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The Purpose-Driven Education

In the rough notes from a national progressive organization's ed-campaign launch, there it was, a single sentence:  I've never heard anyone ask about the purpose of education. 

It reminded me--and I'm seriously dating myself here--of an item that was once a fixture in American elementary schools: Think-and-Do books. Notice the order. First you think. Then you do. 

Much of what passes for education reform these days is rolled out in the opposite order, or at best with very little deep consideration before doing. We're Americans, after all. Sweeping change and bold moves are our signature national character.

Falling behind in the global economic race? Pass packages of dramatic accountability legislation. Urban education results reflecting the resource-stripped schools and disenfranchised children who attend them? Make an infomercial-movie about a new way to "take over" and "convert" traditional neighborhood schools! There's no problem that America can't solve with entrepreneurial drive. Roll up your sleeves. Do. 

Hardly anyone ever asks the long-view why. We assume, instead, that "everyone knows" what school is for, what public education is designed to accomplish.

That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children.... is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination.... It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose... tied to one another by a common bond.

Senator Paul Wellstone, 2000

First, answer the question yourself: What is the core purpose of publicly funded education in America?

Now ask yourself: Would most Americans agree with you?

Arne Duncan might say that the purpose of public education is to make students college- and career-ready. E.D. Hirsch might assert that the purpose of schooling is inculcating a very specific body of knowledge. Plenty of parents want schools to assist their children on a rich personal journey of uncovering their unique gifts and talents--while the Business Roundtable is focused on increasing American dominance in the competitive global economy, building junior entrepreneurs. 

Maybe schooling is no more than the thing you do to collect the credits you need to move on to the next level of the life you're destined to live.

In the early 1990s,  educators in Michigan schools were directed to create mission statements, as part of the wave of reform around standards and goal-setting. There was a great deal of overt grumbling  in my school, from the old guard teachers who regarded the exercise as just another thing "they" were making us do. The teacher leading the exercise said "I have chosen to believe that clarifying our mission and values is a good thing for us to do, as educators." That took a lot of courage (and, 20 years later, she is now the very capable superintendent of the district).

Then Jack McManus spoke up. Jack was a skinny, gray-haired 7th grade social studies teacher, a grandfather who had spent a dozen years as vice-principal, diligently tracking down smokers in the farm fields behind the high school--kids we laughingly called "children of the corn." Jack was slow to speak, but always worth listening to.

He said: We always used to say our job as schoolteachers was building citizens. Not all kids go to college or get high-paying jobs. Some of 'em barely graduate. But we teach all of them what they need to know to be good neighbors and good workers, to live in a democratic society.  Maybe that's an old-fashioned idea, but it's still what I believe in, and what I think I'm doing here. 

There was a silence. I remember thinking:  I've never heard another teacher share their core beliefs about the purpose of public education, about the work we're doing together. It was a turning point. We got that mission statement written, and the conversations were indeed rich and meaningful--and good for us, as teachers.

So, if you asked me about the core purpose of education, I'd go back to Jack's ideas:

Public education's primary purpose is developing the skills, knowledge and habits that make good neighbors, engaged citizens, and productive contributors--with the common purpose  of making the world a more equitable and joyful place.

Do you agree?

What is the core purpose of public education in America?

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