Thursday, May 5, 2011

What's the Purpose of Public Education?

What's the purpose of education in America?

It seems like such an easy question.  It seems like it should have an obvious, straightforward answer.

When the country was formed Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson argued that we should have free public education because our democracy depended on it.  We needed to have an educated electorate in order for people to make wise choices when they exercise their right to vote.

Yet in order to "improve education" in the past decade we have cut the amount of civics, history, and social studies we teach our students in order to teach more math and reading.

Businesses claim the purpose of education is to develop qualified workers so that our economy can grow.  Better educated workers result in better productivity for the businesses, better profits, and more money for everybody.

Yet, despite the fact that our most successful entrepreneurs were amazingly innovative and every business is looking for creative thinkers, we have made our classrooms devoid of innovation and creativity in order that our students are prepared to pass high-stakes standardized tests.

Parents and communities claim that it is our job to feed children breakfast, teach morals and responsibility, provide after-school activities and athletic programs, transport children to and from school,  prevent bullying in-school and on the internet, and counsel students who are in crisis.

Yet, school funding is being cut, and schools are being prevented from raising the tax revenue they need to accomplish all of these tasks.

Some claim that public schools should be a way for the poor to develop the skills and knowledge needed  to become economically successful in life.

Yet we are one of only a handful of industrialized nations in the world that provides the least amount of money to schools that need it most, and an abundance of money to schools in affluent areas.

Politicians are trying to sell us on many different magic bullet fixes to education right now:  Vouchers, alternative teacher certification, charter schools, small class size, eliminating tenure, etc.

None of them matter.  We can't begin to develop a good public education system until we identify the purpose of public education.  That's the discussion we need to be having.  What do we want from our schools?  What do we need as a country?

Once we do that, we can start to figure out how to build a great public education system that meets those needs.

Until that happens, it's just a bunch of political nonsense being tossed around to get politicians elected.