I put out a survey last week on my Facebook status asking friends what they thought should be the main goal, or goals, of public education. All the reading I'm doing about learning and schools and so forth has my brain cranking with ideas for improving education. But it occurred to me that all that is not much help until we address the primary concern: why are we doing this? Where are we headed? What do we want the end result to be?
It's not as simple a question as you would think, as was clear from the various answers I got. The most common answer: "the basics". The three R's. They need to be able to read, write, and do basic math. But how much math is basic? Is algebra basic math? Geometry? If so, why do we allow kids to graduate from high school without having taken them? And if not, why do we push so many kids to take them? How well do they need to be able to read? 6th grade level? 10th grade? And does that mean just to decode the words? Does that also imply being able to recognize hyperbole and propaganda and so forth? The basics are pretty complex.
Another answer: "citizenship". They need to understand our democratic system and ideals and be able to participate in our government. But understand to what extent? Does this necessarily mean to agree with the said ideals? A conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat would likely describe this system and these ideals in different ways -- who determines whether or not the student's understanding is now adequate?
"Cultural literacy". Kids should know the stories and history that make up our culture so they have a common heritage and body of knowledge to work from. But whose culture? American culture? "Western" culture? Multi-cultural culture? Again, who decides what constitutes "our" culture?
"Thinking and learning skills". Kids need to learn how to learn. We will not be able to teach them all of the knowledge and skills they will need for their lifetime (consider: most of my generation had never heard of a world wide web in high school). They need to know how to locate information they need, how to read and understand the information, how to integrate it with what they already know, etc. They need to learn to analyze, to synthesize, to evaluate, etc. OK -- again, to what extent? What is the minimum amount of analytical skills required for one to graduate from high school? And what if they can analyze an author's use of characterization in a novel, but can't analyze the results of their chemistry experiment? Are they good to go?
"Social skills and self-esteem". Surely I don't even need to discuss the can of worms this can open up . . .
"Ability to earn a living". Is this all that's necessary to define an educated human being?
"To right the wrongs of society". Not an answer given by a friend, but this has certainly been a use for the public schools in the recent past, for better or for worse.
"Develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives." And how do we do that? What specific skills or knowledge or attitudes or habits will get them there? And how in the world would be ever get any consensus on that?
I've got my own answers, I think. Maybe I'll write about them another time. But I know there are a lot of good, wise people who would disagree with my list. And I'm not sure how we can agree on how schools should do their job -- or if our schools are doing a good job or not -- when we can't even agree on what job we're asking them to do.
Please feel free to hit the comment button and add your own views to my collection here. I eat this stuff up, you know. But do go a little deeper than: "To get the little beggars out of our hair while we do more important things." Although I can see where she's coming from some days .....