Thursday, March 5, 2009

What Is the Purpose of Public Education?

Updated March 11, 2009:

Part of the barrier to getting proper math instruction into America’s K-12 public schools is in the definitions. What constitutes “success” or “failure”? Which math skills are “necessary”? What is the primary function of public schools? Why do children go to school?

I don’t think of “success” and “failure” in terms of what’s good for the administrators but in terms of what’s good for the students. In my view, a public school’s primary function is to help students get prepared for postsecondary life. Children go to school so they can learn what they need to learn in order to grasp the future they want. Based on test results, remediation rates and dropout rates, there’s no question in my mind that today’s public schools are failing the students.

Many administrators, on the other hand, appear to see the primary function of schools as being all about inclusion, tolerance, equity, values and (the omnipresent yet ill-defined) “excellence.” They probably see themselves as successful.

Don’t laugh. I’m not pulling this stuff out of my hat.

As part of our district’s January 2009 celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Spokane Superintendent Nancy Stowell sent a letter to her “colleagues” that included the text of her welcome address for the Unity March. In part, she said:
“We renew our commitment to acknowledging the effects of white privilege and doing all that we can to understand and mitigate its effects – so that each of us understands race in a personal and profound way.
“We renew (our) commitment to creating classrooms, schools, and a school district that is founded on the principles of social justice … a compassionate system that knows each child.
“We renew our commitment to the development of culturally proficient and courageous educators who can succeed with all students because they believe in the value of each student.”

Dr. Stowell didn’t mention creating classrooms that are founded on the principles of a coherent and rigorous education. She didn’t mention renewing the district’s commitment to hiring academically proficient educators who can succeed with all students because they know the subject matter they’re trying to teach.

(These would be great ways to mitigate the effects of ethnic disparities.)

Reading Dr. Stowell’s remarks, you’ll understand the continued existence of a poster still tacked to a bathroom wall in the elementary school just down the street from me, that says: “The aim of education is the knowledge not of facts but of values.”

When I talk about math, administrators talk about “equity.” I talk about college; they talk about “social justice.” I talk about challenging the children; they talk about “achievement gaps.” I ask for better mathematics curricula – part of the schools’ primary function – and they say there isn’t enough money.

Actually, there’s a ton of money; it just pays for things that are not part of the primary function. It also pays for myriad things that shouldn’t be in the schools at all.

Meanwhile, President Obama is planning to deliver to states about 44 billion in nonexistent taxpayer dollars over the next six weeks. This money is on top of an already bloated education budget. More billions are forthcoming. Unless that money fixes the lack of academic content in our public schools, it won’t improve public instruction – it will just make the ineffectiveness exponentially more expensive.

The primary function of public school is academics. It isn’t supposed to be cheap daycare. It shouldn’t be promoting socialist views or any other political agenda. Its primary job isn’t to teach values or ethics, to feed the children, provide teen mothers with daycare, teach English to “undocumented immigrants,” or turn out people who are personally and profoundly aware of “white privilege.” Its primary function is to effectively and efficiently teach all students to a high standard of academic knowledge that will ready them for college, a trade, business ownership, a political career or whichever postsecondary life they envision.

If public schools don’t do this – their primary job – they’re a waste of students’ time and of taxpayers’ money.

So far, the education bureaucracy appears to be largely unwilling to address the biggest problem facing our public schools: The lack of core academic content – in much of the teacher training, in much of the curriculum, and in the daily focus of the typical classroom.

Some parents are coping with the educational shipwreck by deciding that sloshing through the water is OK. “Maybe she doesn’t have to work that hard,” one parent said recently about her daughter. “Academics aren’t everything.”

Others seek academic excellence (or even just academic competence) for their children by choosing to homeschool or to supplement at home (as we do) or by heading to charter schools, magnet programs, faith-based schools, private schools or co-ops.

I support these decisions. There is no guarantee that alternative choices will provide children with the best education possible, but we must allow for the most basic right Americans have: The freedom to choose the process. We have the right to choose to fail, and we have the right to choose to excel. It’s that flexibility that has traditionally made America strong.

Until lately, the market has always guided success and failure. It’s always provided us with the motivation to dismantle failing structures. Now, government programs support massive, systemic failure – while excellence barely has a place to breathe. For parents and students, flexibility and the freedom to choose have been legislated and mandated almost right out of the public-education system.

Every child deserves the best possible education, but what does that really mean? A gentleman from Massachusetts recently asked me: "If you could start all over again and build a brand new public education system … what would it look like?” This is an excellent question, and I’ve been pondering it ever since. I’m interested in hearing your ideas. Please reply to this blog or email me at

Let’s say the future of public education is open to you. What would you create?

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (March, 2009). "What Is the Purpose of Public Education?" Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

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