Friday, January 8, 2010

The Purpose of Education Today

The last week or so I have had numerous conversations with friends and colleagues about what the purpose of education today is. What do we hope that our students are able to do upon graduation of high school? Throughout our history, American education has always had a purpose behind it. At the turn of the 20th century, it was generally agreed upon that the purpose of education was to create well-informed citizens who were capable of participating in democracy. This was a noble idea and it made sense at the time. America had survived a civil war and after World War I was finally seen as a world power. What better way to maintain this new-found sense of superiority than to have our students be well-rounded citizens?

This was the mindset for the next thirty years. Then the Cold War struck. All of a sudden, being good, educated citizens wasn't enough. Now, we had to be smart. Not just smart, but smarter than those Soviets. It was here were our education system underwent radical changes. America began to adopt a Ricky Bobby mentality of "if you ain't first, you're last." In order to get the most out of our education system, we had to have people who were smart, specifically in math and science. We began comparing our test scores against the rest of the world. We wanted to prove without a doubt that we were superior, and what better way to do that than with data because data never lies.

Fast forward to the fall of the Berlin Wall. America lost its major competition and took on the mantra of being the leader of the free world. However, as is often the case in America, we have to be the best and continue to be the best at all costs. A 1983 report titled A Nation at Risk was released and claimed that American students were heading toward mediocrity. Even though the Berlin Wall would fall later on, this report left lingering effects in the American mindset. In an increasingly global world, how were how students doing compared to students from around the globe? This led to the eventual formation of No Child Left Behind in 2001, with the intent being for all students to achieve proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

So, here we are nearly ten years into No Child Left Behind. A telling view of American education today should be the fact that my colleagues and I could not agree as to what the purpose of education is today. One colleague felt that education today was based on the idea of having students work together in a community environment. The country has become so diverse that the purpose of school should be to teach how students how to work together in a community. Another colleague felt that the purpose of education was to compare ourselves to other nations. That is why we have NCLB in the first place, to try and raise our math and reading scores so we aren't surpassed by nearly twenty nations in each category.

As for me, I too could not come up with an easy answer as to what the purpose of education is. Then, it struck me. The purpose of education today is to maintain the status quo in America. That is why our education system is structured the way it is. Students from affluent communities will inevitably succeed in school. They have supportive home environments, they have access to resources at home, and they have acquired the critical thinking skills to do well on standardized tests. These are the students that will go on to college and get good jobs. On the other hand, students from low socio-economic households will inevitably fall by the wayside. Sure, there will be exceptions, but these are few and far between. These students of lower socio-economic status (including immigrant populations) don't have the best home environments, the don't have the resources at their home, and they don't have the needed skills to do well on standardized tests. The inevitably will either drop out of high school or not pursue higher education, thus maintaining the status quo.

What does this say about America today? We have gone from a nation wanted to educate all its citizens to a nation that wants to keep those in power no matter what the cost. We are involved in the inevitable class struggle that arises when the division between haves and have-nots becomes so great. We are essentially shutting our doors to an entire social class and nobody seems to be doing anything about it. No Child Left Behind is in fact leaving millions of students behind because that's how it was designed. We want to maintain the status quo, no matter what. What better way to do this then to try and create an arbitrary playing field involving standardized tests? That way we can say "Oh it's not our fault this school isn't performing, it's because of the test scores." That way when all is said and done, the status quo is preserved. We've progressed quite nicely over these last hundred years, haven't we?

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