What’s the goal of public education?

Posted on Tuesday 30 January 2007

Every time I approach the question of education or reform, I find that people respond from many different directions, with radically diverse assumptions. Thus, it appears to me that we don’t have a consensus on what, exactly, we’re trying to accomplish with our public education system.

Perhaps I missed the mission statement.

Is the goal a literate society whose citizens can support themselves? To participate in / understand the issues that affect them?

Or is it to compete in a global economy?

Is it to educate to some common denominator? Or instead, is it to take each individual to his/her fullest potential?

Or am I way off base and it’s something else altogether?

Without a clear set of commonly defined, understood, and accepted expectations, I don’t know how we can hope to “fix” whatever it is we variously see as broken.

So I’m curious — what do you think the goal is / should be?

(Cross-posted at The Moderate Voice)

11 Comments for 'What’s the goal of public education?'

    January 30, 2007 | 7:19 am

    I’d say primarily your first two goals, because i think the third flows from those. People who are able to participate in society (socially and economically) have a stake in that society, and tend to adopt its common values.

    I don’t think public education will necessarily lead to self-actualization, but it does give people tools to do that on their own.

    January 30, 2007 | 12:51 pm

    I think the purpose of “universal education” is – or ought to be – to ensure that young people have the skills needed to function effectively in and/or create new American businesses.

    As you know, education isn’t free. If it was schools wouldn’t need bonds, etc., to bring in money for capital projects and ongoing expenditures.

    Within constraints, the education system ought to graduate young adults who meet a nation-wide minimum standard while allowing more capable students to achieve to their own level.

    Special emphasis should be given to the most capable students, because they will be carrying the weight of the American economy in coming decades.

    The national dynamic of what’s needed out of education has changed dramatically in the last 2 decades and the system hasn’t kept up. American businesses must compete with foreign companies and American society must compete with foreign nations, some of whom have incredible amounts of human capital to draw on.

    It’s imperative that we compete with China, et al, in the engineering and science fields. We are being soundly beaten today and everyone knows it. The question is, what are we willing to do about it?

    If we’re going to continue to de-emphasize achievement for the best and brightest of our youth, we will have no chance against countries that take a less politically correct approach.

    January 30, 2007 | 2:37 pm

    Hi Marc —

    I agree with you. However, while I also think we are guilty of having de-emphasized the “best and brightest” for several decades, it would serve the country best if we can manage to define (and educate / train for) a number of tracks and directions.

    Everybody can’t be (or hasn’t the desire to be) an engineer or scientist. We also need creative thinkers — people who can come “out of the box” for problem solving. That can be fostered in a number of ways, to the great benefit of a number of fields.

    However, none of these things are possible if we don’t have clear expectations and definitions on what, exactly, we’re trying to accomplish with our education systems.

    January 30, 2007 | 6:22 pm

    You can even get into more questions with just the first one about being literate. There are kids that can read in kindergarten, and it is assumed that if you are not reading by 3rd grade that you need some personal help to catch up. So, its not just being able to read, but at what level of reading have you gone far enough. Maybe comprehension is a better word. Should we all be able to read and comprehend Supreme Court decisions? That’s not going to happen in reality, so at what point should it be considered good enough? There are those who gripe that having to read the Great Gatsby in 11th grade doesn’t do anything extra to help you enter the work force. But the point is not remembering what happened in that book, the point is to try to raise your reading comprehension level.

    I’ll say that somewhere in middle school the general public feels that comprehension has reached as far as it needs to go and something else should be focused on. Same goes for math. How many parents could you find that will say they are so glad they took math higher than algebra. Katy could be a geographical exception, so lets point to the parents that live near high schools with 60% drop out rates. Oh and science too. After you learn about gravity and why the sky is blue and that flames are hot, not much more is going to help you operate that cash register. Social studies is interesting but who really retains that stuff. The number of people that can’t name all 50 states or even locate them is appalling but real. And now those people have children and have voter influence on school boards.

    A significant problem with the approach to changing education is that the average parent will name specific books, maps, math equations, or science labs that are a waste of time and don’t need to be taught any more. But the approach needs to focus on not what specific activities are being done, but what goal do those activities achieve. Getting the public to understand this is a significant hurdle.

    January 30, 2007 | 8:51 pm

    You can even get into more questions with just the first one about being literate.

    I had a lot of trouble narrowing this post down to the level of simplicity I wanted (or rather, that I thought would foster discussion). You’re exactly right; there are levels far beyond this.

    Getting the public to understand any of this, unfortunately, looks out of reach.

    January 30, 2007 | 9:12 pm

    So, its not just being able to read, but at what level of reading have you gone far enough.

    Yes — that’s probably exactly the level of thought required to make the public see the question in the light it requires.

    Sorry to respond to your comment twice, Jack. I’m slow tonight…

    January 31, 2007 | 2:15 pm

    I agree that tracking is a good thing; we should definitely be doing that at every level in the system.

    As for the mission statement of public education, I think it should be “To help every American reach an equal amount of his/her potential, subject to budgetary constraints”.

    I get the feeling, though, that it wouldn’t fly well on the campaign trail.

    But I think it’s a mistake to codify goal and objectives behind the minimum level. Developing kids’ potential and giving them a free market to work in after graduation is all we can and should do. Why define the future for them? Let them do that.

    So how do we develop potential? Get the core material in their heads ASAP. Group kids by like interests and abilities. Put the best teachers where they can do the most good for society – with the top 25%.

    February 2, 2007 | 11:05 am

    I think that what “public” (and by this I include private elementary and secondary schools) education should do is prepare children to assume the rights and responsibilities of citizenship when they reach adulthood.

    Polimom is right that we need more than one (read: college prep) track – people are different, and trying to push that square peg into the round hole isn’t gonna work, and it will inflict pain on the square peg and annoy the round hole. However, there are some core subjects/skills that everyone (everyone, that is, who expects to be even moderately successful in society) needs to learn: examples include such things as balancing a checkbook (basic math), interpreting road signage and ballots (reading), participation in the political process (social sciences and history), and in general getting along with others and avoiding making a complete horse’s ass of oneself (Civilized Behavior 101.) In addition, I would think that to the extent it is affordable, personal enrichment classes (such as art, music, sports) be included (this would be part of “Civilized Behavior 201″.) Volunteer (read: unpaid) community service might also be a part of the curriculum (labelled “Civilized Behavior 301″.)

    As far as standardized tests go, remember that they are a measure of progress against expected norms: I would de-emphasize them, as our recent preoccupation with TAKS and the like has done absolutely NOTHING to further the education of a single solitary child (which is only proper, given that the intent was to meaure students’ progress as part of a process to determine bonuses for teachers and administrators.) The testing we went through when I was in school was certainly adequate to determine whether or not the material was being learned: take the time spent on “TAKS prep” and refocus it on teaching additional material.


    ulu jones
    May 25, 2009 | 3:12 pm

    The goal of modern education is to indoctrinate the masses into accepting the illusion that they are powerless, that they should not question the dominant power structure of the ruling elite.

    Daniel Carlos
    March 28, 2010 | 12:03 am

    The goal of education is to graduate students who, when they hold an opinion and are presented with credible evidence to the contrary, are willing to change that opinion.

    May 9, 2013 | 11:57 am

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