Can You Define the Purpose of Education?

August 31, 2016
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by John McLaughlin, Ph.D.

Just as soon as mums start getting color, just as shorebird migration is in full swing, and just as college football rankings start, PDK kicks off the new school year with a healthy of dose of irritation.  For 47 years the PDK poll has welcomed the new school year by trumpeting discord.  It celebrates the diversity of ideas that make our democracy by casting them as lack consensus.  If people had no differences, if consensus ruled, there would be no need for polls.

While PDK is an outstanding organization and its annual poll an important snapshot of public opinion, I take exception with U.S. News & World Report’s lead presentation of the poll’s findings – “There is no consensus among the public about the role of the public school system in the U.S.”

Notably, the poll shows that only 45 percent of respondents thought the main goal of public education should be preparing students academically, while the rest was split between the main goal being preparing students for work or preparing them to be good citizens.

These three “roles” of public education are so similar, so intertwined, so core, that we might conclude that children can’t agree on the name of that man who sits with them at the breakfast table and packs their school lunch.  Some children call him Dad, others call him Daddy, and still others Pops.  Clearly, there is no consensus.

Each year the PDK poll highlights the issues of the day; desegregation, sex education, charter schools, and Common Core have all been the headline makers for PDK findings.  U.S. News chose to focus its story on school closings and the dissonance between government’s actions and people’s wishes.   Two points come to mind.  First, all of the schools closed since 2000 have been in poor neighborhoods. Sometimes schools need to be closed.  The facilities have been allowed to deteriorate beyond repair or the surrounding area has become industrial.  Schools close.  But closing schools because of academic failure, dispersing its students to other schools is government at its worst.  It’s Andrew Jackson thumbing his nose at the Supreme Court and forcing the Trail of Tears.  It’s the razing of African-American public schools, the centers of community, in order to desegregate.  It’s Atlanta pushing the people of Summerhill to Clayton County to build an Olympic Park.  It’s eminent domain, the government, the ruling class pushing around the powerless.

The second point brought to mind by U.S. News’ focus on school closings is the appreciation of the fact that public education is a mirror image of the nation it serves.  To think that efficiency, effectiveness, consensus, and harmony should be found in public schools, especially those in our poorest areas is utter folly.  Public schools are managed, cleaned, staffed, and attended by people who look like you and me and them.  And you and me and them have issues of trust and acceptance and privilege that create upscale neighborhoods and neighborhoods of despair, that create public schools that are bastions of advanced placement and schools that are warehouses of subpar performance.  And how we have collectively responded to failing schools has often had a bit of Jacksonian populism laced in the guise of school reform.

But the era of closing failing schools is fading. Randi Weingarten is correct: there will be fewer closings under the Every Student Succeeds Act.  While not completely throwing in the towel, in ESSA the federal government has conceded to shifting the responsibility, the burden of measuring and improving public education, back to the states.  Back where it belongs.  Government closer to the people is better government.  But state and local governments are fraught with human problems and there will be more Olympic Parks and more state takeovers.  Government is tended by influencers and the dissonance between what school reformers and education establishment types want versus what the public thinks public schools ought to be will continue.

The brightness of the mums, the crispness of the air, and the PDK poll are reminders of the season of school and the universality of public education in the lives of Americans.  The PDK poll is also a reminder that nearly every aspect of American public education has been divisively argued, legally challenged, and eventually imposed on the bitter losers of the controversy.  From the ability of government to tax for education to the establishment of high schools, from putting Catholic school kids on public school buses to upholding teacher tenure laws, public education reflects the symphonic dissonance of democracy.  The PDK confirms that every year.

IMG_9289John M. McLaughlin, Ph.D., directs the Research & Analytics unit of ChanceLight Behavioral Health and Education. Dr. McLaughlin holds a BA, MA and Ph.D. from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota respectively.

He was a certified geography teacher and secondary school administrator in Tennessee where he served as a teacher. He then spent the last ten years of his work in that state as principal in an alternative high school.In 1977, he founded Benton Hall Academy, a school in the Nashville area for students in need of a small and caring environment.From 1993 to 2000 he published The Education Industry Report, a monthly summary of investment activity in the education arena.

He has been interviewed by virtually every major newspaper, magazine and broadcast media in the U.S. for his insights on the interface of public education and free enterprise. He has been published several times throughout his career. His most recent writing includes an article, Alternative Education’s Impact on Office Disciplinary Referrals (with Eva Gillham) in The Clearing House, September 2012; a book of fiction, The Last Year of the Season, 2014, North Star Press; and We’re In This Together: Public-Private Partnerships in Special and At-Risk Education (with Mark K. Claypool), 2015, Rowman & Littlefield Education.