An impactful K-12 education system is one that delivers on what the American public wants it to do--and who is the American public?

The purpose of a K-12 education: Who decides and how do we get there?

An impactful K-12 education system is one that delivers on what the American public wants it to do--and who is the American public?

In a recent report by Populace (2022), 55 percent of American parents expressed their desire for educators to rethink how today’s K-12 schools are educating our children. The study found that, despite the widespread perception that American society wants K-12 schools to prepare students for college, college is not as important to parents as it used to be. Instead, the study reported, today’s parents would like to see their children develop practical skills “for both life and career” (p. 10), critical thinking skills that allow them “to problem solve and make decisions” (p. 8), and moral character traits such as “honesty, kindness, integrity, [and] ethics” (p. 20).

The Populace study reported that today’s parents want more individualized educational experiences for their children, with greater emphasis on students’ interests and personal/career goals than on a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Parents want their children to have learning opportunities across a variety of modalities, and they want learning to be assessed through demonstration of mastery as opposed to traditional assessments like standardized tests.

According to the Populace study, today’s parents believe that “better” (as in straight As and college bound) should not be the purpose of a K-12 education, but “different” (as in a customized educational experience for every student) should be. It seems that–at least for parents–the purpose of an American K-12 education is changing.

A Brief History

Educating our youth has been an American priority since our country’s beginnings. Focused on the basic skills of “the three Rs” (reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic), American education in the 1700s and 1800s generally concluded by age 12 or 13 and often excluded girls, minorities, and lower socioeconomic classes altogether. Over time, American K-12 education evolved from home schooling to one-room school houses to organized school systems, including high schools (Kober & Renter Stark, 2020). Throughout the decades, one by one, every state in the nation adopted a compulsory attendance law, meaning that all students must enroll in school from roughly age 6 to 16 (Education Commission of the States, 2023).

As organized school systems across the United States grew more sophisticated, Americans fought for every child to receive a quality K-12 education. In 1954, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case Brown versus Board of Education ruled that it was unconstitutional to segregate schools by race, and in 1975 Public Law 94-142 federally mandated that all children in the United States had a right to a free, appropriate public education, even if they had learning or physical disabilities (Dalien, 2022). Throughout history, Americans have always been willing to pay (through taxation) to educate our country’s youth. During the 2017-2018 academic year, for example, the average per pupil expenditure in the United States was $15,946 (Bouchrika, 2022). 

The Purpose of an American K-12 Education

Providing an accessible, high-quality K-12 education for every student is nothing new for Americans, but our world is changing, and the Populace study indicates that the purpose of an American K-12 education is changing too. When thinking about the purpose of education, it is important to consider both individuals and society as a whole. From an individual perspective, Meredith (2014) identified seven goals of education: 1) to have basic skills, 2) to be a critical thinker, 3) to be able to troubleshoot or strategize, 4) to be a moral person, 5) to be a good citizen, 6) to have a wide range of interests, and 7) to be happy.

From a societal perspective, Kasi(2018) identified eight functions of education: 1) transmission of culture, 2) social integration, 3) career selection, 4) techniques of learning skills, 5) socialization, 6) rational thinking, 7) adjustment in society, and 8) patriotism. All of these are important; the question is one of priorities.

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