The WHY of Public Education

Posted by Lisa Marie Gonzales on September 11, 2016

Palm holding card with the word WHYStart of the school year has been notable on Facebook as almost every parent with whom I’m acquainted has shared those infamous first day of school photos.

And as students and staff report back, organizations such as Phi Delta Kappa International, US News & World Reports, and even state departments of education are releasing data and reports that coincide with the start of the new year. The most notable one that has come my way to date has been the Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) article on perceptions held by the public regarding public education.

PDK’s 48th annual public poll entitled “Public Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” measuring opinions about public education, lacked consensus over the main purpose of public education. 45% of its respondents, representing a random sample of more than 1500 adults covering all 50 states, believe public education is meant to prepare students academically. Another 26% feel the primary role should be to prepare students for citizenship, while another 25% feel the purpose is to prepare students for the workplace.

What I find most puzzling is the lack of explanation of preparing students for citizenship, but even more so that 26% of respondents felt this was the primary intent of education generation after generation. The survey went on to share more data about how students are performing, opinions on keeping schools open when failing, and general perspectives on what our schools are doing to meet the needs of their students. And before I digress too much, let’s take a moment and look at the list of tasks we expect from our teacher, let alone our public schools. We’re responsible for teaching all subjects, receive hefty criticism when students are obese and we aren’t doing enough with physical fitness. We cover sex education and driver’s education, and the list goes on.  I think this picture says it all:

Many words for teacher showing the varied roles a teacher plays

But back to the survey. There is clear confusion about what the purpose is of education, of public education. With the split data shared above, should we be doing our work differently? If only 45% feel we should be covering academics, then should we be doing less in a focus on academics?

When I think of conversations I have with parents about the use of technology, I get push back that a focus of tech to communicate and collaborate should be reduced. Granted, I always advocate for a balance. But yet…we have workplaces with a colossal reliance on technology, and if we focus on the 25% of parents who want us to prepare students for the workplace, then there really is a role for workplace preparedness, which includes technology.

I don’t expect the responses to change. A great deal of expectations are placed on the deliverables of our public education system. I predict that the confusion will also continue – much is expected of us. And much will continue to be expected. And the WHY won’t change.

But it may morph a bit. Stay tuned.

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