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What is the purpose of public education?

Posted by Sep 21st, 2010.

Editor’s note: Scottie Seawell is Vice-President of Leading and Governing Associates, a governance education and consulting practice specializing in public engagement, problem solving and decision making.

Last week on this site, Marc Waxman ended his first blog post stating that he thinks about the question “What is education?” constantly.  It pleased me to know that I am not the only person constantly turning this question over in my head.  Many people I pose this question to have a well thought-out answer, but on more than one occasion, I have argued that their answer is incomplete. Then I pose a somewhat more nuanced question, “What is the purpose of public education?”

Since the day my first child started third grade in the fall of 2003, I started to fear that as a nation we might be dumbing-down our system of public education with the increasingly narrow focus on data and student achievement.  Tangible measurements of student achievement are easy to obtain – especially in the short run or over two- and four-year political cycles. However, it is the intangible outcomes of an education – the ones that are hardest to measure – that I believe are critical components to the answers of “What is education?” and “What is the purpose of public education?”

Contrary to what many pundits and politicians may state, neither the strength of our military nor the intelligence of our intellectuals make our nation more likely to endure.  It is also not the rise and fall of our economy, the housing market or the stock market that will be our saving grace or ultimate ruin.  Rather, our nation’s future hangs in the balance of we, the people: you and I and our readiness and willingness to take on the mantle of our citizenship. It always has been this way, and it always will be this way until the day comes when the American Dream slips from our collective reach. But in order to take on this mantle and breathe renewed life, generation after generation, into the American Dream, we must first be educated and socialized to do so.

In a June 2010 report from Public Agenda entitled “Are we beginning to see the light?” 1,406 people from across the nation (including parents of high school students) were randomly selected and surveyed on the importance of math and science education to our nation’s future. The survey also asked respondents questions about other educational topics including one regarding the most pressing problems facing high schools in their local communities.  Fifty-six percent of all respondents (63 percent of parents) felt the most pressing problems facing their public schools came from “social problems and kids who misbehave” compared to 31 percent (27 percent of parents) who felt the most pressing problems came from “low academic standards and outdated curricula.”

In the same survey, when asked what “do you think is absolutely essential or important but not essential or not important (for schools to teach students)?” Eighty percent of parents and 74 percent of all respondents agreed “being able to work well as part of a team” is essential. Nineteen percent of parents and 24 percent of all respondents ranked it as “important, but not essential,” and only 1 percent of parents and 2 percent of all respondents ranked it as “not important.” That says to me that we, the citizens of the United States, get the importance of being able to work together to the success of our children and our nation.

Last week, Retired Admiral Steve Allen in an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, talked about some of the important lessons learned from his involvement in the response efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the earthquake in Haiti and most recently the Gulf oil spill. “You have to generate unity of effort,”  Allen, “and it is very different when you do it outside of the military ….the ability to create unity of effort has to be the number one priority because there are overlapping roles, jurisdictions, competencies, authorities, capabilities and capacities and what you want to do is bring that together and focus it on the effects that you are trying to achieve. I would say that’s the single most important common denominator in any emergency response.”

He went on to say, “We will never have another major event in this country that does not involve major public participation….We have to figure out a way to better integrate all of those resources, passion and commitment that exists out there, because if you don’t they will be disaffected and you are going to break down that unity of effort you are trying to achieve…you are either going to involve them or they are going to involve themselves.”

I think the take-away for me, from Allen’s lessons learned, is that all of us – average citizens, elected officials, civil servants and military personnel alike — need to understand how to work together, need to have learned what is meant by “unity of effort.”   Unfortunately, it often seems to me that we haven’t been doing a very good job of teaching this lesson for at least the last few generations.  Perhaps not since the “Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokaw described them, have we adequately understood the importance of education in creating citizens who know how to work together to find public solutions to public problems.

So I ask, “What do we, the people, need public education to be?” And I come back to my belief that having well-educated and capable citizens is the only way we can ensure our future as a nation and perhaps the future of the human race.  Certainly, our ability to respond to our collective challenges, be they of our own making or Mother Nature’s, depends on it.

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7 Responses to “What is the purpose of public education?”

  1. Team effort, with critical thinking, is vital to public education. My very intelligent son, who graduated from DPS, told me his peers in Advanced Placement classes (in math, science, history, and english) in high school often were not critical thinkers and would ask him to write the paper for a team assignment. His articles for the high school newspaper were highly intellectual, while many of the other writers’ articles were tabloid and immature in their skill sets.

    He learned to be a critical thinker both at home and from nine years of private, Catholic school, prior to high school in DPS. This concentation of combined effort and focus at home and school enabled me to raise a son who often finds the world around him reticent to exercise a basic human ability – to analyze, hypothesize, and criticize. Thus, he was terribly bored through high school, and although doing well in college, still feels disengaged from a large concentration of the student population that cannot understand why he is in liberal arts and not the sciences or mathematics. It is precisely because he finds more enlightenment in literature, philosophy, and foreign language classes (while not dismissing his friends who pursue majors in engineering and architecture).

    While public education is now stressing the importance of science and math, it also must not forget about these other disciplines I have mentioned. One skill set cannot override another for there to be both team effort and critical thinking in our society. Public education used to embrace all of this when I was in DPS years ago. It needs to once again place value on all these areas of education for us, as a nation, to have “unity of effort.”

  2. Coleman Whittier says:

    Here, here!

  3. Linda Campbell says:

    Totally agree…..all components of learning how to work as part of a team involve EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE. One time I spoke with an HR director who told me that 95% of employees that are fired are not fired because they lack the skills they need but because they can’t get along with their colleagues. As a society we need to learn how to value EA and it must also be part of a public education.

  4. As a follow-up to my initial response above, I would like to note that my son has been a recipient of the Denver Scholarship Foundation. Although, unfortunately, he will still leave college with student loans, this financial assistance has been very appreciated. Especially since my income is very low.

    I have my JD, but am unable to practice as an attorney due to the needs of my daughter, who has Autism. She attended school in Jeffco. I advocated long and hard for her educational needs in the school system, eventually becoming a special education advocate for other students as well.

    I pursue in my advocacy work objective, measurable data collection and teacher training as two very important components of sped students receiving, under the federal law, IDEA, an appropriate education, with educational benefit. Data and teacher training are two very critical areas, I believe, to help both students and teachers in a world that has begun to embrace “different learners.”

    But, I also must admit, in my strident efforts to hold school districts accountable under the law, these “tangible measurements” do not equate to “tangible outcomes,” as sped students after graduation struggle significantly in college, or in my daughter’s case, to acquire employment – thus, leading to more dependency on society.

    As a society, we have made significant gains in special education. Advocates work to incorporate data collection and the pursuit of teacher training (I say “pursuit,” because this is a very difficult area to attain) that I believe has carried over to the general education student population regarding raising the issue of accountability in public education. In doing so, the purpose of data and training may have been lost in the mix.

    What I hope, as the mother of two very different learners who graduated from public schools, is that these two factions (sped and general education) within the same system can come together and learn from each other. So much has been learned in the work of sped advocates to benefit students regarding data and training. But I don’t see that knowledge carrying over to benefit general education. As a mother, I want to see both of my children as effective, productive, contributing members of society. We can make that happen when we, as adults, learn to work together as a team, using our critical thinking skills and in doing so, helping our public school students learn to do the same. Then, hopefully, “we can ensure our future as a nation.”

    • Scottie Seawell says:

      Stephanie, Thanks for both of your comments and for carrying this conversation forward. I was just reading an article in the October 2010 issue of The Atlantic on the first diagnosed autism patient who is now 77 years old. In the article, Dr. Peter Gerhardt of the McCarton School in New York is interviewed and makes your very point about education for students (and adults) with autism and for all of us who live in the world with autistic people. The article states that “At present, schooling for children with high-functioning levels of autism overemphasizes traditional academic achievement….at the expense of a set of social skills that keep them from making mistakes.” I encourage folks to read it and further consider the questions of “What is education?” and “What is the purpose of public education?”

  5. Ron Pierce says:

    For 90 years, a growing global k-12 school movement has been successfully graduating well-adjusted, creative and successful young people, most of whom go to college. There are 1500 or more of these schools around the world in most major countries and more than 150 in the U.S. The focus of this education is on development of the whole human being, the whole child. This means they learn art from an early age, and they become masters in all forms of artistic achievement. They learn music from an early age and participate in choral and orchestral groups. They learn to use their hands in woodworking and other crafts. When they learn academic subjects, they are grounded in history, culture, and tied to related subjects, and they participate where possible in applying the knowledge. For example, in science, they recreate many of the experiments that lead to key findings. Children are taught in a manner that is age appropriate.

    When you see the quality of the art they produce, and they spend much more time on this than public schools could, you recognize that most of the children have developed many sophisticated techniques, and that they have a true appreciation of beauty and what goes into it.

    Until recently, this has been largely a private school effort in the U.S., though other countries support them as public schools. The fastest growing segment now in the U.S. is in charter schools (public) where up to 100 of these schools now exist. The techniques have also been successfully used with troubled children.

    This is the Waldorf school movement. The two largest Waldorf schools (K-12) in the Denver Metro area are the Denver Waldorf School in central Denver and Shining Mountain Waldorf School in Boulder. Others exist in other parts of the state. I’ll be happy to share more information about Waldorf education, or you can contact the schools directly.

  6. Scottie, Thank you for letting us know about the wonderful article in The Atlantic! You are so kind to post notice of such an informative piece and recognize its validity in the realm of public education, from the perspective of the needs of a person with Autism. In both regular and special education it is vital to remember both academic and functional skills. Too often we ingnore one at the expense of the other.

    Ron, Two of my nephews graduated from the Waldorf school in Denver (and one is now teaching there, after having obtained his Masters). Their sister will graduate in a couple years from Waldorf. Their mother taught there for many years. They are all very talented, kind, intelligent young people. Interestingly, their sister has some disabilities. Waldorf embraced her and her progress has been very encouraging.

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