Mission, Vision, Purpose and Other Things Nobody Pays Attention to in Public Education

I could write a blog every week on all the Big Important Things that nobody pays attention to in public education. But then—that would make me a philosopher and not a teacher.

Right now, we really need deep thinkers, visionaries, those dedicated to clarifying our mission in public ed, trying to prevent dumpster fires, rather than putting them out, which is now a fair part of teachers’ work.

Instead, we have shallow, attention-seeking chatterheads lighting fires, then sprinting away—looking at you, Mike Petrilli and Tucker Carlson, and all  the ‘Concerned Moms’ who don’t want their children to, you know, feel bad about the facts of American history.

In fact, when you look at the sweep of schooling in America—going back to Horace Mann—there is no one overriding set of principles upon which public education has firmly rested for two centuries. Mann promoted a free, secular education, open to all children—the local academic melting pot that would lift an unruly, barely civilized nation into democratic greatness.

And what a magnificent idea that was—probably the last inspiring, visionary plan to educate the citizenry. Except, of course, for all the people who were left out, or given scraps and hand-me-downs. Or weren’t even considered citizens. Not so great for them, and they were building the nation, too.

There’s always been lofty rhetoric about public education. And the reality has always been far more complicated and far less effective at achieving whatever it is public ed is supposed to achieve.

And that’s the rub. What are we trying to accomplish, in our public education system? What’s our purpose? What are our overarching goals? What’s our product?

It’s a great question to ask in a new-teacher interview: What’s your philosophy of education?

Back in the 1970s, I got that question a couple of times (and had an answer—it was part of my undergraduate education as a prospective teacher, that pedagogy coursework everyone denigrates).

Today, the interview questions are pragmatic—test scores, standards, deliverables—but there is real value in figuring out what’s most important to teach, what your students need. What you believe. What the country needs, even.

On July 7, Joe Biden tweeted this: The fact is 12 years of education is no longer enough to compete in the 21st Century. That’s why my Build Back Better Agenda will guarantee four additional years of public education for every person in America – two years of pre-school and two years of free community college.

Well, I’m all for free preschool and community college. You go, Joe. They’re only pieces of the comprehensive, coherent plan we need, but the education community is accustomed to working with (and around) bits-and-pieces ed policy. We’ll take positive fragments, any day.

Jennifer Berkshire had an interesting response to Biden’s tweet: Biden’s insistence on defining education solely in economic terms is so discouraging. IMO, this is a big part of why public education is as precarious as it is right now. Not only does it put the blame for being economically *noncompetitive* onto individuals themselves, but it leaves out the essential role that schools play in a democracy.

Bingo. Which comes first—the random policy promise, or the philosophy?

Berkshire and her co-writer Jack Schneider, an education historian, wrote this in an excellent piece in The Nation:

Our schools can’t fix the problems of poverty, and parts of the Biden administration seem to know that. But until education policy breaks free from this framing of the purpose of school, it will remain difficult to recognize what our schools can do. At a time when voting rights are increasingly being restricted, when we continue to debate the value of Black lives, and when we can’t agree on basic facts, public education has an essential role to play. We don’t have public schools in this country so that young people can compete for advantage against each other—or so that the private sector can reduce the costs of training labor. Instead, we tax ourselves to pay for universal K-12 education because public schools are the bulwark of a diverse, democratic society.

And—voila!—there we are, back to Horace Mann. The mission of public education is an educated, engaged citizenry. Open to absolutely everyone. Too bad we routinely lose sight of this core purpose, a defined public good.

If you want to read an excellent synopsis of how our national (non)philosophy of education has morphed and evaporated, over the decades, I recommend Consuming the Public School, by David Labaree:

We ask schools to promote equality while preserving privilege, so we perpetuate a system that is too busy balancing opposites to promote student learning. We focus on making the system inclusive at one level and exclusive at the next, in order to make sure that it meets demands for both access and advantage.

Does this sound like a system that just puts out emergent fires with policy band-aids—or a system grounded in principles of democratic equality? Other countries have overhauled their education systems after having a national conversation about what public education should be focused on. Why can’t we?

Oh, right. It’s political.

What would your belief statement about public education look like?

15 Comments

  1. The biggest problem is that most people, especially the eduformers, think that an education is the acquisition of a body of facts, when it is a social process where all of the facts acquired are merely to provide associations and frameworks for further learning. No student can learn even 1% of an field’s facts, even if you restrict the field to the smallest possible example.

    If you want to look something up on the Internet, you have to know how to fact-check. You have to know something about that topic so as to relate it to search terms. If you are unfamiliar with the geography involved in a search it helps if you know the geography of some place so you have an appreciation of how difficult it is to understand anything from the information available and how different things can be from place to place.

    Knowing some facts is important. Knowing a lot of facts is not. An education shows people how to learn and work with other people. It is a social activity that requires face-to-face contact with other people who can punch you in the face if you insult them deeply enough. You need to learn the affect of your words by reading how other people hear and see them. And having a trusty guide, you know, like a teacher, is really important to such a process.

    Online education my ass. Even kids on the Enterprise in Star Trek went to classes and tutoring sessions.

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    1. Your first paragraph is as good a contemporary education philosophy as I’ve read. It’s logical that the process to get to that educated citizenry would change over 200 years, even if the underlying goal remained the same.

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  2. While part of an article about homeschooling I just stumbled across, this excerpt might serve as a way of contrasting the current “adult centered” public ed system with a true “child centered” approach. IMO, it’s past time to confront just how far we’ve come from. “The current standards-based, psychometrically aligned practices of
    education in the United States (U.S.) act to push children into a type of
    schooling that is not congruent with the research on cognitive or social
    developmental stages (e.g., Erikson 1968; Kohlberg, 1981; Piaget, 1972).
    The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (No Child Left Behind [NCLB
    PL 107-110], 2002) and its 100% proficiency requirement in language
    arts literacy, mathematics, and science is an example of psychometric
    ideology running counter to what is known about child development. It
    also speaks to the prevailing essentialist philosophy of preserving the
    dominant American culture. The current U.S. system, and for that matter,
    some European systems of education, seem to educate more often
    towards conserving the existing state (i.e., status quo) rather than taking a
    progressive approach and fostering the pro-democratic thinking that
    progressive education practices generate (Dewey, 1916).” [see Apart from the Steiner School and Montessori Method, Homeschooling is the answer for familiesto the social crisis of schools,Sandra Chistolin,iUniversita` degli Studi Roma Tre, Rome, Italy

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    1. If you look at what public education looks like in other nations, you notice that there are many who have taken the time to build coherent models that serve all children well. There are also many examples of American public schools where–in one building or district–professional educators have built models that honor all children’s strengths. It’s possible.

      I don’t have any problem with parents who wish to provide a non-public school education for their own children, be it private, religious or homeschooling. I’m saying that our approach to public education is scattershot and piecemeal, and weakened because of that.

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  3. See Ch. 1 “The Purpose of Public Education” in my book “Infidelity to Truth: Education Malpractice in American Public Education.” After examining all 50 states’ constitutions this is what I gleaned: “The purpose of public education is to promote the welfare of the individual so that each person may savor the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the fruits of their own industry.”
    Mission and vision are tertiary to the purpose of public education.
    And no, there isn’t any “product” in the teaching and learning process. The teaching and learning process is about individual development in all senses of that phrase, and not of producing a product.
    Being asked for a philosophy of education statement from a prospective teacher used to be common place.

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    1. I haven’t read your book in awhile Duane, but the emphasis on individual fulfillment makes me want to know more about why so many states focused on the state’s duty to the individual. It has been too long since I took courses in the history or philosophy of education. In today’s atmosphere, in what I see as an extreme emphasis on individual rights, there is a decided lack of interest in the public good. Rhetoric such as that in so many state constitutions seems counterproductive to the promotion of commons.

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      1. This is why I feel so strongly about writing culture. Me as teacher do not feel a decided need to form my students personal thoughts or ideas. Historically individuals have learned from others and found ways to formulate their own ideas and beliefs. Learning about others gives one the opportunity to use a lens inside and out of personal freedoms and the constitutionality of human rights. Finding answers to why, what, how, when and where people live and those differences I think provides more boundaries for freedom of thought and the ability to make decisions for ones own life. Reality is we only have control over ourselves and those decisions.

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      2. I contend that if the individual (at least the vast majority) fulfills their own sense of being, that they will understand that the commons is an inextricable part of living, being.

        The purpose of public education (which is quite different than those of private and/or religious schools) as delineated in those state constitutions that I outlined does not necessarily negate the need for understanding that there are other secondary concerns such as promoting the common welfare of all.

        It seems to me that the emphasis on the individual was pre-eminent, prominent in those state constitutions so that the government would not hold permanent and powerful sway over the citizenry.

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      3. I am experiencing some of that (rugged) individualism while vacationing in the rural Northeast, not that it is not present in other regions of the country. They have a love hate relationship with government and seem to favor democracy only when they see a direct benefit (and sometimes not even then!). They don’t want anyone telling them what they can and can’t do. There is a strong libertarian streak. Providing for the common good/welfare through government doesn’t get a lot of press.

        I suppose I am magnifying these tendencies in my mind from the encounters I have had with family anti-vaccers. It bothers me that they are so suspicious and are really relying on people who have chosen to have the vaccine to protect them from exposure. They are willing to cherry pick data that allows them to believe that because they are in good health it won’t be bad if they get it. No concern that they might have an asymptomatic case and give it to someone who is immune compromised or otherwise vulnerable even if they are sure they will beat it themselves. You don’t hear stories from people who opposed the vaccine and have lost people close to them who are still adamantly opposed to the vaccine.

        Sorry. This rant is a bit off topic, but it does highlight the tension between individual rights and the democratic decision making process for the common good (as well as for the individual).

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    2. Most ‘commons’ intiatives–the post office, the road/highways systems, the military, public safety, libraries, governmental basics like inspections, licenses and so on–benefit both individuals and greater communities.

      There is a tension here: if public education’s core purpose is to develop individuals to contribute to and utilize these mechanisms to make their lives better, how is that inculcated? Where, in the curriculum, is there a place for the group, the community? I’m thinking here about Japanese schools, which spend lots of time and patience teaching kids that the group is more important than the self. Why do we do the reverse?

      I am guessing that lots of legislator types would disagree about the product of public schooling (although their answers might be nothing more than blah-blah–the 21st century worker, for example). Sometimes, I think our product has become test scores.

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      1. We have a whole historical/cultural ethos that enshrines the individual at the top of the heap. I think most Asian societies put the group/community first. The individual serves the community above self. With globalization those structures are becoming a little less rigid, but I see merit in both world views. This discussion just points to the need for historians and the perspective/knowledge they can bring to these discussions.

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