Purpose of Education Index

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Well, to learn stuff, I always think to myself, when the conversation turns to the purpose of education. 

But fair enough, what stuff? One American think tank has some data, data it claims:

“ … represents the first of its kind private opinion study of the American people’s priorities for the future of education in America. The results are consequential for educators, parents, policymakers, or anyone interested in the future of K-12 education in America” (Purpose of Education Index).

The think tank is Populace, operating since 2013. I’ll let you determine the degree to which you are confident in their methodology and findings and comfortable with their politics. The data were collected in September 2022, so during our current school year. They were collected in the United States, so be careful about how you generalize to international schools and to other countries. In any event, I think you’ll agree that the central findings give us lots to think about.

From the executive summary:

  1. College Should No Longer Be the End Goal of K-12 Education
  2. Practical Skills & Outcomes Should Be the End Goal
  3. Individualized Education Is the Future, One-Size-Fits-All Is the Past
  4. Education Priorities Vary Immensely by Race
  5. “Better” Is No Longer the Goal — “Different” Is

I won’t quote the statistics the report cites for each heading. You can look online. Today I’m just going to muse.

Starting from the bottom of the list, the report is suggesting that (5) enough Americans are open to alternative visions of schooling that we could expect some real change. A breakthrough, perhaps. Of course, any breakthrough would have to overcome the very resistant strange attractor which is current schooling. Remember the hope we had when we realized COVID was going to change education for just about every student on Planet Earth? Huge hope. If you do a gut check right now, what is currently left over, in terms of change in day to day practice, from such a staggering  illness and resulting shift in practice?

Populace says folks are ready for educators to quit tinkering at reform around the edges. People are ready to accept real alternatives. If that’s the case, it’s time to move from proposal to action and start demonstrating alternate models. 

The models, like schooling itself, may need to be quite individualized. The report points out that future priorities vary by race. One size does not fit all, indeed, neither for (4) reimagined schooling processes and structures nor for (3) individual students. In an age where advertising continually assesses and exploits our individual interests and possible needs, the education agenda remains static and similar for everyone. While an activity like advertising is a deep dive into individual proclivities, schooling’s ploy is to deliver the same-old to everyone. Teachers are asked to do what they can – we call this differentiation – to get all learners to the same place, despite the obvious individual differences students exhibit. The forces getting us to spend our money on food and fashion are far more sophisticated than the forces trying to educate a populace that can maintain a democracy. 

Learning (2) practical skills seems, well, highly practical. And no doubt there are many practical skills learned in school. But it isn’t really the emphasis, is it? Practical skills are not appearing in grade point averages, standardized tests, and transcripts nearly as often as predictable content areas. (And this seems to be the case no matter where in the world you find yourself.) We prize the theoretical a bit more than the practical. The PhD is more alluring than the EdD, theoretical physics hipper than experimental physics, university higher on the ladder than trade school. But perhaps there are enough questioning voices now that we’ll start hearing the skepticism more often, and more loudly? 

The purpose of K-12 education may be undergoing a redefinition that (1) will accept with increasing frequency post-secondary activity that includes gap years, entrepreneurship, working for oneself, certifications and degrees offered by the employer, internships, volunteering, following one’s heart in supporting social causes, and more. In turn, the notion of non-traditional students should fade as university education adapts to meet needs across lifespans, needs that will also exert pressure on the current standard university curriculum.

My pessimistic self says don’t expect any changes. Schooling is likely to remain the pursuit of a relatively narrow slice of content learned as completely as possible in order to enter a university with the highest possible name recognition. I suspect wellness, diversity, the environment, soft skills and other popular topics will continue to occupy the edges. If they advance much, they are likely to be beaten back by the pressure to cover content and what “universities want,” Skills we do not figure in a grade point average and do not include on a transcript are second tier in the system, period. Content trumps all, beating even noble skills most teachers would agree on.

Still, it’s good to read that Populace thinks American opinion is holding the door open, if just a crack.

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