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Posted by on Jan 30, 2007 in Uncategorized | 23 comments

What’s the goal of public education?

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?

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 Polimom Says…)

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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • I think each parent has their own set of goals and desire for public education, the first and foremost being to educate their children so that they can get a decent job.

    But I don’t think I can agree with your premise. The problems facing education are not caused by lack of agreement on a common goal. It’s not like schools are doing a great job churning out greedy, money-grubbing Gordon Geckos, but we want them to churn out Barack Obamas. They’re not churning out either one as well as they should.

    The real problem is that principles and teachers are not being held accountable to produce results. The problem is also that our litigious society has transformed schools from places to truly educate kids to a place whose first responsibility is to protect the little ones’ “rights”, no matter how detrimental that may be to the learning process as a whole or to the learning process for that individual child. The problem is school boards which excuse the poor performance of their staff and write off poor performing schools in poor neighborhoods by saying, essentially, “well, garbage in, garbage out”. And it’s parents who don’t care whether their kid gets any education at all. And it’s white people who pull their kids out of public education instead of fighting to make it better. And it’s black people who pay more attention to the political pull of the teachers unions than the needs of their children. And it’s so many, many more things. But few if any of those stem from lack of agreement on the mission of schools.

  • Lynx

    What do we want our schools to do? Well, everything! I think common core goals for education that most people can agree with are:

    1- Basic learned skills necessary for basic survival in an advanced society; the three Rs

    2- More advanced skills and knowledge destined towards enlightening children and also encouraging them so seek higher education. What should be in this category is very controversial.

    3- Basic socialization. Core democratic values and the ability to relate to others. Training in all aspects of social life; from hierarchy (teacher to student) to routine.

    Beyond that, it gets insane. Some parents seem to want the teachers to raise there children, to be the ones to teach them not to hit others, not to talk back etc. but at the same time utterly undermine teachers authority when they disagree. On the other hand some teachers seem to want students to be automatons that come in, sit, quietly learn, then leave, while utterly disregarding that each child is an individual with skills, interests and personal issues.
    Some people argue that learning poetry isn’t worth anything because it won’t land you a job, while others object to vocational training because it “condemns” kids to a menial job (apparently being a carpenter is a shameful waste of time, to some).

    Problems? Too many to name. I think the current state of things satisfies no one.

  • angliss


    Accountability is great, if its done well. The problem is that programs like No Child Left Untested Behind don’t actually promote accountability, and neither do most standardized testing programs. They promote the perception of accountability. Here’s an example.

    Here in Colorado, we have the CSAP, our yearly standardized test on reading, writing, math, and science (although science is not tested in every grade). Note problem #1 – no social studies test. Problem #2 is that the test is standardized across the state, but the public school curriculum is not standardized – we have a strong tradition of local control of school districts, which means that every county gets to decide how to run itself and what to teach when (it’s a crazy tradition IMO). Problem #3 is that the test, in order to address serious flaws early on, is given in March and we don’t get the results until August, far too late to do anything about poor results with the kids who’s tests resulted in the poor results. Problem #4 is that the grades that are reported to the state and reported in the newspapers show yearly variation, but without the right context required to make reasonable decisions about the quality or lack thereof of each school.

    Accountability is all well and good, if it’s real. Unfortunately, in most cases, politicians with ideological axes to grind have convinced people that it is real, and education is suffering for it. There are ways to make it all work, but testing isn’t necessarily the best and only way, and in fact is the worst way in many cases.

    I’ve been working with a number of people to come up with a good way to handle this over at Dr. Slammy in ’08’s education platform.

  • angliss, I wasn’t making an argument for accountability in favor of a particular solution, such as NCLB, just using the term in a more generic since. Frankly, I think we’d do better to remove some of the civil service protections so that local superintendents of education would be freer to fire the deadwood principals, while the principals would be freer to fire the deadwood teachers. Let principals decide how much in raises each teachers should get each year, rather than uniform across-the-board raises. Things like that.

    Of course, on a longer term, I prefer vouchers, at least means-tested vouchers, so that poor parents can themselves more directly hold schools accountable for results, and have the same freedom of choice that rich people currently have.

  • superdestroyer

    Schools used to try to do all things that you listed. The method used was tracking (it is still used just under a different system.

    Is the goal a literate society whose citizens can support themselves? To participate in / understand the issues that affect them? this used to be called things like the regular track. It anticipated that the students were not going to the elite colleges and were destined to be middle class.

    is it to compete in a global economy? and This used to be the honors/accelerated track and was meant for students who had some natural ability. However, too many states got caught using this track to segregate the white kids away from black kids.

    Is it to educate to some common denominator? this used to be called the remedial or basic track. It was for kids with bad home situations/lack of preparation/lack of motivation to learn some basic knowledge such as how to make change or where China is on a map.

    The current situation is very much like Alexandria Virginia. The rich families send their children to private schools like St Stephens where they get a good education but even had to take a test to be admitted. The middle class whites who cannot afford private schools send their kids to T.C. Williams and put them in the A.P/honors track. The blacks, hispanics, and poor immigrants attend T.C. Williams and take the non-A.P. tracks which the Washington Post reported that white studetns refer to as the “Ghetto Track.”

  • PatHMV said: The real problem is that principles and teachers are not being held accountable to produce results.

    I realize you don’t think my premise is at the root of the problem(s), but I can’t help asking — for which results are they not held accountable? And I think that circles back to two basic things: individual, and national / state (macro), expectations.

    The public system is geared toward a homogenous group — averages and norms: round pegs, round holes. But an individual is not an average; everyone falls somewhere on the continuum, and numerous factors affect this: square, diamond, octagon (etc) pegs.

    Is the GT child who enters Kindergarden reading being served by reciting the ABCs? Will the Special Needs child be served in a Pre-AP class? And do the parents of both these children not have an expectation as tax-paying citizens?

    Who is accountable for the child who fails because he hit the intellectual ceiling? Or for the child who is so bored by the curriculum that they stop learning?

    When I taught at a local community college, I was appalled by the levels these students entered. Their reading, analysis, writing… it was nowhere near college-ready — but the expectation there was that I, as a teacher, work with them to not only learn the material, but teach them the missing skills.

    And ultimately, when I passed out low grades, I was held accountable.

    Is this not a broken series of expectations?

  • Lynx

    Or for the child who is so bored by the curriculum that they stop learning?

    My parents took me out of school and shipped me half way across the globe because of precisely this. My school didn’t have tracking. In fact we actually had to watch a video that indoctrinated us against the practice. Like many of the indoctrination activities I was subjected to, it had the opposite effect in me than they intended. I would have done well in a high track classroom. Instead, the class followed the lowest common denominator, the slowest student. Most of the kids considered “gifted” got terrible grades, since none bothered to study or do homework, our motivation was non-existent. No tracking in my school at least just meant that everybody was in the lowest track.

  • The Master


    Historically, as Lynx said, the role of the public schools in society was to provide “basic socialization” to all students. Kids were supposed to be “indoctrinated” in whatever knowledge, skills, and attitudes were necessary for them to take their place as “proper” citizens of the US. This was deemed especially necessary during the periodic waves of immigration that landed “foreigners” with their “un-American” languages, attitudes, and belief systems on US shores. Along with the socialization, public schools were expected to transfer enough basic skills to children that when they graduated, they could enter the work force and earn enough money to avoid becoming a burden on the public. That was it; no “be all you can be” here.

    In the past there was much more of a consensus on what the “proper” citizen looked like, acted like, and thought like, so public schools had much less flexibility in their programs, much less tolerance for individuality (i.e. deviance from “proper”). However, in the 60’s, this consensus came under attack from many directions (not unjustifiably). Parents who were unable to get their local school boards to be responsive often went to court, and a series of court decisions led to piecework micro-management of many public school systems. Examples of this include courts requiring classes be taught in foreign languages (for the benefit of non-English speaking children), busing students far from their neighborhood schools (to achieve “racial balance”), limits on maximum class sizes (different limits in each court decision), etc.

    School systems that were not sued (yet) got cautious and began to make changes designed to insulate themselves from such lawsuits. When one’s primary focus is trying to avoid being sued, or trying to avoid being found in contempt of a court order, it is understandable if the clarity of the mission is obscured, or if one’s attention wavers a bit from the quality of the output (i.e. graduates) of the system.

    We are still, in many ways, trying to recover from the disruptions public school education received in the 60’s. Public schools today, by law and court decree, must meet the needs of any child enrolled in them–whether GT or remedial, foreign language speaking, AD/HD, malnourished, abused, etc. The scope of services that must be provided is vast, but the resources available to provide them are finite. Some students will always be shortchanged; because of that, many of these students will be pulled out of public school by their parents.

    However, many parents don’t have the wherewithal to pay school taxes to the State and pay tuition to private schools as well. They must use the public schools that they have no choice but to pay for. For these parents, vouchers, charter schools, or some form of competition–even the option to transfer kids to better performing schools within the same public school system–is their only hope.

    The “basic socialization” mission today is all but lost. It sounds quaint, if not “elitist”. That doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary, just that it isn’t being done. The “basic learned skills” mission is what standardized testing is supposed to be measuring, though as angliss described, it is easy to go through the motions without doing it right.

    Finally, the “preparation for higher education” mission appears to have expanded to include all students, whether or not they are interested in or capable of post-high school education. Is it political correctness that prevents schools from steering anyone away from the college track? Fear of lawsuits? Lack of resources to staff multiple tracks? Who knows? I do know that not all students want or need to be in the college track. Perhaps some of the dropout problem you discussed earlier is caused by square pegs being jammed into round holes.

    As long as that’s happening, no amount of testing or additional money for schools will make much of a difference. Without agreement on what schools are, and are NOT, supposed to be doing, they will continue to muddle through as best they can, and “solutions” imposed to fix one element of the problem are likely to make the overall problem worse, not better.

  • Polimom – I live in Louisiana, where we have more than our share of failing schools. I know many teachers, and each one of them can easily and quickly recite a list of the worst schools in the area. The demographics between the bad schools and the decent schools are substantially the same. It’s just that at some schools, the principals are good, strong, energetic leaders, who support the good teachers, pump up the mediocre teachers, and do their best to shuffle out of their school the bad teachers. The good teachers try to get transferred to their schools, because they are much more pleasant places to work, and they let the teachers do what they most want to do, educate the kids. The bad principals get by with the minimum effort, don’t support the good teachers, don’t demote, punish, or otherwise ostracize the bad teachers, allow the mediocre teachers to be negatively influenced by the bad teachers or become burnt out. They take in the bad teachers shuffled out of the good schools by the good principals. The few good teachers in such schools rapidly grow frustrated and demoralized, sometimes destroying their love for teaching and forcing them out of the profession altogether.

    Because of union contracts, politics, and plain inertia, the central office has a hard time actually removing the bad principals and the bad teachers. The best they can do (and what they inevitably do) is shuffle them around, eventually leaving the worst teachers and principals in those schools where the parents complain the least about them… the poorest schools most in need of our best teachers. There is nobody pressing hard, demanding the highest quality of effort from the principals and teachers, nobody saying “YOUR school (or YOUR teaching) is unacceptable, you’ve let it go on like that for too long, and you’re fired.”

    I mean, look at your experience. Individual teachers and individual principals passed those students you caught at the community college, certified them as being able to read and write, as being prepared to go on to the next educational level. When they did that, they lied, but I guarantee you that most of them are still teaching in the same systems that have let them coast by for this long.

    Sure, issues like those you raised are important to go from a decent system to a great system, but in many of our communities, we’re not beginning at the level of “decent”. We’ve got to fix the fundamentals before we can get too fancy.

  • pacatrue

    I agree that it’s very confusing, and I have no wisdom. The only productive thought I have at the moment is to distinguish universal government-sponsored education from education generally. Those should have different purposes. Education as a whole is a life-long endeavor whose endeavor is for people to reach their greatest potential. This might be through englightenment of the mind, but just as practically and importantly, it might focus on obtaining specific skills required for a certain employment. After all, we spend half our waking lives at our job, we will certainly be reaching our greatest potential if that employment is meaningful to ourselves and our community.

    But the goal of universal education?

    Not exactly the same. I think it’s something closer to giving someone abilities to make their own decisions in their society. So still student focused. If you can’t do basic math, read, or know how your society functions (history, gov), your choices are extremely limited. But at some point, usually around high school, the student has the ability to reason well enough to make their future decisions. When that happens, you are moving from universal education to personal education.

    I don’t think this works, but it’s the best I’ve got right now.

  • Master said: Without agreement on what schools are, and are NOT, supposed to be doing, they will continue to muddle through as best they can, and “solutionsâ€? imposed to fix one element of the problem are likely to make the overall problem worse, not better.

    Yes. Exactly. In Project Management terms, the public education system has been derailed by “scope creep”. We’ve strayed very far from the defined original goals — so far, in fact, that I don’t think we even know what it is we’re supposed to be doing anymore.

    PatHMV — I think the problems in Louisiana are somewhat residual. Like many of the school systems in the Southern United States, post Civil War economic woes have created a sub-problem of the wider issues. And I agree that the teachers unions and politics are part of the problem there, and elsewhere — but they relate to what the Master brought up (imho).

  • PatHMV — reading over my last comment, I think I sounded a bit dismissive or abrupt, and that wasn’t my intent. Apologies…

    I agree that from a number of perspectives, talking about scope creep and lack of clear expectations seems a bit ahead of the curve. However, clarifying the national “universal education” expectations might keep us from tossing $$ hand over fist at this, and thus free some $$ for the systems that need focused attention.

  • No offense taken, Polimom, and I agree with your comment about identifying the real problems so that money can be properly allocated.

    One of my theories about education is that all the arguments in local school boards over which “curriculum” to follow, and all the national efforts to identify “what works” is a big waste of time. What works is paying attention to kids and getting them qualified teachers. Whether it’s Midnight Basketball, after school karate, art classes, football, “new math”, old math, phonics, whole word… the most important thing is to show the kids that you are paying attention, that you care about them, and that you expect them to succeed. The exact mechanisms don’t matter so much.

  • pacatrue

    I really like the idea of scope creep to explain some of the problems. But maybe that’s because I was a program manager for a couple of years (and hated it 🙂 ).

    The fundamental debate in my head comes down to: 1) I believe very very strongly in the ablities of my fellow human beings and want them to be the best they can, but 2) people are individuals and don’t all need the same thing. Also, 3) we do NOT need 300 million people capable of being nuclear physicists to compete in the global economy, yet 4) I don’t want to shuttle people away who are capable of more than they are currently doing.

    My best idea is something very like the “track” idea where you have a common curriculum to a certain point – something like 10th grade – and after that you have a lot more freedom of various tracks and programs to take advantage of. The critical difference between this idea and previous tracks is that they are not age-bound. If you leave school to work at 16, and then decide to do two more years in a track when you are 25 (and discover that the Wal-Mart job really does suck as much as your mom was telling you), you can still go back. So the idea is like a cross between job-training and continuing education. I assume most students would choose some conventional track at 16, just like now, but for people who don’t, they still have choices later in life when they are ready for them. (Of course you will have to build in some restrictions to avoid eternal students and the like.)

  • C Stanley

    One of my theories about education is that all the arguments in local school boards over which “curriculum� to follow, and all the national efforts to identify “what works� is a big waste of time. What works is paying attention to kids and getting them qualified teachers. Whether it’s Midnight Basketball, after school karate, art classes, football, “new math�, old math, phonics, whole word… the most important thing is to show the kids that you are paying attention, that you care about them, and that you expect them to succeed. The exact mechanisms don’t matter so much.

    I have to disagree with you here, PatMHV. There’s a lot of evidence showing that different kids learn differently (visual learners, auditory learners, kinetic learners) but very little knowledge of how to implement these learning styles in a classroom setting. IMO we could do a LOT better educating kids if we could screen them for learning style and put them on a particular tract geared toward it, from K on. I volunteer quite a bit in the elementary schools and I can see the effects even on young elementary kids who just aren’t getting it because they can’t adapt to the one size fits all approach. It’s quite apparent that after just a couple of years in the school system, these kids have become convinced that they just aren’t good students (which of course often manifests outwardly as a defiant attitude.)

    And even with a kid who can adapt to various learning styles, I still think that certain teaching methods will make sense and others will not. My daughter, for example, is very bright and successful in school, but I routinely have to re-explain math concepts in a way that makes sense to her. Once I do so, she grasps the concept easily and can apply it (I assume there’s some genetics at work there, that she and I must conceptualize these things in a similar manner.)

    Not that I disagree with you about the caring part, of course; that’s hugely important. But I think very much that the method matters too.

  • C Stanley… fair points, all. I didn’t mean to be quite as absolutist as I sounded on the point. I absolutely agree that there are some kids who respond better to different types of curricula, but I do think that many kids will respond fairly well regardless of the particular curricula offered. What I was mostly trying to challenge, and I think this is the same point you’re making, is the practice of many school districts to adopt some single curricula as a “best practice”.

    My sister teaches third grade in a public school in Atlanta. Last year, the district decided to adopt some loopy script-based method of teaching reading, and required, under threat of termination, that all teachers use it, no matter what. It was a “research based” curriculum, but when my sister actually dug into it, the research turned out to be that its creator used it to teach his own kids, and they grew up ok. Fortunately, she had the courage to secretly teach the kids using methods that actually worked. Had they not all passed the required testing at the end of the year, she would probably have gotten in a lot of trouble, but she’s a great teacher, so they all passed.

    Actually, this feeds back in to my point on accountability. Good teachers are perfectly capable of adjusting their teaching methods to the needs of the class they have that year, or to identify the students who aren’t prospering under that method and find another place for them. I’d much rather see the teachers be given authority and flexibility, but be held accountable for results, than see top-down methodology prescriptions doled out by some impersonal central office which prepared a “one size fits all” approach.

  • C Stanley

    I’d much rather see the teachers be given authority and flexibility, but be held accountable for results, than see top-down methodology prescriptions doled out by some impersonal central office which prepared a “one size fits all� approach.

    Yeah, on that point I agree.
    And another loopy example from here in the Atlanta area: they have our kids start creative writing, journalling, etc, in Kindergarten before they have learned any spelling or phonetical skills. They’re given writing assignments and told to just ‘do their best’ to spell words. My daughter’s now in middle school and her spelling is atrocious- I’m completely convinced that the effort to get kids writing at such an early stage reinforces bad spelling (though I know of course that my experience is anecdotal, but it makes sense to me that repeatedly writing words incorrectly would make it more difficult to learn correct spelling later.)

    I find myself often uttering one of those obnoxious parental statements that evoke eye rolling in our kids: “What ARE they teaching you with my tax dollars?!?”

  • When I worked in the governor’s office a few years ago, I helped start a pre-k, means-tested voucher program as a pilot project. We worked with educational experts to make sure that the schools didn’t just offer baby-sitting services, but were really teaching the kids stuff. The experts kept saying that the schools needed to adopt “research-based” curricula. I kept asking what the curricula was shown by the research to accomplish. Must the programs be shown by research to produce creative kids, or kids who could memorize the times tables to 12, or what?

    We eventually had to disqualify one school (for other reasons) that the experts never liked because it used a lot of rote learning. The kids could say “good morning” in 5 different languages and could add 6 digits numbers together. But such learning is not in vogue right now. As C Stanley discovered, “creative thinking” is what the educational overlords are decreeing at the moment.

    Actually, I guess that brings me back around to Polimom’s point. What kind of kids do we want to produce? Do we want kids who can spell well, or who can write creative stories that no one can read because of the poor spelling? Do we want kids who can do algebra but not add 2 numbers together without a calculator? When someone says “research shows that curriculum X is best”, the proper question is “best at producing what kind of kids?”

  • C Stanley

    When someone says “research shows that curriculum X is best�, the proper question is “best at producing what kind of kids?�

    And a corollary: “Can a curriculum be flexible enough to produce both kinds of kids, and allow each kid to develop to the best of his/her natural tendency?”

    Seems to me that we need some creative people and some who are technically skilled; nature seems to provide some of each but we haven’t figured out how to sort them and how to help each type develop fully.

  • And the best way to achieve that, C Stanley, is to provide greater choice in schools, so that parents (and their kids as they get older) can choose for themselves the best path to take, rather than having it imposed on them.

  • blackshards

    I’m not sure about the practice of grouping kids by age and/or relative ability. We’re all using computers more powerful than anything that business or the military had 30 years ago; meanwhile our school programs are practically 19th century.

    Doesn’t it seem like we could be doing much, much more to develop individualized educational programs that are tailored specifically for our children?

    To C Stanley’s point about individual learning styles, it seems to me that advanced teaching software that adapts to individual students’ responses and provides them with the right mix of teaching and testing styles is a do-able thing.

    Any feedback?

  • blackshards — I think you’re suggesting that we don’t need the schools (as in, the traditional setting) at all…?

    If I’ve understood you correctly, I’m afraid I have to disagree. One of the traditional goals of public education had to do with socialization — specifically (at one time) creating good America citizens. But in terms of child and behavioral development, the socialization process itself is also necessary. Kids need to be around one another.

    PatHMV said: Actually, I guess that brings me back around to Polimom’s point. What kind of kids do we want to produce?

    I’m impressed, particularly considering your first comment that the premise here was false. (smile…)

    This entire thread has been an interesting exercise; I’m glad I ran the post. I find it fascinating, though, that the most recent comments (from about pacatrue on) actually outline, in large part, the study I referred to in the post yesterday. In fact, pacatrue’s last comment practically repeated large sections of it (more succinctly). As it happens, I thought that those recommendations were exactly the direction we need to be going.

    If y’all didn’t get a chance to read it, you might find it interesting indeed. (Executive summary here, WaPo article hitting the high points here.)

  • pacatrue

    Polimom said: In fact, pacatrue’s last comment practically repeated large sections of it (more succinctly).

    Woo-hoo! And the commissioners apparently traveled the world and did, let me check the word again, … research. It would have saved them a lot of time if they hadn’t bothered with this evidence thing. I just make things up and hope no one calls me on it. The main question is: did they ever conclude that Wal-Mart jobs can suck – and say it that way?

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