Do we really want a system that will generate free thinkers, or are we leaning more toward institutions that will perpetuate a particular set of values?

Learning Leadership column, Oct. 2011 edition of eSchool News—What is the purpose of a public education system? In America, we would like to believe that our forefathers envisioned the creation of a strong democracy that would necessitate an educated populace capable of governing itself and use the acquired knowledge to elect and direct the actions of their representatives in government. Perhaps one of the reasons why public education is currently under attack is because it seems that we have not done a very good job in electing and directing our representatives. Their actions reflect badly on our wisdom—and, consequently, our system of education.

Our anger at members of Congress for their actions, or perhaps more accurately, their inactions, is misplaced. We put them there. They believe they are acting on our behalf. Therefore, when they bring our country to the brink of economic disaster and our nation’s weaknesses are exposed to the eyes of the world, we have to acknowledge that it is a mere reflection of the split nation we have become.

Education policy making has been affected by the same paralysis that grips other areas of lawmaking. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known in its current iteration as No Child Left Behind, languishes in our schools and classrooms, negatively affecting the public’s perception of the quality of our schools by virtue of the faulty accountability system that it created. Our lawmakers can no more reach agreement on a fix to our educational system than they can to our economic malaise.

Hordes of education “reformers” propose solutions to the problems we face, but it is readily apparent to bona fide education experts that these solutions are shallow representations of political beliefs, rather than reflecting any in-depth knowledge of pedagogy or child psychology. Perhaps the debate should take us back to the basic question of what is the purpose of a public education—and better yet, what is the purpose of a public education today?

History informs us that when Thomas Jefferson envisioned a system of public education, it was designed to meet the needs of his day. Not all children were to be privy to an education: certainly not slaves or women, and not even all boys. Public education would be selective, weeding out the capable from the incapable and moving forward those who would rise to be the leaders of our enterprise system. Indeed, for many years our public schools performed that sorting function extremely well, with no expectation that every child should graduate from high school and go on to college. But the agricultural economy that then transformed into an industrial economy needed manual laborers, not knowledge workers, and the sorting system separated the chaff from the wheat.

Somewhere along the latter half of the 20th century, we began to transition from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy requiring a better-educated labor force—but somebody forgot to inform our public school system that its mission had changed. The abrupt change from sorting to leaving no child behind and expecting every child to graduate from high school, and now to graduate from college, is a quantum leap from where we have been. Our schools are simply not ready to perform that function—not in how they are currently organized; not at the current level of financial support they receive; not with the set of laws, rules, and regulations that encumber them; not with an existing culture that refuses to accept the impact of poverty on learning and is still subject to the lingering influence of racism.