What Do Americans Think Schooling is Supposed to Do?

My friend Mary Tedrow once asked, on a social media platform, a series of deep questions designed to stick to the brain, sending thought bubbles off in multiple directions: What is our product, in public education? What consistent deliverables are schools and teachers supposed to generate, over time?

Like all good conversation starters, it yielded some pretty obvious answers and some light-bulb moments. Older teachers tended to think the purpose of public schooling was centered around citizenship—turning out graduates who had basic skills, plus a developed sense of obligation to society, to hold a job, be a good neighbor, to vote and pay taxes.

Others felt that the elementary to secondary pipeline was supposed to develop workplace capacity, the same basic literacy and numeracy, plus other qualities (‘team player,’ for example) useful to businesses—with the caveat that colleges and universities would finish the job preparation for ‘higher’ occupations.

There were dreamers–I say that with great affection–who hoped schools and teachers would find the talents and innate good in all children, helping them set and pursue lofty goals.

Mary, however, suggested that the general public now thought our product was test scores.

The more I think about her statement, the more I think it’s true.

Last night, on the local network evening news (which I watch solely to get the weather), there was a story on MI Governor Whitmer’s proposed boost in education spending. Local news in northern MI is just that: very local. There’s a regular fish and game report, and an annual story about the kid who shot the 12-point buck. Reporters tend to look like they’re in HS, but all dressed up. The station is a launching pad for wannabe TV journalists—entertaining, in a homey kind of way.

The reporter, a young woman in hat and mittens, is standing in front of a local high school for the beginning of her report, then moves inside to interview the superintendent and a teacher, who say the right things: We desperately need this money to upgrade our materials and staffing. We especially need support for Special Education and Career-Technical Education. A lot of our students go directly to work, out of HS. The teacher and superintendent both speak articulately about dollar amounts per pupil, and what that could mean for programming.

Cut to the reporter, again in front of the school: “So there you have it–more money for schools, more money for special education and CTE, more money to improve Michigan’s test scores!”

NO! NOT to improve test scores. Wrong.

I’d be OK if the reporter had said ‘to improve education.’ I’d even accept ‘to improve career prospects for students’ (although it’s a lot more than that).

But really–it’s money to improve lives and futures. It’s an investment in our students, because we want a better-educated citizenry. And that’s not just blah-blah. It’s true.

Why did the reporter say the money was designed to improve test scores? Lots of possibilities. Do reporters at small local stations write their own copy? If not, who does? Maybe it’s the same guy who does the fish and game report.

This station is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which has made no secret of its right-wing political viewpoints—but test-focused education policy is hardly a right-wing issue. Democrats created Race to the Top, after all, a kind of cage-match state to state fight for funding, completely dependent on achievement data.

I’m guessing that the reporter simply thought that any significant increase in funding for public schools was designed to improve their digits, because that’s how you know schools are ‘good.’ To her, it was one of those things everybody knows, and nobody questions: a school’s product is test scores.

About two decades ago, David Labaree wrote a seminal piece on the purpose of public education, identifying three goals that have historically defined what Americans think public schooling is supposed to do.

The three: Democratic equality (citizenship), Social efficiency (job-training) and Social mobility (allowing individuals to compete for social position). Labaree also notes that social mobility—a private good, rather than a public good—has become dominant, reshaping education into a ‘commodity, for the purposes of status attainment, elevating the pursuit of credentials over the acquisition of knowledge.’

Labaree was writing before NCLB, the Common Core, the rise of test-based ‘accountability’ and rampant school choice. But I think he would agree with Mary Tedrow—conventional wisdom now positions testing data as reality, the most important product in assessing both the value of schools and the children who attend them. The most important goal in public education: good scores.

Numbers, data and credentials (all private goods) have superseded the public value of community-based schools and the public servants who work in them. That’s a sea change.



    1. It was more or less an accident. I was looking for a ‘data’ image labeled for reuse (being mindful of copyright) and this one popped up with all its colorful lines and nodes. I thought it was amusing that it was Chinese, data being data being data and all–the universal ‘truth’ that we all seem to worship these days, quantities over qualitative information.



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