What You Should Demand of Our Schools: The Aim of Education
September 13, 2018|Bradley Conrad, PhD
Since the advent of the common school and even before, much has been written about what the aim of schooling should be for our children. What is it that we mean when we say we are “educating” children in schools? If one were to look to public policy in education, school and district mission statements, and how we measure quality schools, one can gain a clearer picture of what it is valued in an “education.” Much like in any organization, it is imperative for public schools, and for that matter parents and community members, to take stock of the vision, mission, and goals of our schools. It is the purpose of this article to first examine how the current aim of education evolved, to explore what our current aims are, and then to consider what aims we might strive for in providing world class educations for our children.
The Aims Evolution
Though public schooling in some form could be found in America before his time, Horace Mann is considered the father of American public education as we know it. Beginning in the late 1830s as Secretary of Education, he gave birth to what is known as the common school movement, which offered tax-funded public education intended to be equitable for all. Mann saw the common school as a “great equalizer,” which laid the foundation for what would become the aim of schools for some time. In short, the aim of schools was to create social equality through educating everyone uniformly in the United States. Included in those aims was an intention to decrease poverty by helping prepare people for better jobs, develop engaged democratic citizens who were informed voters, and improve the social good of all through education.
As public schools expanded and become the norm of the country, so too was an industrial economy flourishing in the United States. As such, a division arose around the aim of schools. One side argued that schools should serve to prepare students for college while others believed schools should offer practical courses to prepare kids for life in the workplace, homeplace, and community space. In 1892 the National Education Association appointed what is known as the Committee of 10 to determine the aims of American education. In short, the Committee appeased both parties, recommending schools offer both traditional college preparatory course work (e.g. Latin, Greek) and traditional, more practical courses like we see in parts of the modern liberal arts curriculum (basic math, English, history).
As the 20th century rolled in, the American Industrial Economy continued to boom and with it, calls for changes to the public education returned. Quite influential here was the work of Franklin Bobbitt. Building off of the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s efforts to help make American industry more efficient, Bobbitt subscribed to a belief that schools should train students for the workplace (the social efficiency movement), among other secondary aims. While firmly establishing the field of educational curriculum, Bobbitt’s work was instrumental in helping define the aim of schools, one that is very much pervasive today.
Throughout the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century, the aim to prepare a workforce that would fuel the American economy strengthened. It was during this time that policymakers sought to standardize how we teach, what we teach, and when we teach. Along with that came the growth of the testing and accountability movement, intended to assess how well students were learning basic skills in subjects such as math, reading, writing, and science. The notion of measuring anything related to learning became a near obsession and the idea of quantifying good teachers, administrators, and schools based off of those test scores became expected. It is not until the recent past that growing questions over these aims began to surface more frequently, that the renewed question over what the aim of school is leapt back into the public consciousness. I want to consider that question in this space.
The Current State of Schools
While I’ve touched on the standardization, accountability, and measurement movements in education are prevalent today, there are other contextual factors to consider when examining our schools. As I’ve written about previously, kids are more stressed, depressed, and suicidal than they ever have been. Concurrently and not coincidentally, they are involved in an inordinate amount of extracurricular activities, are spending several hours per week with academic tutors, and are generally spending the predominance of their time in structured settings. Much of this can be linked to the aim of education, which currently is to prepare kids for the workforce. In doing so, students must go to college to receive a better paying job. However, college is incredibly expensive and parents are relying on the hope that their kids can receive academic and/or athletic scholarships to help offset that cost. This context has led to an intense focus on grades and other academic achievements while giving birth to a multi-billion-dollar youth sports industry that offers kids a chance to get ahead of the competition in pursuit of that elusive college scholarship. It is hard to blame parents for pushing their kids to excel academically and/or athletically given this reality.
All of these contextual factors offer us a glimpse into the current aims of schools — (1) to prepare kids for the workforce or (2) to prepare kids for college and then the workforce. While these two aims are certainly important, they ignore all the other unstated aims we ask of our schools. In this last section of the article, I’d like to explore those aims while offering a vision for what could be when dreaming about the ideal aims for our schools.
The Aims We Need
Educating the Whole Child
One aim that parents, educators, and community members often seek is for schools to help develop well-rounded people who are socially, emotionally, and intellectually well-adjusted. This is evidenced by the movements such as the whole student movement (see http://www.wholechildeducation.org), which seeks to not just foster the intellectual, but also the social and emotional. The aforementioned statistics on child depression, anxiety, and suicide offer all the support one needs to illustrate how important this aim has become. While teaching the whole child certainly happens in schools and classrooms across the county, we need to attend to these elements explicitly in our curriculum and make them a priority. If we must have academic standards, so too do we need social and emotional ones. Our kids’ lives literally depend on it.
21st Century Skills
Schools are unquestionably places where kids are prepared for a better job, college, a nice house, etc. However, the current system, which places an emphasis on basic, low-level knowledge measured by standardized tests, is not encouraging the correct aims for a 21st century learner/worker. Nowhere on those tests are things like creativity, collaboration, innovation, flexibility, social skills, productivity, or initiative measured. Those are the skills experts on the kinds of workers we need in the 21st century are identifying as most important. If that is the case, and if we can agree that one of the aims of school is to prepare kids for the workforce, they must be prominent in how we evaluate quality schools (on standardized tests, school report cards, etc.). They need to be the focus of our curriculum, assessments, and teaching approaches.
Happy, Balanced People
Revisiting again the mental health crisis among our kids (and adults) in the US, it is apparent that we need to help kids find balance and happiness in their lives. Without getting too philosophical, what if anything (outside of health) is more important than one’s happiness? It has become evident others agree that happiness is of high import given the exploding self-help movement, where books, audiobooks, personal coaches, online courses, and much more are generating record-breaking revenue in the billions of dollars. What this illustrates is that happiness is both desired and for many in America, elusive. Happiness is not something that just happens; it takes work, dedication, focus, and knowledge and as such, should be one of our aims of schools. We should see it prominently featured in our curriculum and written as stated goals in our school/district mission and vision statements. If the pursuit of happiness was important enough to be included in the Declaration of Independence, then certainly it is important enough to be featured in our expressed aims of schools.
While there are other aims we could add, I offer for our last aim that we develop engaged citizens. More specifically, as Horace Mann espoused, I believe it is still the job of schools to develop informed voters who are active members of a pluralistic, democratic society. Along with that we want them to be productive, if not active members of their communities who seek to help make their worlds a better place. While schools most definitely do this work now, it is imperative that we explicitly state this aim for our schools and again, if we are going to maintain our obsession with testing and ranking schools, this should show up in those evaluations.
These are but a few of the aims we might consider as we vision what our schools will look like going forward. One can see the possibilities for the kinds of experiences and for the curriculum we might offer in our schools. Concurrently, we can begin to re-envision how we evaluate quality teachers, administrators, and schools. As we enter a time of increased intensity over how we should educate our kids, it is important to keep these aims at the forefront of our minds. As educators, parents, and voters, we can begin to encourage our policymakers, school decisionmakers, and fellow community members to incorporate these essential elements into the curriculum, instruction, and assessment of our kids. Without your voice, change doesn’t happen.