What is the purpose of public education?
“To understand is to know what to do.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein
Sometimes it’s best to go back to basics. Why do we have public schools? What do we value? What are we trying to accomplish?
These questions were at the heart of a recent consultation we had with a school board and a superintendent. They wanted to discuss their values as a team in hopes of developing a better shared understanding of how best to support each child’s learning.
School boards and superintendents often talk about putting students first and basing every decision they make on what is best for the child. However, the interests of the public, your staff and sometimes even other board members do not always reflect these first principles.
Your board’s perceptions will always determine your priorities. Your reflection on your school district‘s purpose guides your governance team’s discussions and decisions.
Related: The core of governance is at the heart of the work of school boards
The Three Main Ways Public Education Transforms Students
Public schools exist for three main reasons:
- Develop a productive workforce
- Creating informed citizenship
- Ensuring social mobility
This third objective, ensuring social mobility, is the American dream – the ideal that we can achieve a higher standard of living than the one we were born into and that sees public education as a private or individual good.
The first objective, developing a productive workforce, has both public and private benefits. This helps drive the economy forward, while allowing us to provide for ourselves and those we care about.
The second goal, creating informed citizenship, also has individual and societal benefits. Our way of life depends on the ability of the majority of citizens to be informed, engaged and involved in elections, government and community service.
By reflecting on these three goals, we can see how important it is to provide every child with a broad and effective education. Individuals benefit, of course, but so do our communities, our state and the whole world. The advantage of an educated population creates a powerful ripple effect.
School boards need to ask themselves what they are doing to achieve these goals. Are graduating students fully prepared to contribute to the workforce, engage in our communities, and rise above the conditions into which they were born?
Related: The School Board Behaviors That Matter Most for Student Success in Texas
Ensuring a Public Education Elevates All Students
If the answer to the question “How are the students in our district?” is something like “Well, we had this one seven years ago who became a doctor, and the other one four years ago who is now in medical school”, so we have to ask ourselves a second question: how many of our students are missing out on the time they spent with us in our district?
If our students go through K-12 in our district and come out the other side unable to find sustainable employment or further education, with no interest in voting or public service, we must ask ourselves, where have we gotten? deceived in our school district?
Public school cannot just be a place that provides safe childcare, entertainment, and extracurricular activities. Our school districts exist to educate children both for their benefit and for the greater good of our community, our state and the world.
Going back to basics and thinking about the goals of public education can help us keep conversations focused on student success and help us prioritize decisions that promote the long-term good of our students and community. It is not a viable or desirable future to educate only certain students well. Governance teams must remain focused on the good education of each student.