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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

What Is the Purpose of School? Who Knows? Who Cares?

By Nancy Flanagan — September 18, 2016 4 min read
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I look forward to reading PDK’s annual poll about public education. I think the information we get from broad surveys of people about the schools in their community, and public education in general, tells us a lot about things that matter most. Certainly more than school-to-school comparisons using the latest value-added formula, which leave us with no idea how to proceed once the “adjusted” scores are rank-ordered, beyond closing schools (which citizens in the PDK survey reject, 85 to 15%) or public shaming.

PDK also seems to have the knack of putting their finger on the right questions: More taxes to support education? (A surprising amount of support.) More career and technical education, rather than straight-academic College prep? (Why, yes. The word is evidently getting around that not everyone’s going to college--or needs to.) Pay veteran teachers more, rather than hiring lots more newbies? (Yes. Gratifying news.) And my perennial favorite: Evidence that 60% of parents like their child’s traditional public school, even if they think public education in America is terrible.

Joshua Starr of PDK, who has lived and breathed education reform as Superintendent of Schools in Montgomery County, MD and Stamford, CT, has an interesting little essay summarizing the results and probing responses to a survey question on the purpose of public education.

Today's perspectives are no different from those throughout our history; the American public does not agree on a single purpose for public education. The past 16 years have seen an over-reliance on student achievement on state standardized test scores as a measure of success. Whether Presidents Bush and Obama intended for standardized tests to be the de jure purpose of public education, they certainly have become the de facto purpose, as most school systems are organized to promote success on these measures.


When asked about the purpose of education, three possible responses were available:

  • Prepare students academically (45%)
  • Prepare students for the world of work (25%)
  • Prepare students for citizenship (26%)

I know that good survey-makers can’t have too much open-endedness in the questions they ask--it makes the data gathered less reliable and analysis more troublesome. Although it was good to know that a solid quarter of adults still believe in school as the place we learn to be good citizens. I see and hear a lot less of that today than when I was a K-12 student.

But I can’t help wondering what would happen if the question were phrased as a constructed response. What if we asked parents, childless millennials or retirees: What’s the purpose of public education? Why do we collect taxes and build buildings and elect school boards and argue about phonics vs. whole language? What’s the end game?

If you had asked my parents about the purpose of school they both would have been solidly in the “to help you get a better job” camp--to advance yourself in the world. If you asked me why I sent my children to public schools, the answer would be centered on finding and enhancing their academic and personal strengths in a setting that promotes community.

I would have gone full Dewey, given the time and space. But I know I’m an anomaly--and I also believe the purpose of schooling is one of the great unexamined questions in our national conversation about public education.

It’s also a question well worth exploring, again and again. If we were clear about our purpose, or purposes, for public education, it might illuminate policy-making at all levels.

Here’s an example: What if we divided public school students, at age 16, into two groups--those who will follow a technical course leading to a skilled trade, and those who will pursue a professional or liberal arts degree at a four-year college or university? (The German system looks something like this, although much more complicated.)

This would certainly be efficient in preparing students for the world of work. No floundering around, trying to decide if college is “right” for Jacob or Jessica. No taking out loans that lead to nothing but a decade’s worth of debt. Let’s get some good data, and send students in the direction they’re best suited to go--their designated career pipeline.

But this is America, where charter schools use their college admission (not completion) rates as marketing, where the purpose of K-12 education seems to be getting into a college, the more prestigious, the better. A place where parents with means will ensure their child ends up on the pathway they choose, system be damned.

I think Joshua Starr is on to something. Recently, the purpose and product of public education has been achievement data--and this change has clearly been driven by policy. Why?

Nearly 20 years ago, David Labaree, now a professor at Stanford, wrote an outstanding piece that anticipates the shift: Public Goods, Private Goods: the American Struggle over Educational Goals. Here’s the abstract:

This article explores three alternative goals for American education that have been at the root of educational conflicts over the years: democratic equality (schools should focus on preparing citizens), social efficiency (they should focus on training workers), and social mobility (they should prepare individuals to compete for social positions). These goals represent, respectively, the educational perspective of the citizen, the taxpayer, and the consumer. Whereas the first two look on education as a public good, the third sees it as a private good. Historical conflict over these competing visions of education has resulted in a contradictory structure for the educational system that has sharply impaired its effectiveness. More important still has been the growing domination of the social mobility goal, which has reshaped education into a commodity for the purposes of status attainment and has elevated the pursuit of credentials over the acquisition of knowledge.

I think Labaree got this exactly right: We like to talk about citizenship and the world of work, but our real purpose is credentialing--and our current drive toward market-based, quasi-privatized educational “choice” has made public education a commodity.

It’s not about the benefits of a well-informed citizenry or economic productivity. It’s not even about knowledge. It’s all about keeping social hierarchies in place.

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