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The Purpose of Education: Workforce Development or Lifelong Learning?

Since its inception during the Carter presidency, various administrations have endeavored to disband the U.S. Department of Education. An announcement last week proposing to merge the Department of Education with the Department of Labor illustrates that the current occupant of the White House would like to also take up this mantle. Proponents argue that it would streamline bureaucracy, improve collaboration in support of career development, and increase the responsiveness of both education and labor to the rapidly changing needs of today's economy.

Alyson Klein broke the story to many of us in the education world and has detailed both the proposal and various reactions to it on her Politics in K-12 blog. In reading across some of her articles, a few key themes emerged. First, combining these two departments may create instability rather than efficiency. As an example, a separate article by EdSurge points out that the new organizational structure omits the Office of Educational Technology -- a troubling oversight given the rapid advances of technology in education. Second, the rationale for this merger seems to emphasize increased standardization and efficiency rather than improvement or equity. Finally, and maybe most importantly, the underlying assumption behind the merger seems to be a perception that the primary purpose of education is workforce development. The creation of a new Department of Education and the Workforce implies that education serves as a means to produce labor and not an opportunity to increase equitable access to opportunity or to prepare students for active participation in a democratic society.

Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, offered her own commentary on this topic. The first statement in her article further reinforced the connection between education and the labor market. However, she then deviated into a discussion of school choice, describing a recent visit to the UK, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. To connect this idea of school choice back to the issue of merging the two departments, she used the argument that previous reform efforts - namely No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top, and School Improvement Grants - had resulted in little improvement of student performance as measured by the PISA tests. The logic of her argument somewhat eludes me for a few reasons.

On the point of school choice, many democratic societies in Europe have long valued the idea of educational pluralism. Dr. Ashley Berner has an excellent TEDx talk on this concept. As she explains, the U.S. is one of the only systems to NOT support a variety of school types. However, this lack of support has little to do with the oft-cited myth of a "factory-model" of school or a political debate between public, charter, and independent schools. Instead, it can be traced to increasing urbanization and rising xenophobia in the mid-1800s.  As a result of these concerns that society may not be prepared for either a new industrial economy or an increase in new immigrants, Horace Mann created the idea of the Common School in the 1840s. This move to create a common belief system amongst citizens ultimately institutionalized the Anglo-Saxon Protestant canon in American public education.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the Common School had evolved into a decentralized, secular system designed to prepare workers for an industrial economy (Cuban, 2013).  The idea of graded schools, compartmentalized curriculum, and a culture of standardization and efficiency driven by the principles of Scientific Management drove the design of educational systems (Tyack & Tobin, 2014); and reformers such as Ellwood Cubberly and Edward Thorndike began to use a factory metaphor (Marzano, Frontier, & Livingston, 2011) as a means to advocate for the use of measurement and data to assess the productivity of schools and teachers.  However, the system that evolved "was not a seamless system of roughly similar common schools but instead a diverse and unequal set of institutions that reflected deeply embedded economic and social inequalities" (Tyack & Cuban, 1995, p. 22).   

In her commentary, Secretary DeVos describes how the Netherlands advocates for school choice within their constitution as a means to ensure equitable funding for both public and private schools. What she does not explain is that approximately 65% of students attend private schools that allow for religious choice. Students could choose to attend a Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, or Protestant school in addition to public, international, or even an "iPad/ Steve Jobs" schools. The idea of choice extends to more than just instructional models or the idea of private/public. However, given the history of public education in this country, creating a new system based on that level of equity would require more than just a reorganization of bureaucracy.

Furthermore, Secretary DeVos conflates the merging of the two departments as an alternative to the failed efforts of previous reforms such as NCLB and Race to the Top. Beginning with the 1983 A Nation at Risk Report issued during the Reagan administration (which also tried to disband the Department of Education), education became intrinsically linked with the idea of economic success (Mehta, 2013). This report also marked the beginning of the standards movement which further reinforces many of the tenets promoted by Cubberly and Thorndike at the turn of the twentieth century. Somewhat ironically, DeVos cites PISA scores - another standardized measure - as evidence of the success of the systems that she visited.

In their 2017 Worldwide Educating for the Future Index (Walton, 2017), the researchers from the Economist Intelligence Unit argue that the educational systems poised to best prepare students for the future not only address learning for work but also learning for life. They assert that as technology and globalization add increasing complexity, students will need critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity skills for both the job market and for leisure. They argue that the systems best poised to prepare students for the future possess a policy environment that values creativity, critical thinking, STEM, and project-based or real-world learning; high-levels of expertise and professionalization in the teaching sector; as well as a policy environment that values a free, equitable, and open society.

All of this said, a merger of the Departments of Education and Labor might produce a short-term gain in bureaucratic efficiency. However, in the long term, to create the thoughtful, creative, concerned, citizens that the world needs, a more effective restructuring might be the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning.


Cuban, L. (2013). Why so many structural changes in schools and so little reform in teaching practice? Journal of Educational Administration, 51(2), 109-125. http://doi.org/10.1108/09578231311304661

Marzano, R. J., Frontier, T., & Livingston, D. (2011). A Brief History of Supervision and Evaluation (pp. 12-28). ASCD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/110019/chapters/A-Brief-History-of-Supervision-and-Evaluation.aspx

Mehta, J. (2013). How paradigms create politics: The transformation of American educational policy, 1980-2001. American Educational Research Journal, 50(2), 285-324. http://doi.org/10.3102/0002831212471417/p>

Tyack, D. B., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tyack, D. B., & Tobin, W. (1994). The "Grammar" of Schooling: Why Has It Been So Hard to Change? American Educational Research Journal, 31(3), 453-479. http://doi.org/10.2307/1163222

Walton, N. (2017). Worldwide educating for the future index. (M. Gold, Ed.) Retrieved from The Economist Intelligence Unit: http://dkf1ato8y5dsg.cloudfront.net/uploads/5/80/eiu-yidan-prize-educating-for-the-future-wp-final.pdf

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