What’s the Purpose of Education?

One crucial step in creating the best possible education system is figuring out what you want that system to accomplish. While establishing goals sounds as if it should be simple, the process isn’t as easy as one might think.

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A recent Phi Beta Kappa poll  illustrates the problem: 45% of people surveyed said the primary purpose of the school system should be to prepare students academically, 26% said it should be to prepare students to be good citizens, and 25% said it should be to prepare students for work. The US News and World Report article on the poll describes the current state of the issue as “confusion.” Indeed, if we can all agree on one thing, it’s that people find defining the purpose of education confusing.

In part these poll results may suggest a reaction against the one-size-for-all college-for-everyone ideal that schools (and education reformers) have embraced in recent decades. My former school district, which has always had graduates go on to college at a rate above 90%, a few years ago eliminated all courses that weren’t “college prep,” (by which school board members really meant UC certified–all courses had been designed with college in mind).

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As much as a rigid tracking system (in which at some point students are locked into a particular path from which they have a hard time escaping) is bad, it’s interesting that people often miss the fact that the kind of system my former district adopted is essentially a rigid tracking system with only one track: college. While we all agree that every student should have the opportunity to go to college, is it really true that is the best choice for every single one of them, without exception? For example, if a student really wants to be an auto mechanic, is there a reason to force four years of college–and a load of student debt–on him or her?

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It isn’t just students who are involved in “hands-on” professions like auto repair who might not always be a good fit for college. That’s the theory behind Peter Thiel’s idea of paying students to develop their own business ideas rather than go to college. One of my former students set up his own resale business that grossed $30,000 a year while he was still in high school. He went to college to get a business degree, but I could see someone wanting to spend those four years growing a business that was already successful. I’ve also known students who had flourishing acting careers when they were still in high school. Several ending up getting their diplomas through the high school equivalency exam. Some of those did end up getting college degrees, usually in a nontraditional way, but it would be hard to argue, unless they went to a performing arts school, that a college degree had much to do with their actual careers.

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I should mention that, among the courses eliminated by my former district were all those offerings geared to students reading two or more grade levels below the norm. Students in that situation could get into community college but probably wouldn’t have the grades to get into a four-year school immediately after high school. Could a student like that improve his or her reading level enough to perform decently in college? The research I’ve seen suggests the answer is yes–if he or she had the very kind of support structure the board cut away in its zeal for UC certified courses. Yes, you’re reading that correctly: in order to push every student to college, the district removed the very structure the weakest students would have needed to have a shot at making that goal.

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By the way, even with the right kind of support, such a student would probably not improve more than 1.5 years in reading level for every year in school. If you do the math, that means someone coming into 9th grade reading at the 6th grade level would catch up with his or her peers at the earliest by sophomore year in college. That kind of situation might be another reason for a student to attend a community college, which often provide remedial programs for students with skill deficits.

Not only did the district never quite grasp this reality, but it also tended to sneer at community college as a possible option. Board discussions often made it seem as if community college really wasn’t college at all, often cited college attendance statistics that counted only graduates who went to four-year schools, and otherwise disparaged any suggestion that community colleges were worth anyone’s time–an especially odd position considering the number of career paths that require only an associate’s degree for entry. Rather than accept the fact that some students’ performance in high school might make community college the best next step, the district told counselors to make lists of four-year schools that would take students with B averages and C averages. (I didn’t stay long enough to see the inevitable D average list, but I’m pretty sure the South Harmon Institute of Technology would have been at the top of it.) There was even talk of making applying to a four-year school a graduation requirement, though in that case the total unenforceability of that idea defeated it.

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If you’ve been around long enough, you realize that when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it tends to swing back too far in the other direction. The inevitable reaction of trying to shove everyone into college, regardless of circumstances, naturally bred pressure in the other direction. The mounting college debt crisis didn’t help the situation, either. Peter Thiel was not alone in trying to promote noncollege pathways.

Despite what I wrote earlier, too much of a pendulum swing in that direction would be a profound mistake.

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While I don’t believe that every single student’s first-best destiny involves college, I do believe in choices. Students should be prepared for college, even if that sometimes means having the support of more basic classes they might need to get them to the right level, and even if a few of them ultimately decide on a different path. To do otherwise would be foolhardy. Though we can cite individual exceptions, a Pew Research report in 2014 confirms that college graduates make far more than their high school graduate peers–and that gap is widening. The same report confirms that the college graduates are considerably less likely to be unemployed or to be living in poverty, as well as more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and confident in their ability to advance further in their chosen career.

Nor should the short-term employment picture be our only consideration. Yes, some people are successful without college, and some people earn degrees that don’t lead to a career in any logical way. Again, however, those are exceptional cases–and training narrowly for one job doesn’t do justice to the rapidly changing realities of the job market. The Hechinger Report points out that a well-designed college education can develop general critical thinking and creativity that may help prepare students for jobs of the future that don’t even exist yet, among other things.

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You’ll notice that the poll results with which the article started present us with a false trichotomy, at least to some extent. The implied split between academic preparation and job preparation isn’t as sharp a divide as one might at first assume, except for people for whom vocational school might arguably be a better option. Even students whose college major doesn’t directly prepare for a career may be preparing for work–and life–in ways that may not be immediately apparent. Yes, we should make sure that vocational pathways are available, as Katherine Martinko has argued, but that can be done in the context of a high school model that embraces preparing students to make choices rather than pushes them in only one direction. (The student who wants to be a mechanic today may change his mind tomorrow and needs to have the skills to shift paths if he or she wants. In any case, the way we are going will probably require mechanics to also have considerable computer skills before very much longer.)

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What about citizenship preparation? It is possible to integrate that with academic and career preparation in a way that does justice to all three. English, of course, lends itself to just such a synthesis, since literary analysis flows naturally into discussion of the moral and philosophical issues raised in the literature, but English is certainly not the only discipline that does that. History teaches citizenship through the mistakes and triumphs of the past, government by making sure everyone was a working knowledge of the political process, and virtually every discipline contributes in some way, because an effective voter is a well-informed voter. (Unlike Donald Trump, I don’t love poorly educated voters!) For example, someone with a working knowledge of biology is better able to understand the moral and practical implications of genetic research. Someone with a working knowledge of economics is in a much better position to evaluate the merits of different financial proposals.

Yes, my perspective is idealistic. In an era of diminishing school resources, it’s hard for the schools to do justice to everything with which they are asked to cope. However, if we decide that developing the intellect, the career and the citizenship are all equally important, we can make it happen. Prioritizing goals that all have such great importance is not an option.

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