What is the purpose of Public Education?

  • by Dr. Tim Mullen - Mon, 10/23/2017 - 18:25

This is the question that America needs to be asking in order to ultimately improve education. It is a basic reason schools, leaders, politicians, parents, and the students themselves question the purpose and process of education occurring today. There are so many perspectives, ideas, wishes, dreams, and agendas being projected onto schools and teachers, it is no wonder there is so much discontent and controversy. In my years as a parent, teacher, and leader with education organizations, I have heard many expectations voiced with regard to the purpose of public education. If yours is not presented below, I would like to hear it.

1) Prepare students for the workplace.

Business leaders say they want workers they can hire prepared to do the work. BUT there is no definition for what that preparation entails. Should schools prepare students for the skilled or unskilled labor market?  “Canned” high school and college degree programs cannot possibly prepare every student for every job.  Business leaders need to be involved and provide more specific requirements for jobs that do not require college and those that do require college.

2) Create graduates with basic communication skills and strong work ethics.

I have many corporate friends and have read many articles interviewing executives about what they want in their workers. One common thread I’ve seen is that most employers want people who can communicate and have a good work ethic. A CEO once told me, “Give me people with good communication skills (written and oral) and with a good work ethic. I will teach them everything else they need to do the job for me.” When I asked about what types of science, math, social studies topics he would like the graduate to have, he said it did not matter. Graduating alone showed him that they could finish something big and from there, he could teach him/ her the specifics of the job.

That interaction was powerful for me. There is much discussion, debate, and hostility, at times, over the specifics of what should be taught, but most company executives just want people who can communicate and people on whom they can depend to show up for work and take care of the responsibilities they sign on for.

3) Educate all students to master a standardized curriculum for all subjects.

This has become most prevalent in the last 10-15 years and has primarily come from the pressures of federal (NCLB) and state legislatures to measure success. Because of that, teachers have moved toward investing their teaching energies on standards more than on the needs of individual students because standards are defined, detailed, mandated by their superiors, and appear easy to measure with standardized tests. Teachers are required to weave in some semblance of the other “purposes,” but with “truth in grading” requirements and accountability, a limited amount of time, and the threat of their own livelihoods on the line, we naturally focus on the goal to prepare kids for the tests.

The result of this narrowing of focus is that the definition of success in public education has shifted from one focused on the unique needs, desires, and aptitudes of the individual student to one that attempts to lump all students together, assessing their progress according to a single criterion like “will pass standardized tests at year’s end,” which all-too-often ends in success for no one at all.

When high schools were created in the late 1800s, Harvard University played a major role in their creation. What was the goal? To prepare youth for college, hence the term “prep school.” If a child wasn’t going to college, eighth grade was generally the highest level students attended. 

Because of this narrow focus, especially for those who graduated from college themselves, high schools are often considered to be no more than prep schools. Many states and/or school districts have all but eliminated what were highly successful “technical” tracks for their students who aren’t “college material.” But several studies published by various state departments of education have that found that fewer than 50% of the jobs available in their states required a college education. A decade ago, one state reported that only 20% of the jobs there required a college diploma. Yet another study found that, nationwide, only 30% of students who start college actually graduate with a degree. Is this another sign that we are pushing college onto children who need alternative education routes? For those who aspire to attend college, there is more to learn. But what is to happen to those kids who don’t aspire to attend college?

I understand some of the hesitation with offering a trade school or non-college prep track to parents for their child. Because of the focus on college, it is implied that those who aren’t “college material” are somehow less intelligent and their contributions to society less valuable. (To dispel that myth, consider just how important the plumber is when you’re standing in sewage in your basement. Do you have the tools and “know how” you need?) In this environment, how does a teacher approach a parent and say, “I don’t think your child is college material? Maybe you should consider trade school.” Most parents still want to see their child be more successful than themselves in their lives and we have created the perception that college is the end-all path to that success.

There used to be more dialogue about “skilled” and “unskilled” labor, instead of differentiating students on the basis of interest and aptitude. “Skilled” workers learned honorable trades often requiring hands-on talent, like plumbing, mechanics, or construction. A good friend of mine was 16 and, still in the eighth grade, dropped out. College wasn’t an option for him, so he enrolled in a trade school—and has made a good living for his family as a welder.

In those days, administrators held kids back, and, if they didn’t do everything necessary to pass, they were failed. “Everything necessary” meant doing all the assigned classwork, and passing the local exams (tests given by the teacher in the classroom to assess mastery of the material), without deadline extensions, re-takes, and extra help.

As passing standardized tests became the more urgent goal, because schools and teachers began to be evaluated based on the results of those tests, holding students responsible for fulfilling their part of the education compact was increasingly abandoned in favor of retests and providing extra chances to complete assignments with no penalty.

I don’t think learning that you’ll be given unlimited chances to do a job right is part of that standard curriculum we had in mind.

4) Create an educated populace to assure democracy is sustained.

Our nation’s forefathers saw the necessity of creating and maintaining an educated population to keep the powers of democracy in check. With an uneducated population, dishonest leaders can become too powerful and greedy. When dictators or extremists take over a country, among the first things they do is attempt to dismantle the education system, because an uneducated populace is less likely to question a dictator’s authority.

5) Ensure every American child is “successful.”

This returns me to my thoughts on success presented in the last blog discussing the problem with naming the Federal education laws “No Child Left Behind,” and now “Every Student Succeeds Act” Here are but a few of the definitions of “success” that I’ve heard through the years. I will know my child is successful if s/he:


• Graduates from high school.
• Graduates from college.
• Gets a good job and raises a family.
• Makes lots of money.
• Becomes well respected in the community.
• Gets high test scores when compared to other children in his/her school.
• Gets high test scores when compared to other children in other states and countries.

Whose responsibility is it ultimately to define “success”? What is the purpose of Public Education?  To what extent does public education realistically have a role in fulfilling all our expectations? Are those expectations reality-based? Do they take into account the needs of anyone other than “me”? Are there equally valid definitions of success that we’ve not considered?

WE NEED TO TALK. To ultimately improve public education, we need to develop a comprehensive strategic plan that addresses stakeholder input. The plan must be realistic and sustainable. Rather than what seems to be our regular process, to decide on an outcome without regard for whether it meets all of the criteria, what if we looked at each goal in turn? What does preparing students for the workplace mean? How does an educated populace relate to principles of democracy? What definition of success will we collectively determine to work toward? What are “basic communication skills”? Do we agree on what constitutes a good work ethic?

How will we measure progress with respect to each goal? Given the resources we have, an obviously important consideration, is it possible for us to achieve what we seek to achieve? Can we clearly demonstrate a connection between the programs we advocate for and the outcomes we demand? Have we set benchmarks for when and how we will achieve the goals?

If we don’t have a clear idea of what we mean, if we refuse to even come to the table and seek a consensus about who will decide and who will be held accountable for achieving the goals, how can we move forward? If we fail to ensure that teachers have the authority to do what they know must be done, how can we ever expect to achieve anything at all?

We cannot.

What, for instance, is it—on a classroom by classroom, ground-level basis—that we expect teachers to accomplish? One thing is obvious, and as it always has been—to make available to children and youth knowledge about a variety of subjects and the greatest possible opportunities to learn and develop skills they will need in order to become as self-sufficient and successful as possible in their daily lives and in the workplace they will encounter tomorrow. That’s hard to do when we have no consensus on what knowledge and skills they need.

What is too often lost in the rhetoric, however, is that teaching is not just about facts and skills. Competency in a subject area like math or life sciences isn’t the only requirement. In fact, though its importance is obvious, and despite the fact of the information explosion, subject area knowledge, although necessary, may well be the least important requirement for successful teaching.

Instead, the first order of business for any teacher is, within the realm of his or her control, to create an environment conducive to learning. In other words, to do everything he or she can possibly do to ensure that every child has the greatest opportunity to learn whatever the subject matter, acquire and practice the skills we agree best allow them to learn, retain, and apply that subject matter, and then continue the cycle of learning themselves.

By Tim Mullen, PhD

Teacher and author of “STOP BLAMING + START TALKING: Developing a Dialogue for Getting Public Education Back on Track” (www.teachertimmullen.com)