’s wise to have a singular goal for public education since we know from experience that diversity has been the key to our success. That being said, I think it would be wise for us to establish a national mission statement.

We recently went through this exercise for LearnSprout and the process revealed a great deal. It invoked deep, prolonged late-night discussions and many beers were consumed. It forced us to reflect on what our combined strengths were and revealed discrepancies in our individual aspirations for the company. Through the process we ultimately landed on something that serves as a constant touchstone and influences every decision we make.

This is the conversation we should be having about education in the U.S. Instead we’re lost in the weeds, arguing about tactics without a strategy or mission. (The US DOE has their own but it doesn’t speak to the purpose of public education.) Wouldn’t it be great to have folks like Arne Duncan, Diane Ravitch, Sugata Mitra, Ken Robinson, Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada and Randi Weingarten all on a joint task force to take on this question and come up with a mission statement we all could agree with? Perhaps that’s naive on my part, but it’s worth a shot IMO.

Here’s my attempt:

  • To develop in all students the core knowledge requisite for an independent life.
  • To help students realize and develop their strengths while improving upon their weaknesses.
  • To help students understand our commonality while celebrating individualism.
  • To develop respect for history and tradition while cultivating a shared desire to challenge the status quo.
  • To cultivate divergent thinking instill a creative spirit.
  • To engender a sense of patriotism, balanced with a global world view.

From Matt Greenfield, Managing Partner of Rethink Education, former Professor of English at Bowdoin College and the CUNY system

1. I think most Americans would agree with me that the goal of the American public education system is to prepare students to be responsible, healthy, engaged, self-aware citizens and experts in the performance of a socially useful task. We disagree about how to achieve this goal.

2. I think the goal does not need to be changed. I do think, though, that the system needs modify its methods: learning needs to be more personalized, more active, more collaborative, more global, and more closely tied to the passions and expertise of students. Technology can help us get there, not by replacing teachers but by freeing teachers to spend more time with small groups and individual students. One-on-one instruction will continue to be the gold standard in education.

From Allison McKinnon, K/1 teacher in the Greater Rochester public school system

I believe the current goal of the american public education system is to raise the academic standards in the United States through the implementation of the common core standards. The belief is, by raising standards and helping students develop critical thinking skills, students will achieve greater academic success and perform better on standardized tests, ultimately raising the United States educational ranking in the world. Unfortunately, the increased frequency of poor quality standardized assessments does not truly reflect student achievement and cognitive ability.

The goal should be to provide teachers with high quality professional development to implement the common core in a dynamic an interactive manner and not rely on standardized tests to rank students, teachers, schools, districts and states.

From John Katzman, founder of The Princeton Review, 2U, and Noodle.org, regarding the second question

To turn out students who, over the next 30 years, are economic successes, good citizens, and happy people. Each of those things is highly measurable, and any short-term metric that doesn’t durably predict those long term metrics is worthless.

From Peter Mili, 2013 NEA Foundation Massachusetts Teacher of Excellence and a Pearson Foundation 2013 Global Learning Fellow

In your opinion, what is the current goal of the American Public Education System? What should be the goal of the American Public Education System?

I’d say there is a fair amount of consensus with this partial list, that our American Public Education System should strive towards in educating our students to

• be prepared to participate in our democracy,
• be responsible citizens,
• acquire ‘21st century skills’,
• be globally competent,
• think critically,
• read and write,
• and be quantitatively literate.

As a practitioner, I’m fearful, along with many colleagues, that these goals and all that is involved in achieving them is currently being compromised by the policies of accountability and undesirable consequences that are in place. One result is that what happens in schools is to focus on what is easily measured by the assessments for ‘accountability’ such as (arithmetic, spelling, comprehension), at the expense of other skills and understandings that are not easily measured (such as responsibility, collaboration, global competence, critical thinking).

From Betty Bardige, Early Childhood Consultant, Author & Advocate

Today, the central aim of our public education system seems to be: To prepare (some) students to succeed in the worlds of work and continuing (higher) education. (I said “some” because our system is not equitable.)

In a democracy, the central aim of public education needs to be to create an informed, involved, critically-thoughtful citizenry committed to the long-term welfare of the community and the collective pursuit of a just, healthy, and inclusive society. In a country that is founded upon the shared value of equal opportunity, all children must have access to an education that enables them to be full and productive participants in civic, social, economic, and community life. In today’s world, that means promoting global knowledge, cross-cultural communication and competence, wide-ranging curiosity, and the ability to use a variety of technologies to continue to develop knowledge, expertise, and new perspectives and to actively participate in knowledge creation and civic discourse. It also means building emotional as well as cognitive intelligence.

The Common Core, which promotes critical and creative thinking, deep content knowledge, analytic and problem-solving skills, and effective communication in a variety of forms and contexts

From a child’s perspective, the aim of education is to engender and satisfy curiosity and to build the knowledge and skill needed for self-chosen individual and collaborative pursuits.

At the Mailman-Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies, the preschool curriculum is based on 5 “c’s: communication, cooperation, creativity, concept development, and critical thinking. The curriculum incorporates other important c’s as well: culture, community, curiosity, content knowledge (in a wide range of areas that interest children), and coping strategies, along with the ongoing development of physical competence and health-promoting habits. That’s a pretty good list of educational aims.

We’ve built our education system upside down, with narrow “college and career ready” aims and easily tested skills at the top driving and often crowding out the broader “whole child” aims that - according to extensive research - are actually critical to achieving college and career readiness. Ellen Galinsky’s book, Mind in the Making, summarizes these “seven essential life skills:" focus and self-control, perspective-taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges, and self-directed, engaged learning.

Several years ago, I participated in a conference on “Quality Education as a Civil Right,” convened by the Algebra Project, the Young People’s Project, and Howard University. The conference brought together educators (pre-K - 12), academics, civil rights activists, and students from across the U.S.. There was a surprising amount of consensus among the various groups as to what constituted a “quality education.” Although they used different words, all groups called for an approach that balanced building knowledge and skills needed to obtain satisfying work at good wages with opportunities to pursue individual passions and curiosity and a values-based commitment to community responsibility and social justice.

The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 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.