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.

Who Decides?

While parents generally consider the purpose of education in terms of their own children, schools and governments consider the purpose of education in terms of society. So, who decides? The Populace study aptly states: “An effective K-12 education system is one that delivers on what the American public wants it to do” (p. 24). And who is the American public? All of us: parents, educators, family, friends, neighbors, business owners, members of the community, and government officials…but parents are the ones who care the most.

With that said, the most surprising finding of the Populace study relates to what the authors called collective illusions, where parents perceived that they were alone in their desire for a K-12 education that emphasized practical skills, critical thinking, and moral character. The study’s authors explain: “Even though Americans privately want an education system that prepares children to do work that is personally meaningful and fulfilling…they believe the rest of society does not share their priority” (p. 16). So how do we encourage parents to share their visions for a new and improved American K-12 education? We ask them to get involved.

How Do We Get There?

Local control is a hallmark of American K-12 public schools. Every school district in the United States is governed by a school board made up of community members who care deeply about American K-12 education and have been elected by fellow community members to serve. Our federal and state governments act in supervisory capacities, but local school boards assume primary responsibility for the day-to-day oversight of schools. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute (2016) explains: “Most decisions are made locally; state governments set the direction and create conditions for success; and the federal government gets involved when something’s become unjust” (para. 12).

Local control of American K-12 education gives parents the leverage they need to positively influence their children’s education. Through their local school board, parents who want a customized educational experience for every student can advocate for it. Parents who believe in a K-12 education that emphasizes practical skills, critical thinking, and moral character can work with school board members, educators, parents, and others to promote it.  Attending and speaking up at local school board meetings is one way parents can influence positive change in American K-12 education, but running for a seat on the local school board is even better. It boils down to this: Parents will always know their children better, love their children more, and sense their children’s needs more clearly than anyone else. If the purpose of an American K-12 education is changing, parents are the ones who can make it happen, one school district at a time!

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